Brian Kelly now tops on Notre Dame's all-time wins list, but knows Rockne’s the standard

By John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent
Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne is shown in 1925. Brian Kelly is expected to pass Rockne this year as the program's all-time winningest coach.

On Saturday Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly surpassed a college football legend and became the all-time leader in coaching wins at Notre Dame. The 41-13 Irish win over Wisconsin at Chicago's Soldier Field in the Shamrock Series gave Kelly 106.

Still, even more than 90 years after his death, Knute Rockne remains the standard for college football coaches not only at his alma mater Notre Dame but elsewhere.

In 13 seasons at his alma mater from 1918 through 1930, Rockne fashioned a record of 105-12-5 for a winning percentage of .881. There’s no telling what his record would have been had he not died in a plane crash on March 31, 1931 in Bazaar Township, Kansas, at the age of 43.

“You are responsible for starting all of this, you know,” said the late Ara Parseghian when touching the bronze bust of Rockne at the Rockne Memorial Building shortly after being named Notre Dame coach in late 1963. Parseghian spent 11 seasons (1964-74) as Notre Dame’s head football coach, going 95-17-4 (.836 winning percentage) and winning two national titles in 1966 and 1973. “I say college football began with Rockne.”

Indeed, Rockne’s winning percentage of .881 remains the best in history. His protégé Frank Leahy, who played offensive tackle on Rockne’s 1928-30 teams, is next at .864 with Urban Meyer (.854 at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State), George Woodruff (.846 at Penn, Illinois and Carlisle) and Barry Switzer (.837 at Oklahoma) rounding out the top five.

All-time Notre Dame coaching victories 

1. Brian Kelly — 106-39, 12 seasons (2010-present) 

2. Knute Rockne — 105-12-5, 13 seasons (1918-30) 3. Lou Holtz — 100-30-2, 11 seasons (1985-96) 

4. Ara Parseghian — 95-17-4, 11 seasons (1964-74) 

5. Frank Leahy — 87-11-9, 11 seasons (1941-1953) 

6. Dan Devine — 53-16-1, six seasons (1975-80) 

7. Elmer Layden — 47-13-3, seven seasons (1934-40) 

8. Bob Davie — 35-25-0, five seasons (1997-2001) 

9. Charlie Weis — 35-27, five seasons (2005-09) 

10. Jesse Harper — 34-5-1, five seasons (1913-17) 

When Lou Holtz announced his retirement from Notre Dame near the end of the 1996 season, he also recognized Rockne as the standard. 

“I have no desire to become the winningest coach at Notre Dame,” said Holtz, who finished his 11 seasons at Notre Dame with a 100-30-2 (.765) record and the school’s last national championship in 1988. “That record belongs to Knute Rockne or some other coach in the future. I am comfortable leaving here with his record intact.”

Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz talks to his players before the Jan. 1, 1994 Cotton Bowl vs. Texas A&M.

That other coach in the future is current Irish coach Brian Kelly, who surpassed Rockne in his 12th season at Notre Dame with a 106-39 (.731) record.

“Yeah, I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history,” Kelly said Monday at his weekly press conference when asked how he will be remembered when he eventually passed Rockne. “The coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship.”

Not that Kelly’s Irish haven’t had the opportunity. In 2012, Notre Dame was 12-0 and ranked No. 1 when it played Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game and lost 42-14. The Irish twice made the College Football Playoff and lost in the semifinals to eventual national champions Clemson (2018) and Alabama (2020).

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly addressed reporters Wednesday before Monday's opener at Louisville. 

The school claims 11 national championships — three by Rockne (1924, 1929, 1930), four by Leahy (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949), the two by Parseghian and one each by Holtz and Dan Devine (1977). 

Rockne’s teams went unbeaten five times — the 1924 and 1930 teams finished 10-0 while the 1919, 1920 and 1929 teams went 9-0. Six other teams finished the season with one loss.

Rockne was born in Voss, Norway, on March 4, 1888 and emigrated with his father Lars, a wagonmaker, and mother Martha to Chicago when he was five years ago. He grew up on the northwest side of the city and learned how to play football as a youth and at West Division High School where he also ran track. 

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Rockne spent four years working for the U.S. Postal Service to earn enough money to attend Notre Dame, which he entered at the age of 22. He played football for Jess Harper from 1910 through 1913. He won All-America honors as an end in 1913 after he and roommate Gus Dorais spent the summer as lifeguards at Cedar Point, Ohio, perfecting the forward pass as a weapon. They unveiled it on Nov. 1, 1913 when Notre Dame travelled to West Point to take on heavily favored Army. The Irish stunned the Cadets and the college football world in a 35-13 victory.

After receiving his degree in pharmacy, Rockne stayed on at Notre Dame and taught chemistry, worked with Father Julius Nieuwland to develop synthetic rubber, and assisted Harper with the football team. He became head coach in 1918 and went 21-1-2 in his first three seasons, the last two both 9-0 campaigns led by the legendary George Gipp and fullback Curly Lambeau of Green Bay Packers lore. The 25-year-old Gipp, who failed from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, tragically died from strep throat and pneumonia following the 1920 season.

Rockne’s 1924 team featured the famed “Four Horseman” backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Elmer Layden, Jim Crowley and Don Miller that went 10-0 and was named national champions following a 27-10 victory over coach “Pop” Warner’s Stanford team in the 1925 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

In 1928, a rebuilding Notre Dame team barely escaped a losing season, finishing 5-4 with the help of 12-6 victory over Army at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 10. At halftime of the scoreless game, Rockne delivered his famous “Win One for the Gipper” speech and the Irish rallied to win.

"I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid,” Rockne told his team. “Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

The 1929 went 9-0 playing all its games on the road as Notre Dame Stadium, forever known as “The House That Rockne Built,” was being constructed. His last Notre Dame team went 5-0 at its new home and finished with victories at Northwestern (14-0), at Soldier Field against Army (7-6 before 110,000) and at USC (27-0) to go 10-0.

Among his players who later went into coaching were Hunk Anderson, Layden and Leahy, who succeeded Rockne at Notre Dame; Lambeau (Green Bay), Buck Shaw (Santa Clara, Air Force and Cal), Frank Thomas (Alabama), Stuhldreher (Wisconsin), Harry Mehre (Georgia, Mississippi), Crowley (Fordham, Michigan State), Rex Enright (South Carolina) and Noble Kizer (Purdue).