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Leftovers & Links: A precedent for Notre Dame coaches improving in their second seasons

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Marcus Freeman of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on before the start of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against the South Carolina Gamecocks at TIAA Bank Field on December 30, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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Though an independent, Notre Dame’s schedule does not change much on a year-to-year basis. The Irish have kept USC, Stanford and Navy on the annual schedule, three games that director of athletics Jack Swarbrick has long upheld as non-negotiables in his schedule-making. That may change in the future as the Big Ten adds USC and constant consternation around the Pac-12 persists, but for now, it remains the case.

Notre Dame’s five-team ACC draw each year usually focuses on if Clemson is or is not on the schedule, but the collective quality of the five ACC teams does not vary much. Back when that rotation was unofficially more Big Ten-focused — leaning heavily on Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue — that same premise of scheduling consistency was valid.

Thus, there is some logic to comparing the historic trends of Irish coaches’ progress in their second seasons compared to their debuts.

And since Ara Parseghian brought back stability to Notre Dame after Joe Kuharich’s abrupt springtime departure (60 years ago last month) led to a one-year interim gig for Hugh Devore, Irish coaches have consistently improved in their second seasons.

Of seven coaches following Parseghian, only Tyrone Willingham took a step backward in his second year. If there was any rationale for him being the only coach in Notre Dame history not to be given a five-year runway, going from 10-3 to 5-7 in 2003 was it.

Brian Kelly did not improve, going 8-5 in both 2010 and 2011, but his second season in South Bend included the Irish spending two November weeks in the polls thanks to winning eight of nine in the middle of the season, the kind of concept-proving run that laid the groundwork for Notre Dame’s unbeaten regular season in 2012.

That championship appearance coming in Kelly’s third season paralleling a common Irish trend may be a product of these years of second-season success. Dan Devine, Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly all reached their peaks in their third seasons at Notre Dame, and it warrants mentioning that Devine went 9-3 in his second season and Holtz went 8-4, particularly notable after going 5-6 in his 1986 debut season.

There is a precedent for expecting an Irish head coach to post a better record in his second season, one that dates back 50 years. A first-year dip has also been relatively common, something that can be easily traced to their predecessors as often as not. Four of the last seven Notre Dame head coaches, including Freeman, led the way to worse seasons in their debut than their predecessors’ final seasons. The previous three — Gerry Faust, Dan Devine and Bob Davie — were all part of the second-year improvement trend.

So there is long-term reason to think Freeman should enjoy more success in 2023 than he did in 2022, before even getting into what should be improved quarterback play for the Irish sparking a dynamic offense.

Scheduling-wise, it is all even more the case given the three biggest foes on the Irish schedule are the same in 2023 as they were in 2022, now hosting two of Ohio State, Clemson and USC rather than traveling to two of them. Freeman’s second season will have the benefit of a second idle week in the back half of the season, but otherwise, the calendars are very comparable.

If he follows the path of six of Notre Dame’s last seven coaches, something better than 9-4 should await the Irish in 2023. And that kind of tick upward has created a foundation for three championship-quality seasons for three of those coaches.

COACHING TRANSITIONS SINCE 1974
1974: Ara Parseghian’s final season: 10-21975: Dan Devine’s first season: 8-31976: Devine’s second season: 9-31977: Devine’s national championship: 11-1

1980: Devine’s final season: 9-2-11981: Gerry Faust’s first season: 5-61982: Faust’s second season: 6-4-1

1985: Faust’s final season: 5-61986: Lou Holtz’s first season: 5-61987: Holtz’s second season: 8-41988: Holtz’s national championship: 12-0

1996: Holtz’s final season: 8-31997: Bob Davie’s first season: 7-61998: Davie’s second season: 9-3

2001: Davie’s final season: 5-62002: Tyrone Willingham’s first season: 10-32003: Willingham’s second season: 5-72004: Willingham’s final season: 6-62005: Charlie Weis’s first season: 9-32006: Weis’s second season: 10-3

2009: Weis’s first season: 6-62010: Brian Kelly’s first season: 8-52011: Kelly’s second season: 8-5

2021: Kelly’s final season: 11-22022: Marcus Freeman’s first season: 9-4

INSIDE THE IRISH
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