SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The old saying goes that the third time's the charm. At Notre Dame, historically the third time's been the national championship. Or else.
Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won their first national championships in their third seasons as coach of the Fighting Irish, while Knute Rockne finished his second straight undefeated season. The combined record of the five in their third season: 50-2-1.
Coach Brian Kelly has the unbeaten Fighting Irish in the national championship discussion in his third season with their best start in a decade at 7-0 and a big game Saturday at eighth-ranked Oklahoma (5-1). So is it coincidence that successful coaches at Notre Dame have won titles in Year 3, or is three years how long it takes a successful coach to get his players in place and put his imprint on Notre Dame?
“Maybe it's a combination of both,” Parseghian said. “It could be a coincidence. But I think it reflects on your recruiting capabilities and abilities and recognizing what you need after your first year there and then being able to fill those. I think Brian Kelly has done that masterfully.”
For the other six men who have coached Notre Dame in the post Leahy era and haven't won a national championship, the third season was the beginning of the end. They posted a combined record of 28-39. Terry Brennan, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis all had their first losing records, while Tyrone Willingham went 6-5 and was fired.
All were gone after five seasons or sooner.
Parseghian said he's not surprised by Kelly's success this season.
“He's been a winner everywhere he's been,” he said.
Kelly, who has one losing season in 22 years as head coach, has a history of getting things done in third seasons since moving up to Division I after winning a pair of Division II national championships at Grand Valley State. In his third season at Central Michigan he led the Chippewas to their first Mid-American Conference title in 12 years. In his third season at Cincinnati he led the Bearcats to their second straight Big East title and their second straight Bowl Championship Series berth, narrowly missing out on the national championship game with a 12-0 record.
Kelly said he hasn't given much thought to the history of Notre Dame coaches winning national championships in three seasons. But Kelly, who said at his introduction that he had a five-minute plan for turning things around, knows Notre Dame fans are impatient.
“Three years is pushing it in today's society. So I would say that today you better get the thing moving in three years, because there's not a lot of patience out there. But we're on schedule for everything that we need to do and our program to continue to win,” he said.
Kelly started the process when he arrived at South Bend by trying to change the mindset of the team, working to make them mentally and physical tougher, and by trying to cut down on mistakes, such as turnovers. He said the first step in winning is to stop losing.
“There are so many things that you have to eradicate first before you can even get to that level of talking about a championship mentality,” Kelly said. “You have to be able to make sure that you've patched all the areas where the air is coming out of the tire, so to speak.”
Kelly, who arrived at Notre Dame touted as an offensive-minded coach, is doing it in South Bend with defense. Led by linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish are sixth in the nation in total defense, giving up 281 yards a game. The Irish haven't finished a season rated in the top 10 defensively in three decades. Kelly said he knew at Notre Dame he didn't want to be as reliant on offense as he had in the past.
“I felt the best blueprint that we could put together for a national championship here was through our defense,” he said.
The Irish are 10.5-point underdogs against the Sooners, largely because of questions about their offense, which is ranked 74th nationally.
A win against the Sooners and the Irish will be favored to make it to their season-finale against No. 10 Southern California (6-1) undefeated.
But Kelly is looking at beyond his third season. He looks at what Bob Stoops has done at Oklahoma and seeks to emulate it. Stoops has posted 10 10-win seasons at Oklahoma and led the Sooners to 13 straight bowl games, including eight BCS games. Stoops has a record of 144-35 and is 79-4 at home.
“That's where we want to be. I mean, we want that consistency. Year in and year out you know Oklahoma is going to be part of the conversation,” Kelly said. “And that's where we want to get our football program. We're nowhere near that yet. We think we're moving in the right direction. We're trending the right way.”
At Notre Dame, that's essential in a coach's third season.