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Ranking Notre Dame’s Top 10 Best Head Coaches of All-Time - Part 1

Written by Connor Regan ⏐ Senior Staff Writer ⏐ Twitter/X: @thatconnorregan

Photo by The Irish Tribune


Over 133 seasons of football, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have had 30 coaches in all, each making their own unique mark on the program. The Irish hold an impressive 920-330-42 all-time record and a (.728) win percentage, providing fans with multiple eras of success throughout the years. This piece aims to examine these memorable coaching eras and rank the Top-10 Notre Dame Head Coaches of all time. 


The following criteria will be used to assess the list: Tenure (Length of time at Notre Dame), Record, Win Percentage, Heisman trophy winners, and National Titles. In an attempt to remove as much bias as possible, we'll break these rankings down step by step and explain the reasoning behind each decision. We'll begin by making statistical cuts from the list of 30 coaches, removing the excess to hone in on the genuine Top-10 contenders.





1st Cut - Tenure

The following coaches with 2 seasons or less of tenure have been removed from contention:

  • 1st head coach James L. Morrison - 1894 - 1 year - 3-1-1 - .(700) Win % - No National Title

  • 2nd head coach H.G. Haden - 1900-1901 - 1 year - 3-1-0 - (.750) Win % - No National Title

  • 4th head coach James McWeeney - 1899 - 1 year - 6-3-1 - (.650) Win % - No National Title

  • 5th head coach Pat O'Dea - 1900-1901 - 2 years - 14-4-2 - (.750) Win % - No National Title

  • 6th coach James F. Faragher - 1902-1903 - 2 years - 14-2-2 - (.843) Win % - No National Title

  • 7th head coach - Red Salmon - 1904 - 1 year - 5-3-0 - (.625) Win % - No National Title

  • 8th head coach - Henry J. McGlew - 1 year - 5-4-0 - (.556) Win % - No National Title

  • 9th coach Thomas A. Barry - 1906-1907 - 2 years - 12-1-1 - (.893) Win % - No National Title

  • 10th coach Victor M. Place - 1911-1912 - 1 year - 8-1-0 - (.889) Win % - No National Title

  • 11th coach Frank Longman - 1909-1910 - 2 years - 11-1-2 - (.857) Win % - No National Title

  • 12th coach John L. Marks - 1911-1912 - 2 years - 13-0-2 - (.933) Win % - No National Title

  • 18th coach Edward’s McKeever - 1944 - 1 year - 8-2-0 - (.800) Win % - No National Title

  • 19th head coach Hugh Devore - 1945, 1963 - 2 years - 9-9-1 - (.500) Win % - No National Title


With that cut, we've removed 13/30 coaches from contention, leaving us with the following list of 17, sorted by win percentage. For transparency, our statistics do not account for the wins vacated by either Brian Kelly or the University of Notre Dame.


Position 9-17 have no National Titles or Heisman trophy winners and only have 3-5 years with Notre Dame. With nearly half the total list of coaches gone, from here, the most obvious cut would be one based on win percentage.


Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

1

14

Knute Rockne

1918–30

13

105–12–5

.881

1924, 1929, 1930

(Award Not Yet Created)

2

13

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863


(Award Not Yet Created)

3

17

Frank Leahy

1941–43, 46–53

11

87–11–9

.855

1943, 1946, 1947, 1949

1943 - Angelo Bartelli, 1947 - Johnny Lujack, 1949 - Leon Hart, 1953 - Johnny Lattner

4

22

Ara Parseghian

1964–74

11

95–17–4

.836

1966, 1973

1964 - John Huarte

5

16

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770



6

25

Lou Holtz

1986–96

11

100–30–2

.765

1988

1987 - Tim Brown

7

23

Dan Devine

1975–80

6

53–16–1

.764

1977


8

29

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739



9

30

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704



10

3

Frank E. Hering

1896–98

3

12–6–1

.658


(Award Not Yet Created)

11

20

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640


1956 - Paul Hornung

12

15

Hunk Anderson

1931–33

3

16–9–2

.630


(Award Not Yet Created)

