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Top 10 Notre Dame football coaches of all time

Top 10 Notre Dame football coaches of all time
Lou Holtz led Notre Dame to nine major bowl games in 11 seasons and its last national championship. (Credit: USA TODAY Sports)
Rachel Huser

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (BVM) — The Notre Dame football program has had 31 coaches — with Marcus Freeman being the 32nd — since its birth in 1887. Some have led the Fighting Irish to multiple national championships, and some have turned losing programs into winning ones. Here are the top 10 coaches in Notre Dame history. 

10. Terry Brennan, 1954-58

Brennan played at Notre Dame for Frank Leahy until he graduated in 1949. When he took over as head coach in 1954, Brennan finished 9-1 and 8-2 in his first two seasons which ranked the Fighting Irish fourth and ninth respectively in the AP Polls. Brennan finished with a record of 32-18 and a .640 winning percentage and is only one of six coaches at Notre Dame to have led three teams in four seasons to a final ranking of tenth or better in the AP Poll (starting in 1936). 

9. Jesse Harper, 1913-17

Harper led Notre Dame to a perfect 7-0 record in his first year as a coach and finished with a career record of 34-5-1. He is the only Notre Dame coach to have a perfect first season. Harper brought the forward pass to Notre Dame and helped establish the Fighting Irish as a national powerhouse. Because he was the athletic director, Harper was able to build the schedule and he took the team across the country to play tough opponents- helping Notre Dame become the national brand that it is today. In 1916, the Irish went 8-1, clinching eight shutouts with their eight wins, the second most in a season.

8. Elmer Layden, 1934-40

Layden played for Notre Dame under Coach Knute Rockne from 1922-24 and was known as one of the Four Horsemen after an upset victory over Army. He earned All-American honors for his play. As a coach, Layden averaged seven wins a season and finished his coaching career with a .770 winning percentage and a record of 47-13-3. Layden never had a losing season and he is the most successful Notre Dame coach to not win a national championship. 

7. Charlie Weis, 2004-09

A 1978 Notre Dame graduate, Weis led the Fighting Irish to a 9-3 record and a BCS appearance in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in 2005. In 2006, Notre Dame finished with a 10-3 and an invitation to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Those 19 combined wins qualified as the most in a two-year period since the 1992-93 season when they won 21 games. It was also the first time that Notre Dame played in two consecutive BCS games since they played in the Fiesta and Orange Bowls in 1994 and ‘95. Weis’ combined 19 wins in his first two seasons are the most by a Notre Dame football head coach. In 2005, Weis won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. 

6. Dan Devine, 1975-80

Devine finished his coaching career at Notre Dame with a .764 winning percentage and a record of 53-16-1, making him the fifth winningest Notre Dame coach. He holds a 17-9 record against ranked opponents, and a 3-1 bowl record. His teams won the 1976 Gator Bowl and the 1977 and ‘78 Cotton Bowls. He also led the Fighting Irish to one national championship in 1977 after finishing the season with an 11-1 record. 

5. Brian Kelly, 2012-21

While Notre Dame fans may not like how abruptly Kelly left for LSU, it cannot go unsaid how much he did for the program — bringing the Fighting Irish to the 21st century level of play that it needed to be at. At the end of his tenure, Kelly earned the title of Notre Dame’s winningest head coach with 113 wins and only 40 losses. In his last five seasons, Kelly went 54-9. He led the Fighting Irish to the 2012 BCS national title game as well as College Football Playoff appearances in 2018 and 2020. He was named National Coach of the Year in 2012 and 2018 and he is the only coach to win the Home Depot Coach of the Year Award more than once. In fact, he’s done it three times in 2009, 2012 and 2018. Kelly is the winningest active FBS coach with 284 wins, 97 losses and two ties.  

4. Lou Holtz, 1986-96

It can be argued that Holtz coached the golden era of Notre Dame football. In his third season, he led the program to a perfect 11-0 record and the Fiesta Bowl where they won the national championship against West Virginia. Holtz was named the 1988 coach of the year. All in all, Holtz finished his Notre Dame career with a .765 winning percentage, led the team to nine major bowl games in 11 seasons, went 32-20-2 against ranked teams, and in five of the 11 seasons he coached, Notre Dame finished in the top six in the AP poll. He sent 74 players to the NFL and coached 10 All-Americans.  

3. Ara Parseghian, 1964-74

Parseghian went 9-1 in his first season and Notre Dame finished third in the nation in 1964. He won his first national title in his third season (1966) after finishing with a 9-0-1 record. Parseghian won his second national championship in 1973 and went 11-0, his only undefeated season. He led Notre Dame to a win in the Orange Bowl against Alabama in 1974. Parseghian finished his Notre Dame career with a .836 winning percentage and a 95-17-4 record. Notre Dame was ranked in the top five in seven different seasons during his career and his teams never finished lower than 14th in the AP Poll. Parseghian was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.  

2. Knute Rockne, 1918-30

Rockne finished his coaching career with a 105-12-5 record and was the winningest Notre Dame football coach until Kelly surpassed him in 2021. Rockne is the longest-serving Notre Dame coach as of yet. He holds a .881 winning percentage which is the highest among Division 1 football coaches. He led Notre Dame to three national titles in 1924, ’29 and ’30 and also coached the legendary Four Horsemen. 

1. Frank Leahy, 1941-43, 1946-53

Leahy is one of the most respected Notre Dame coaches of all time. After coaching for three seasons, he went to serve in WWII. He returned to the program and it was like he never left. Leahy had a .855 winning percentage with an 87-11-9 record at the end of his career. He claimed four national championships in 1943, ’46, ’47 and ’49 and had a 29-4-4 record against ranked opponents. Leahy only lost back-to-back games once in his career in 1950 and he went unbeaten for four seasons in a row which totaled to a 38-game winning streak with three national titles in that time. Leahy’s teams finished top 10 in the AP poll in nine of his 11 seasons.