Ara knows challenges ahead for Notre Dame's Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

One of Brian Kelly’s most sincere and ardent supporters quickly did the math Friday when he heard about the seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach’s contract extension, and then let out a chuckle.

“That would be 12 years,” 92-year-old Irish football coaching icon Ara Parseghian said with an incredulous tone coating his words. “Well, we’ll see how he looks.”

The six-year deal essentially unveiled Friday, minus any dollar terms, scrubs the final two years of Kelly’s last extension and would make him 60 years old in 2021, when his latest agreement lapses. And a 12-year tenure would be one year short of program patriarch Knute Rockne’s school-record, 13-season reign (1918-30).

Parseghian was 51 when he decided the job was too depletive and walked away following 11 transformative seasons (1964-74). Lou Holtz was 59 after his 11-year run (1986-96), though he resurfaced at South Carolina and coached until he was 67.

“The demands on your time, the demands of the job itself were affecting my health,” Parseghian said in a phone interview from his home in Granger. “It was a hard decision. I wrestled with it for a while, and finally I decided to step aside.

“The biggest challenge for Brian moving forward may be his own success. A lot of people overlook that. The more success he has, the more people are going to want to get a hold on him. That’s something you can’t see from the outside until you’re sitting in that seat.

“But it’s real. And you have to learn how to deal with it. I sure hope he does coach 12 years at Notre Dame, because I think he’s done a great job.”

Kelly starts the 2016 season Sept. 3 in Austin, Texas, against the team his Irish manhandled in South Bend to open the 2015 season, Texas, as the active wins leader in the FBS with 226, to go along with 80 losses and two ties (.737). That’s 33 victories clear of No. 2 on the list, 76-year-old Bill Snyder at Kansas State.

What will do the most to add to Kelly’s win total, and give him the chance to add meaningful ones in January, is to develop a defense as promising and prolific as his offense was this past season.

Every national titlist but one, going back to Notre Dame’s most recent national championship season of 1988, has finished the season with a top 25 rating in total defense nationally. The exception was Cam Newton’s Auburn team in 2010 (60th).

And every champ since at least 1988, including the aforementioned Auburn team, has finished in the top 40 in run defense. The Irish were 45th in total defense and 72nd in run defense this past season.

The groundwork laid in Kelly’s last contract extension, announced on the day the Irish pummeled Temple 28-6 for career victory No. 200 to open the 2013 season, is equally important in Kelly’s mind in ultimately producing wins as an elite defense.

That extension, the second of three Kelly has received since originally signing a five-year contract in December of 2009, added only a single year to the length of the contract, but it purportedly gave the coach a louder and more meaningful voice in matters involving his football program, something Kelly very much coveted.

In the months and years that followed, Kelly didn’t dictate policy, but his opinion mattered when Notre Dame Stadium converted to FieldTurf, when several time-consuming, but tradition-rich pregame rituals were streamlined, and when innovations that make the stadium louder and more ominous to visiting teams were drawn up and implemented.

“The contract is one that has involved the leadership of the university,” Kelly said at the time. “When we come to an agreement, it’s not necessarily that within it I get a lunch stipend on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“It’s about that we’re all together in this contract about moving the program forward. We’ve all decided that by signing this contract, we’re all in it together — and that’s what I was looking for.”

“We spent very little time on details that you find in a contract,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick added. “We spent a lot of time talking about the vision for the program; how we make sure we’re building the program we all want.

“It was an ongoing, great discussion. It was a pretty simple contract, as these things go.”

Kelly's first extension came shortly after the 2011 season and was the function of a mutual option written into Kelly’s original contract. That extension added two years, to 2016.

The timing of Friday’s extension created a steady stream of largely positive media attention, wafting out the litany of Kelly’s accomplishments fortuitously as he was busy trying to close on elite prospects Ben Davis, Demetris Robertson and Caleb Kelly less than a week before National Signing Day for football recruits.

The length of said extension coaxed a desired perception, that any future rumors involving Kelly and NFL teams should garner more skepticism than intrigue.

“I want to thank Father Jenkins (ND president Rev. John I. Jenkins) and the leadership of Notre Dame for their confidence in me,” Kelly Friday said via prepared statement. “I coach football because I believe there are few better avenues for impacting the lives of young men, and I am certain that there is no better place to do that than the University of Notre Dame.

“During the next six years I look forward to continuing to lead a championship caliber program, but more importantly I look forward to continuing to help the student-athletes I coach to achieve greatness as football players, as students and as men who will make a difference in families, communities and organizations they will someday lead.”

That’s not to say there won’t be temptation for Kelly to opt out before the contract runs its course, for whatever reason.

Parseghian, himself, admitted the NFL came knocking a couple of times and did so with tantalizing offers.

“I wanted my kids to be in a university environment,” Parseghian said of what ultimately anchored him. “They were young and growing up, and this was a nice town. It was somewhat the same size of the town I grew up in — Akron, Ohio.

“My interest was having my kids grow up and get an education in a nice area. That’s why I never took a step beyond college coaching.”

Kelly’s greatest asset as Notre Dame’s head football coach is that he’s not the same guy in 2016 as he was walking in the door in 2009. And it’s not just about the X’s and O’s, though his adaptability there has helped fashion the 55-23 record (.705).

He’s learned to marry the NFL dream with what Notre Dame stands for academically when it comes to his players, something he did grudgingly his first few years on the job. Yet he’s unafraid to speak honestly about how walking that path for the players is not lined with all right turns and green lights at ND.

He’s undaunted about finding a better way in just about everything he does, even if that occasionally leads him back to where he started in the first place. He’s open-minded enough to recognize when someone else in the meeting room has a good idea and stubborn enough to make it work when at first it hits a wall.

Notre Dame has changed Kelly, and he’s changed Notre Dame — both for the better.

“I can’t even remember how long the term was on my first contract I signed with Notre Dame,” Parseghian said. “But what I do remember is it didn’t matter. If I wasn’t able to do what was expected, the job was going to be pretty dog-gone tough to cope with.

“But I think Brian Kelly deserves an extension like that. I envy him, though, when it comes to salaries. Maybe I was born too soon.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, right, talks former coach Ara Parseghian at the Legends golf outing in Bridgman, Mich., back in 2013. Parseghian applauded ND extending Kelly's contract on Friday. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)