13

26

Bob Davie

1997–2001

5

35–25

.583



14

27

Tyrone Willingham

2002–2004

3

21–15

.583



15

28

Charlie Weis

2005–2009

5

35–27

.565



16

24

Gerry Faust

1981–85

5

30–26–1

.535



17

21

Joe Kuharich

1959–62

4

17–23–0

.425





2nd Cut - Win %

The following coaches with less than (.600) winning percentage have been removed from contention:

  • 21st Head Coach - Joe Kuharich - 4 Seasons (1959-1962) - 17-23-0 - (.425) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner

  • 24th Head Coach - Gerry Faust - 5 Seasons (1981-1985) - 30-26-1 - (.535) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner

  • 26th Head Coach - Bob Davie - 5 Seasons (1997-2001) - 35-25 - (.583) Win %- No National Title - No Heisman Winner

  • 27th Head Coach - Tyrone Willingham - 3 Seasons (2002-2004) - 21-15 - (.583) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner

  • 28th Head Coach - Charlie Weis - 5 Seasons (2005-2009) - 35-27 - (.565) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner


After removing five more coaches, we're left with a more defined list of 12 coaches. 3/12 of these coaches have only three years with the Irish, with one of those 3 being current Head Coach Marcus Freeman. 


In the current top 5, we see 2 names that stand out. Both Jesse Harper and Elmer Layden lack a national title and, logically, should be moved out of the top 5 contention and replaced with the only two other Irish head coaches to win titles, Lou Holtz and Dan Devine.


Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

1

14th

Knute Rockne

1918–30

13

105–12–5

.881

1924, 1929, 1930

(Award Not Yet Created)

2

13th

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863


(Award Not Yet Created)

3

17th

Frank Leahy

1941–43, 46–53

11

87–11–9

.855

1943, 1946, 1947, 1949

1943 - Angelo Bartelli, 1947 - Johnny Lujack, 1949 - Leon Hart, 1953 - Johnny Lattner

4

22nd

Ara Parseghian

1964–74

11

95–17–4

.836

1966, 1973

1964 - John Huarte

5

16th

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770



6

25th

Lou Holtz

1986–96

11

100–30–2

.765

1988

1987 - Tim Brown

7

23rd

Dan Devine

1975–80

6

53–16–1

.764

1977


8

29th

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739



9

30th

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704



10

3rd

Frank E. Hering

1896–98

3

12–6–1

.658


(Award Not Yet Created)

11

20th

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640


1956 - Paul Hornung

12

15th

Hunk Anderson

1931–33

3

16–9–2

.630


(Award Not Yet Created)


This reconfiguration makes more sense, with Harper getting the edge over Layden due to his significantly higher win %, and Holtz getting 4th place over Devine both due to his .001% better win %, his 11-year tenure, and 100 wins with the Irish.





Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

1

14th

Knute Rockne

1918–30

13

105–12–5

.881

1924, 1929, 1930

(Award Not Yet Created)

2

17th

Frank Leahy

1941–43, 46–53

11

87–11–9

.855

1943, 1946, 1947, 1949

1943 - Angelo Bartelli, 1947 - Johnny Lujack, 1949 - Leon Hart, 1953 - Johnny Lattner

3

22nd

Ara Parseghian

1964–74

11

95–17–4

.836

1966, 1973

1964 - John Huarte

4

25th

Lou Holtz

1986–96

11

100–30–2

.765

1988

1987 - Tim Brown

5

23rd

Dan Devine

1975–80

6

53–16–1

.764

1977


6

13th

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863


(Award Not Yet Created)

7

16th

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770



8

29th

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739



9

30th

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704



10

3rd

Frank E. Hering

1896–98

3

12–6–1

.658


(Award Not Yet Created)

11

20th

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640


1956 - Paul Hornung

12

15th

Hunk Anderson

1931–33

3

16–9–2

.630


(Award Not Yet Created)



3rd Cut - Tenure & Win %

The following coaches with 3 years of tenure or less and less than a (.660) winning percentage have been removed from contention:

  • 3rd Head Coach - Frank E. Hering - 3 Seasons (1896-1898) - 12-6-1 - (.658) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner (Award Not Yet Created)

  • 15th Head Coach - Hunk Anderson - 3 Seasons (1931-1933) - 16-9-2 - (.630) Win % - No National Title - No Heisman Winner (Award Not Yet Created)


From here, it seems fair to remove both Frank Hering and Hunk Anderson, as they have two of the three lowest win percentages remaining on the list, and both only had three seasons in South Bend.


