SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The gates of venerable Notre Dame Stadium are faithfully manned by statues of the Fighting Irish's national championship coaches.
Knute Rockne. Frank Leahy. Ara Parseghian. Dan Devine. Lou Holtz.
Trouble is, Notre Dame Stadium has six gates. Lonely Gate E awaits a champion. Is Brian Kelly headed for bronze?
Who knows? National titles are hard-earned in the 21st century. But for the first time in almost 20 years, the Irish seem to have a coach who really can wake up the echoes.
Kelly coached the Irish to the 2012 national title game, and though Alabama pulverized Notre Dame 42-14 there, walking through the campus of America's most famous university leaves you with the feeling that the Irish are back in the business of big-time college football at the highest level.
Kelly doesn't talk that way. He talks of the Irish needing staying power, and he's got a point. Notre Dame hadn't played for a national title since the last time they won the crown, 1988. The Irish haven't had back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins since 1992-93, when Holtz coached the Golden Domers.
But that 2012 season, which included a 30-13 beatdown of the Sooners in Norman, was no small step in restoring Notre Dame to glory.
“It was more about faith restored,” Kelly said. “The fact that you can compete nationally. But we're far from what Bob Stoops has accomplished in terms of consistency year in and year out. We're still not there yet. That's the next level of this program.”
The 3-1 Irish host unbeaten Oklahoma on Saturday, and bad luck for the Sooners. They drew the renewal of the Notre Dame series not when Charlie Weis or Tyrone Willingham was coaching the Irish to mediocrity, but when Kelly has Notre Dame riding high.
For two decades, we heard that time had passed by Notre Dame. That Notre Dame's perennially tough schedule was foolish. That Notre Dame academic standards would keep the Irish from ever again competing with college football's best.
But where others saw obstacles, Kelly saw opportunity.
“I don't think there's a program out there that doesn't have its challenges,” Kelly said. “It's how you look at it and how you begin to take those challenges and turn them into positives. Some of the challenges that were perceived to be obstacles, I see them to be some of our unique qualities.”
Kelly rattled them off. Residential life, living in the dorms, a Notre Dame staple. Small, close-knit campus. Rural setting. Great academics. The weather isn't great, and Kelly doesn't try to snow recruits on that. But the other stuff, he sells and sells hard.
“All of those things, we've been able to take as potential obstacles and turn them into, well, we're shopping down a different aisle,” Kelly said. “This is who we are. It's not right for everybody.”
This was a job that some thought might go to Stoops himself. Various media reports in December 2009 had Stoops taking the Notre Dame job. Stoops quite vociferously denied those, and sure enough, Kelly got the job a week later after coaching Cincinnati to a 34-6 record over three seasons.
Kelly threw himself into the Irish post and has earned the trust of a school and fan base that had grown weary from three straight coaches being dismissed since Holtz stepped down.
“I give Brian Kelly and his staff a lot of credit,” said Terry Hanratty, an All-American quarterback at Notre Dame in 1968 and father of current Irish lineman Conor Hanratty. “They've really humped it recruiting.
“I think he's done a remarkable job. I really do. I think he's tireless. You see Brian everywhere.”
Kelly grew up Irish-Catholic in suburban Boston, which meant automatic Notre Dame devotion. But he really more identified with the Irish than followed them.
“I didn't know their scores and championships and things of that nature,” Kelly said. “But as an Irish Catholic, it was my team.”
Kelly says he didn't even follow Notre Dame's travails in the post-Holtz era. Too focused on building programs at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan and Cincinnati to worry about the Irish's obstacles.
“I think you have to be at an institution to really get to know what those are, because some of them are perceived and some of them are real,” Kelly said. “So I didn't really know Notre Dame until I got to Notre Dame.”
What he discovered is what most of us feel when we walk around the place. There's something special and something unique about this university. And it's not just football, though it's certainly that, too. When Kelly walks into the Guglielmino football complex each day, he's greeted by a large sculpture of the Four Horsemen. Auburn, this isn't.
But it goes past gridiron ghosts.
“There's a spirit here that's real,” Kelly said. “Can't really give you a rational or defined reason why. But there is a spirit here that you get when you're on this campus. Maybe it's the Basilica, maybe it's the Grotto, maybe it's the tradition, maybe it's the history, maybe it's the faith-based education. Maybe it's all of that.
“There's a great quote that Lou Holtz has used so many times. ‘For those that know Notre Dame, no explanation is necessary. For those that don't, no explanation will suffice.'”
Kelly is here at a good time. College football, which for going on a century has operated with a virtual class system, has shown some fundamental shifting. Stanford has become a national player. Northwestern has become a Big Ten force. Vanderbilt has as many SEC wins the last five years as does Tennessee.
In that environment, why can't Notre Dame excel?
“The game of football still has its basic tenants,” Kelly said. “Tough-minded kids. Certainly have to have the athleticism.
“But times have changed. There's social media and there's great transparency in what's going on. Everybody is now in the recruiting process looking at not just a full stadium but what can my degree get me 40 years down the road. I think the timing is such that there's a place for those schools that can talk about all the things your degree can get you.
“The Northwesterns and the Stanfords and the Notre Dames, there's still some work to be done to say that that has flipped. But there's definitely a move in that direction.”
And Notre Dame is part of that move. Should the Irish be what they used to be? Maybe not. It's no longer the 20th century. But with a coach who knows what he's doing, and Brian Kelly does, Notre Dame football can be what it wants to be.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.