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Who will replace Brian Kelly at Notre Dame? Here's the Irish's potential candidate pool.

·6 min read
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To any Notre Dame fans angry at the departure of Brian Kelly to LSU, they’d be better off channeling that emotion to being thankful for what he's leaving his successor. 

Kelly’s 12 seasons included the resuscitation of the program from the ashes of the Charlie Weis era, the modernization of the program to compete in the sport's current climate and he capped that time by forging Notre Dame into an annual College Football Playoff contender.

Kelly’s most important legacy, even more than being Notre Dame's all-time winningest coach, is that he re-directed the program’s trajectory. He made independence viable, the upcoming television contract teeming with possibility and pumped a decade of oxygen into a sputtering program.

To any LSU fans skeptical of Kelly’s hire, just remember how he re-defined Notre Dame’s shortcomings. He took over a program that lost to UConn the season before his arrival and built it to the point where not beating Alabama in the CFP became a disappointment.

Who will be the next coach to lead Notre Dame into this era of optimism? The list won’t be long as athletic director Jack Swarbrick will run a tight and targeted search. It’ll likely include Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Baylor’s Dave Aranda. Recent extensions for Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Boston College’s Jeff Hafley would make moves hard, but Notre Dame has plenty of money.

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive line coach Marcus Freeman looks on during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN.  (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is in his first year in South Bend. (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The only coordinators who’ll be considered are in-house candidates Marcus Freeman (age 35) and Tommy Rees (29). But the prevailing early thought is that Notre Dame isn’t a place for a head coach to learn on the job. Swarbrick has carefully studied Irish football since arriving in 2008, and his comments Monday morning about college coaches as a CEO tip his hand a bit to head coaching experience.

Also, the Notre Dame administration is still scarred from both Weis and his buyout, which will serve as an eternal administrative reminder that this isn’t a place for on-the-job training. The counterargument for moving up an assistant – Freeman would be the most likely – is that such stability and infrastructure is in place that the machine could keep humming at a high level while a new coach settles in.

The Notre Dame that the next coach walks into will be a vastly different one than Kelly arrived at in 2010. There’s a bevy of facility upgrades sprinkled through campus, including a sparkling indoor practice facility that’s one of the best in the country and a general football footprint that can compete with most blue bloods.

Notre Dame is again a destination for recruits. Kelly’s defining legacy there may be that he figured out how to unlock the academic standards and turn them into a competitive advantage. In the Class of 2022, Notre Dame is both top 10 in recruiting ranking (No. 4) and average star ranking (No. 8). It is also No. 2 overall in 2023.

Being able to accentuate Notre Dame as a Top 10 program is a much more enviable task than reviving it from the depths like Kelly did. And that’s why Swarbrick is expected to value head coaching experience.

The three most likely candidates – Fickell, Campbell and Fitzgerald – all have strong roots in Notre Dame’s footprint. They’ve all been successful head coaches for various lengths of time. Swarbrick isn’t going to be a prisoner of the moment and judge a decision off one season, be it an elite one or a bad one. This will be thorough and calculated, with the next decade in mind much more than the next recruiting class.

The timing of this hire will be fascinating as Notre Dame has a shot at the College Football Playoff. Swarbrick didn’t name an interim. He revealed only that Kelly won’t be around anymore to coach there.

The Dec. 15 signing day, of course, looms here as sunshine for everyone’s intentions. Notre Dame commitments would likely want to know who the head coach is before they sign, although those who aren’t enrolling early can wait until spring.

If Cincinnati makes the playoff by beating Houston this weekend, that would complicate the courtship of Fickell in particular. Telling your team you are leaving on the cusp of a potential playoff run is hard. Also, Notre Dame could be in the playoff. Either way, there’s a chance it could wait to make a hire until after the CFP. Swarbrick is a lawyer and a strategic thinker, and there’s plenty of pondering and strategizing to do here.

Fickell doesn’t seem likely to risk losing his team heading into the playoff nor will he try to convince a Top 25 class to sign at Cincinnati and then bounce two weeks later. There’s a lot of pressure points for Fickell and few clean paths. Fickell is a devout Catholic who has turned down jobs around the country to stay in the Midwest. (He interviewed for a defensive coordinator job at Notre Dame under Weis.)

The sub-drama here will be the future of Freeman, who is one of the bright young coaches in the sport. He could again be the subject of an LSU/Notre Dame squabble for his services as defensive coordinator, or he could also end up at Cincinnati as the head coach if Fickell comes to Notre Dame. He made a prescient decision to go to Notre Dame over LSU last offseason, and he’s going to again have gilded options.

Campbell would bring the same culture that helped Iowa State go from Big 12 punch line to Fiesta Bowl winner. He has also turned down a bevy of jobs and favors the Midwest. Both he and Fickell could also be targets at Oklahoma, which raises the stakes here.

Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern football from an afterthought into a brand, a rugged outfit that has shown it can compete at the highest levels in the Big Ten. The notion of what he could do on a bigger stage is appealing, as he has turned down countless NFL and college overtures to leave his alma mater.

Aranda has given his word to Baylor, which would make leaving hard. But he’d be a high-end cultural fit in South Bend. Clawson would mesh well with Swarbrick, and considering what he’s done to unlock Wake Forest there’s an enticing notion of how he could shape Notre Dame. (Clawson is the first coach at Wake Forest with a winning record since the 1930s.) Fleck’s energy and culture would prompt a compelling collision with the Notre Dame brand.

The three coaches prior to Kelly all got run out of town for losing. Each had winning percentages under 60 percent. Kelly’s 113-40 record puts him just under 74 percent. (Amazingly, at Notre Dame, that’s good for only No. 10 all-time by percentage.) 

It's too early to tell where Swarbrick will look for the next coach but it’s safe to predict that the next coach has everything in place to win a lot more than 60 percent of his games. Brian Kelly’s exit may be chilly, but the work he and Swarbrick did to build the program the past decade-plus gives Notre Dame an attractive candidate pool.