Although Marcus Freeman technically only has 3 years under his belt, we're nearing the start of his 4th season, and as of right now, things are looking as if he'll be with the Irish for the foreseeable future. 


We now have a 10-man list, currently sorted by win percentage. Luckily for us, there's an obvious split to make between coaches who have won at least 1 National title and those who have not. 


We'll go ahead and get the easy part out of the way by ranking the No. 6 - No. 10 spots.


Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

1

14th

Knute Rockne

1918–30

13

105–12–5

.881

1924, 1929, 1930

(Award Not Yet Created)

2

17th

Frank Leahy

1941–43, 46–53

11

87–11–9

.855

1943, 1946, 1947, 1949

1943 - Angelo Bartelli, 1947 - Johnny Lujack, 1949 - Leon Hart, 1953 - Johnny Lattner

3

22nd

Ara Parseghian

1964–74

11

95–17–4

.836

1966, 1973

1964 - John Huarte

4

25th

Lou Holtz

1986–96

11

100–30–2

.765

1988

1987 - Tim Brown

5

23rd

Dan Devine

1975–80

6

53–16–1

.764

1977


6

13th

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863


(Award Not Yet Created)

7

16th

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770



8

29th

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739



9

30th

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704



10

20th

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640


1956 - Paul Hornung





10 - Terry Brennan

Like several other members of this list, Terry Brennan holds the distinction of having both played and coached at Notre Dame. He was a halfback under all-time great head coach Frank Leahy from 1945-1948, where we'd help the Irish win back-to-back National Titles in 1946 & 1947. Brennan eventually took over as Notre Dame's Head Coach in 1954 after Leahy's departure and finished 9-1 and 8-2 in his first two seasons. Unfortunately, the 1956 season was notable for good and bad reasons. 


Due to several critical injuries and a young team comprised of mostly underclassmen, the Irish posted an abysmal 2-8 record. While the 1956 season was the first losing season in South Bend since 1933 and the worst in school history up to that point, Brennan had the opportunity to coach running back phenom Paul Hornung during his Heisman trophy-winning campaign. Brennan and the Irish redeemed themselves in 1957, notching an improved 7-3 record with notable wins over Army and Oklahoma. The 7-0 Notre Dame shutout win over Oklahoma snapped the Sooners' record 47-game win streak. Brennan and his squad followed up the 1957 season with a disappointing 6-4 record in 1958, ultimately leading to Brennan's controversial dismissal. Brennan ended his tenure with the Irish after 5 seasons, holding a solid 32-18-0 record with a .640 win percentage and a Heisman trophy winner on his resume.

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

10

20th

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640

0

1956 - Paul Hornung



9 - Marcus Freeman

Probably the most controversial pick in this Top-10 list, Marcus Freeman stands in a very unique position as the only entry on this list currently coaching for Notre Dame and only the second active coach alongside Brian Kelly. Freeman has the shortest tenure in South Bend of anyone on this list, but because he is still with the team, he has the advantage of continuing to move up (or down) in these rankings going forward. 


As for why Freeman ranks above our No. 10 pick, Terry Brennan, the logic is simple: Freeman already has a better win percentage than Brennan and would only have to win around 7 games in each of the next 2 seasons to avoid a worse win percentage. Additionally, there's a serious argument to be made that if Freeman brings a National Title to South Bend, he'd move up to at least 6th or 7th on this list, possibly giving Bob Davie a run for his money on 5th. His high win percentage is a plus regardless of his short tenure, and as long as he maintains a similar winning pace, he'd be on track to at least mimic Brian Kelly's general success by year 10 should he stay that long. Winning a title or coaching a Heisman winner are two of the quickest ways for Freeman to differentiate himself in this No. 6 - No. 10 pack.

