Notre Dame giving Brian Kelly a six-year extension a panic move?

Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly signed a six-year extension on Friday, but was this just a desperate move to keep him from the NFL or was it a sign of progress in South Bend?

After Notre Dame fell far too often in mediocrity between the tenures of Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham, and Bob Davie, the era of Brian Kelly has been nothing short of a blessing on the campus of Touchdown Jesus.

But is Brian Kelly’s new six-year contract extension more out of desperation to keep him from the NFL, or a sign that he’s actually exceeding expectations in South Bend? The truth is, in terms of gauging the success Kelly’s had, it all comes down to who you compare him to.

Kelly has caught the eye of NFL teams and has won everywhere he’s been. He’s the first Notre Dame coach to win eight games in his first six seasons and did so by taking a team in 2015 with an injury list big enough to build a professional baseball roster. And still won double-digit games.

But there’s also the Kelly who’s bowl wins have come in the Sun, Pinstripe, and Music City Bowls. He’s also the coach who’s lost handily in his two biggest postseason appearances though he was clearly overmatched in both to begin with. Kelly has had three top-20 finishes with the Fighting Irish in six years, after he’d done so in each of the three he coached in Cincinnati.

So it’s all a matter of what you stack him up against if you’re Notre Dame. What part of their history do we compare him to? Is it the 16-21 stretch Weis left the team wallowing in before Kelly’s arrival? Or maybe it’s Willingham’s 21-15 record or Bob Davie’s 35-25 mark. Has having those three as the last trio of Irish coaches made Notre Dame realize it needs a coach like Kelly, stable if not grand?

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He is after all under the pressure of leading possibly the most storied program in college sports and has earned to keep his job. But six more years? Is that too much of a risk for a team that’s taken its fair share of sudden plunges over the last few tenures?

The fact that Kelly has been predominantly consistent may weigh-in even more than this season did alone. But what if Kelly’s fourth 8-5 is on the horizon? Is a couple more mediocre seasons with invitations to the Sun or Pinstripe Bowl that acceptable? Well, it wouldn’t matter, because they are now tied to him for so long.

His teams in 2011 and 2014 fell way below expectations, even if the rankings always tend to hype Notre Dame more than they should. But he also took a preseason unranked team to the national title even without much more than a pulse at times on offense. And then there was this year’s team, one filled with players so rapidly going down you would’ve thought there was some sort of plague.

So after keeping everything so impressively afloat, is it worth a guarantee of six more years of pay? Is it worth forking that cash over to a coach who’s already being paid more than Dabo Swinney, Gary Patterson, Hugh Freeze, Mark Dantonio, David Shaw, and as much as Jimbo Fisher?

After all, while Freeze and Shaw haven’t been at their posts long enough, the other four have been in theirs for as long as Kelly, and in the last six years have better records than Kelly has in his half-dozen. Les Miles is six wins better than Kelly in that time period, and he was nearly shown the door by LSU. Even Dan Mullen and Bill Snyder have almost had as good of a six-year run as Kelly.

But there’s also the other side, in which Charlie Strong, Gus Malzahn, Kirk Ferentz, and Kevin Sumlin are paid more than him, even if each’s job security is obviously not of any comparison now unless you’re Ferentz.

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The truth is, no matter who or what comparisons you want to make, not even Notre Dame can be too careful in a situation like this. Sure, they may think they can get any coach in the country, so why extend him for so long? But college football is a constant game of coaching carousel, with teams ditching coaches at every turn, coaches ditching schools on every straightaway. Despite the opportunities Kelly had to go to the NFL–and I really believe he did have some–he stayed true to the gold and green. So Notre Dame rewarded him handsomely for his loyalty, not just his results.

It was an old-fashioned move, yet an entirely refreshing one in this era. It was also a realistic move, and a necessary one if they were to keep him. If they had wanted to add one or two years to his existing contract that ran out after 2017, Kelly may have taken that as uncertainty from the Irish.

And as a cherry on top, this could be the key to closing out recruiting the way the Irish want, and Kelly has had a fair amount of success on that side of the business as well.

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So it doesn’t matter if Kelly isn’t Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, or even Lou Holtz at this point. Six years may be forever in terms of the college landscape, but there’s no certainty that Urban Meyer will ever go for his “dream job”, or that any other dynamic commodity of a coach will be available anytime soon.

With that in mind, the Brian Kelly contract sets up for a potential downfall, just like any long-term deal would. But Notre Dame handled this situation correctly by putting their trust in Kelly and the future of the program.