Hansen: Beyond the milestone win, what's still ahead for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Brian Kelly (left) reunites with one of his former players at Grand Valley State, Ira Childress, during Kelly's introductory press conference as Notre Dame's head football coach, Dec. 11, 2009, at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

What should be the more compelling question than who will eventually follow all-time coaching wins leader Brian Kelly at Notre Dame is what the final chapters of his career might look like. 

Beyond last Saturday’s milestone victory No. 106.

However long that goes, however close he gets to the national title that he’s been persistent about being feasible since he tossed aside his media consultant’s notes at his introductory press conference almost 12 years ago and instead spoke from the heart.

Kelly’s next historical marker comes at the end of October, when he — in a home night game against North Carolina — will become the first Irish head football coach to lead his team out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel as a 60-year-old.

Predecessor Charlie Weis was 53 when he and his bloated buyout were purged. Ara Parseghian was 51 when his health told him to walk away. Frank Leahy was 45 when his doctors reportedly helped make the decision for him to leave three months after he collapsed from a pancreatic attack.

Longevity in any era has been elusive.

Until last Oct. 25, Lou Holtz was the only 59-year-old to lead the program. Knute Rockne, who sat on his record 105 victories for nine decades, was 43 when his scheduled flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles crashed in a wheat field near Bazaar, Kan., on March 31, 1931.

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The man who will oppose Kelly on Oct. 30 is 70-year-old Mack Brown, the only active college football coach who has amassed more games on the sideline than Kelly’s 375 (Brown is at 396 and counting).

Immediately ahead is Kelly’s full-circle moment. Potential win No. 107 at ND against the school that primed him for the Notre Dame job comes Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC/Peacock). No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) is just the third Top 10 team, at the time of the game, to visit South Bend in the Kelly Era.

The winner between the ninth-ranked Irish (4-0) and the Bearcats may not face another ranked team for the rest of their respective regular seasons. 

From a distance on Saturday, Ira Childress will be watching both the game and all the intriguing ties involving both coaching staffs as well as former ND wide receiver Michael Young, now the Bearcats’ second-leading receiver..

Childress also figures to take in an important factor that helped Kelly reach 106 wins at Notre Dame — the head coach’s ability and desire to constantly evolve philosophically — sometimes to the point of reinvention.

In his mind that’s also a big part of the answer of what comes next for Brian Kelly. Another part of the answer is in Childress's own story.

He’s currently the athletic director at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, a private co-educational institution with a rich athletic history and an even seemingly brighter future in that area.

Childress was recruited by Kelly in the mid-’90s to play for current NCAA Division II power Grand Valley State, the ND coach’s first head coaching job. Childress transferred after two seasons to GVS rival Ferris State to be closer to home because of a family situation.

The former wide receiver than had a hand in Ferris beating Grand Valley, 48-23, in 1999 — a year in which Kelly’s team finished 5-5.  

“I saw him after the game,” Childress recalled, “and he kind of gave me a slap on the head. He was still my guy.”

Childress, who’d later get a master’s degree from Ferris State, moved on from there to dabble in sports media, initially. Kelly, meanwhile, hit the reset button after GVS’ first non-winning season in 14 years.

A year and a half later, he introduced the spread offense to his team. Grand Valley then went 41-2 in Kelly’s last three seasons there, with two national titles and a runner-up finish.

And Childress and Kelly remained as connected as ever. 

“Making a difference in people’s lives — I think that’s Brian Kelly’s greatest strength," Childress said. “People don’t know that, because they see the fiery stuff on the sideline. They don’t know the other side of him, a side that’s really good. 

“I mean, he’s really tough as a coach. I can remember being on the field sometimes, and he would really get into me. But then I would go to his office afterwards, and we’d have dinner and he was like a totally different person.

“And when I left, he was still supporting me and helping me. It’s like a totally different person on and off the field. Making that connection, I think that makes him rare, if not unique. He really cares about you as a person. He pushes you in football, but that doesn’t stop him from loving you and caring about you beyond football.”

And vice versa.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) and Gulliver Prep athletic director Ira Childress share a moment in Kelly's office.

Childress most recently connected in person with Kelly this summer, visiting the coach on campus. He also made it a point to be at Kelly’s introductory press conference at Notre Dame in December of 2009.

“I had to be there because of the impression he had made on me throughout the years,” Childress said. “We had a lot of talks, just about life and different things that I may have been going through at the time. And he was able to really be that sounding board and really be helpful.

“Sometimes at the college level, it can become a meat market, where coaches just churn players in and churn them out. If things go well, things go well. But if not, you never hear from them again.

“But not with coach Kelly. He was really, really instrumental in terms of my life just being there – throughout the last 20-some years. He’s been there.”

That includes helping Childress with a program that helped create opportunities for aspiring minority college head coaches when Childress was an assistant director of leadership development at the NCAA for three years roughly a decade ago.

“If you look at that program, some of the coaches who came out of that program were David Shaw and Kevin Sumlin,” Childress said. “It’s a long list of great coaches that coach Kelly actually helped get to where they are today.

“When you talk about his future, being invested in the total person, is going to be a part of who he is until the very end of his coaching career.”

Perhaps a recruiting renaissance might be too.

The Irish sit at No. 1 in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings for the class of current seniors (2022) and No. 3 for the 2023 cycle (juniors), with a visitors list Saturday that includes more than a handful of elite prospects from the latter class.

At some point this fall Jalen Brown, a composite five-star recruit ranked No. 53 by Rivals regardless of position and No. 18 overall by 247Sports in the 2023 class, plans a return visit after taking one in June to ND. His original plan to be a part of Saturday's group hit a snag.

A little over a week ago, Gulliver Prep teammate Sedrick Irvin Jr. — a top 100, four-star junior running back — verbally committed to the Irish.

In doing so, Irvin became the first player from a school in Miami-Dade County — the county that currently and historically produces the most NFL players in the nation — to commit to the Irish since Miami Columbus High defensive end Anthony Rabasa did so in the summer of 2010 for the 2011 Irish class.

Gulliver Prep running back Sedrick Irvin Jr. — a 2023 prospect from Miami — verbally committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

Childress assures that Irvin’s decision was and eventually Brown’s will be made independently of Childress’ ties to Kelly, but he made sure Kelly knew there were players at his school with both the talent and the academic profile to fit at ND.

“I could also tell them about the 4-for-40 philosophy at Notre Dame,” Childress said. “Coach Kelly was all about that long before he came to ND, and I’m living proof of that. And our kids here see what that looks like in real life. 

“I can also tell them Brian Kelly had to come up the hard way in the sense he didn’t come from a coaching tree. He didn’t come from lineage. He had to actually work his way up. 

“It’s interesting, Brian changes things. After (a 3-9 team run in) 2016, he got all new assistants. He reset the program. He changes how he approaches things from a football standpoint. But he never has changed all these years of how he is as a person.

“And that’s how I hope people will remember him someday.”

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. CINCINNATI 

Who: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) vs. No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Cincinnati by 1 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI