Notre Dame has a long football history that fans nationwide flock to. “Win one for the Gipper”, the Four Horsemen, and the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign are all parts of Fighting Irish lore. In that long football history that has been played at the university since an 8-0 loss to Michigan in November of 1887, it hasn’t always been national championships and 10-win seasons.
In fact, Notre Dame has lost a total of 330 times in the more than 13 decades they’ve been playing football. We know which coaches won the most of those games as Brian Kelly set that record before leaving in 2021. But who has lost the most as Notre Dame’s head coach?
Marcus Freeman isn’t there – yet – but with five in 13 career games he’s already in the top 16.
We went ahead and listed the the top 13 in program history as that’s how many have lost double-digit games at Notre Dame. Here they are, the all-time losingest coaches at Notre Dame.
Frank Leahy: 11 losses
“Lads, you’re not to miss practice unless your parents died or you died.”-Frank Leahy☘️ pic.twitter.com/qH0OySvVq6
— Bruce Straughan (@bruce_straughan) December 15, 2021
In case you were wondering, Frank Leahy coached 11 years at Notre Dame. I wasn’t a mathematics major but I think this averages out to be one loss a year. Even crazier? Leahy had more unbeaten seasons with the Irish (6) than years he lost multiple games (4).
Knute Rockne - 12 losses
Notre Dame went 5-4 under Knute Rockne in 1928. That means in his other 12 seasons as head coach his teams went 100-8-5. It would appear “Rock” had a pretty good idea of what he was doing.
Elmer Layden -13 losses
— ND Business (@NDBusiness) March 23, 2017
Elmer Layden, remembered as being one of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen”, had a pretty solid run in his seven years as head coach. His 47-13-3 mark wasn’t bad but that came with just one top-five finish in the AP Poll.
Tyrone Willingham - 15 losses
Remember how impressive Leahy’s 11 losses in 11 years was just a few spots ago? Well, Tyrone Willingham made this list in just three seasons, and everyone of them came after starting his Notre Dame career 8-0. I’m sure he could make a tremendous slideshow about this or perhaps tell great stories of those defeats on a golf course.
Dan Devine - 16 losses
Dan Devine helped guide Notre Dame to the 1977 national championship after finally making Joe Montana his starting quarterback. However, in his six seasons in charge the Irish lost three or more games four times.
Ara Parseghian - 17 losses
Ara Parseghian came to Notre Dame from Northwestern following the 1963 season. Parseghian, who never lost to the Irish while Northwestern’s head coach, never lost to Northwestern as Notre Dame’s head coach. He was also just a pair of losses at USC away from perhaps winning two more national championships (1964, 1968). Oh, and 0 of his 17 losses or four ties at Notre Dame came against Alabama and Bear Bryant (pictured above).
Terry Brennan - 18 losses
Terry Brennan replaced legendary Frank Leahy in 1954 when Notre Dame purposely put less of an emphasis on football. As a result he struggled to a 32-18 mark in five seasons, but was responsible for one of the greatest wins in Irish history as they snapped Oklahoma‘s 47-game winning streak in 1957.
Joe Kuharic - 23 losses
It took Joe Kuharic just four years to compile 23 losses, never finishing better than 5-5 in any regular season. Those numbers even put Willingham to shame.
Bob Davie - 25 losses
Notre Dame lost more games in Bob Davie’s first three seasons (16) than they did in Willingham’s three years. It took over a decade to fully recover from this brutal hiring following Lou Holtz’s impressive run.
Gerry Faust - 26 losses
Based on anyone I’ve ever talked to at Notre Dame that ever came across Gerry Faust, it’s quite possible a nicer man has never walked the campus. Unfortunately that didn’t mean winning as the Irish averaged more than five losses a year during his five-year run.
Charlie Weis - 27 losses
After starting his Notre Dame career with back-to-back BCS appearances and a 19-6 overall record, Charlie Weis and the Irish went just 16-21 over his final three seasons. Now try and imagine how bad it could have been had they not had “a decided schematic advantage” over their opponents.
Lou Holtz - 30 losses
No question about it, Lou Holtz returned Notre Dame to glory and made the Irish the “it” thing in college football from their national championship in 1988 through the 1993 season. From Holtz’s start in 1986 through the “Game of the Century” victory over Florida State, the Irish went 76-18-2 (.810 win percentage). After that win over the Seminoles though, the Irish went just 24-12-1 the rest of Holtz’s time (.662).
Brian Kelly - 40 losses
When Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU at the end of the 2021 regular season, he did so with more wins than any head coach in Notre Dame football history. Unfortunately for him, he also left with 10 more losses than any Fighting Irish coach, too. Kelly did a ton well in rebuilding the program from where it was following the Davie, Willingham, and Weis debacles, but his .739 winning percentage is only 10th best in program history.