Brian Kelly Contract Extension Doesn’t Mean What It Says

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Notre Dame announced Friday head coach Brian Kelly signed a contract extension through 2021. Realistically, the university could have issued a press release declaring Cyborg Brian Kelly will coach the 3021 Fighting Irish season opener against Galilean Conference powerhouse Io State, and it would hold the same value.

The likelihood Brian Kelly is still Notre Dame’s head coach in 2021 is only slightly greater than that of Cyborg Kelly leading the Irish a millennium from now. Given the advances in biotech recently, that likelihood might be dead-even by this time next year.

Coaching contracts are often works of pure fiction. Longtime CFB Huddle readers know that, as outlined last summer when Maryland extended Randy Edsall through 2019.

He was fired three months later.

Similarly, consider Kelly’s Cincinnati extension, signed shortly after the first of his two Big East Conference championships, which kept him with the Bearcats through the 2013 season.

Kelly’s successor, Butch Jones, didn’t even last that long in the Queen City. He was bound for Tennessee after the 2012 campaign. The parameters of Jones’ last extension at Cincinnati locked him up through 2017.

In both instances, Cincy athletic brass offering contract extensions were more akin to Employee of the Month plagues than legally bonding documents; a gesture of a job well done, and a show of good faith with higher profile suitors approaching.

Kelly’s outstanding tenure at Notre Dame, which included a trip to the BCS Championship Game in the 2012 season and flirtation with the College Football Playoff this past fall, sparked NFL rumors.

I’m in no position to say how much of that was genuine, and how much a tactical maneuver to net the contract extension’s buyout — the one facet of a coaching contract that actually means something.

No program is as intimately acquainted with the reality of contract buyouts like Notre Dame, which last faced rumors of its head coach bolting for the NFL a decade ago. The university athletic department reacted fast and gave Charlie Weis a contract extension it only stopped paying this year.

In the Irish’s 2012 title game run campaign, Notre Dame paid more to Charlie Weis than it did Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame’s shown more restraint with Kelly, whose portfolio includes more than simply losing to USC by a really close margin. The six-year extension is as much a show of faith in its coach now as it was when ND signed Weis to a 10-year deal, based on one historical milestone.

Were Kelly to actually remain at Notre Dame through 2021, he’d trail only Knute Rockne as the program’s longest tenured head coach.

Rockne, winner of four national championships, laid the foundation for Notre Dame football from 1918 through 1930. Frank Leahy elevated the Fighting Irish into the rarefied air they’ve inhabited for generations with five national championships won from 1941 to 1953. His tenure went on hiatus while he served in World War II.

Rockne and Leahy are the ghosts all Notre Dame head coaches chase. Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, both of whom spent 11 seasons in South Bend each, added to the program’s impressive legacy.

A contract extension that puts Brian Kelly in league with such names is a reward for his success, but implicitly sets a new milestone. Reaching the end of that contract without a national championship would make Kelly the only member of Notre Dame’s decade coaching club without one. However, Holtz is the last to do so, winning his lone championship in 1988.

Notre Dame’s near-30-year drought is a byproduct of the inherent challenges of competing there. A top-flight academic university, Kelly hasn’t minced words when assessing the place of the football program in context of the school.

Kelly could fail to deliver Notre Dame its coveted national championship. Perhaps he could find it easier to pursue a title elsewhere, at a university with less rigorous academic demands. Maybe he could eschew grades altogether and make the jump to the NFL. All certainly feel more likely than Brian Kelly coaching Notre Dame in 2021. Maybe the Irish can bring him back in cyborg form for Io State, though.