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

9

30th

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704

0

0



8 - Jesse Harper

While Jesse Harper didn't play football at Notre Dame, he attended the University of Chicago, where he played for their football team, a formidable force in the early days of college football. In 1906, Harper would become the Head Coach at Alma College in Michigan, where he stayed for 2 seasons and posted a record of 8-3-4. Harper eventually became Head Coach of Wabash College Little Giants in Indiana, compiling a record of 15-9-2 over 4 seasons. 1913 was Harper's first and arguably most successful season coaching the Irish, leading his new squad to a flawless 7-0 record - becoming the first Notre Dame Head Coach to do so in their first season, and one of the most historically significant wins in program history - Notre Dame's 35-13 thrashing of Army. Harper would lead the Irish to a 6-2 record in 1914, a 7-1 record in 1915, an 8-1 record in 1916, and a 6-1-1 record in his last season with the Irish. Harper's final record with the Irish was 34-5-1, an astonishing .863 win percentage. Although he lacked a national championship, no coach before him had won one either, and his win percentage is the 2nd highest all-time at Notre Dame (for any coach with 3+ years tenure), beating out all-time greats like Leahy, Holtz, Devine, and Kelly. Notably, Harper is the only coach on this list, besides current Head Coach Marcus Freeman, to have only single-digit losses on their record.


Additionally, Harper is the only coach on this list who also coached baseball and basketball. He coached Notre Dame basketball from 1913-1918, Notre Dame Baseball from 1914-1918, alongside football from 1913-1917. His all-time coaching records across all schools and sports are 57–17–7 in football, 67–29 in basketball, and 88–53–1 in baseball. 


Harper retired from coaching following the 1917 season and returned to ranching in Kansas until tragedy struck in 1931. Knute Rockne's tragic and sudden passing in a plane crash happened close to Harper's Kansas ranch, and upon news of Rockne's death, Harper personally accompanied the deceased from the crash site back to South Bend. The University immediately named Harper the replacement Athletic Director, a position he would hold until Elmer Layden was hired as Head Coach and Athletic Director in 1934. During his time as athletic director at Notre Dame, Harper was instrumental in developing the "Barnstorming" scheduling strategy that saw the Irish crisscross the United States to play top opponents in every corner of the country. Harper is heavily credited with helping establish Notre Dame's national football brand, which has continued to this day. Harper was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

8

13th

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863

0

0




7 - Elmer Layden

Layden played fullback for Knute Rockne from 1922-1924 and cemented his legacy as one of the "Four Horsemen" comprising the backfield that led the Irish to a groundbreaking upset victory over Army in 1924. The other 3 "Horsemen" were QB Harry Stuhldreher, right-back Don Miller, and left-back Jim Crowley. Sportswriter Grantland Rice coined the "Four Horsemen" moniker, helping cement the group as one of the greatest backfields in college football history. Layden was named player of the game in the 1924 championship game against Stanford in the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame's first appearance on the West Coast. The Irish trounced unbeaten Stanford 27-10, with Layden scoring on 2 pick-six interception returns and a rushing touchdown, accounting for 18 of Notre Dame's 27 points. 


After playing both football and basketball for Notre Dame, Layden went on to play professional football in the AFL for the Hartford Blues, Brooklyn Horsemen, and Rock Island Independents. Layden coached at Columbia University in Iowa from 1925-1926, posting an 8-5-2 record before moving on to the Duquesne Dukes, where he'd stay for 7 seasons and compile a 48-16-6 record. He became Head Coach and Athletic Director at Notre Dame in 1934, only 3 years after his former head coach, Knute Rockne, tragically passed away, and immediately made his mark on the program as a coach. The 1934 season was both Layden's first and worst at Notre Dame, posting a 6-3 record. The team improved in 1935 with a 7-1-1 record and a classic come-from-behind win against Ohio State, winning 18-13 on a last-second touchdown pass, the second Irish score in the final 5 minutes of play. Layden's Irish squads would post back-to-back 6-2-1 records in 1936 and 1937, and things would again change for the better in 1938. Layden's squad posted an undefeated season until their final game against USC, ultimately bringing their season to an 8-1 conclusion and narrowly missing out on the consensus National Title.


Famously, Layden managed to mend the notorious dispute between Notre Dame and Michigan, convincing Fielding Yost to agree to a 2 game home & home series in 1942 & 1943. This groundbreaking agreement would mark the first time the Fighting Irish and Wolverines faced one another since the infamous 1909 meeting, where Notre Dame posted their first win in the series. Out of spite, Yost and Michigan canceled the series until Layden resolved the dispute. Layden's final two years were solid 7-2 showings, but the 1940 season would be his last with the Irish. By the end of his coaching career with Notre Dame, Layden was 47-13-3 without ever positing a losing season, but alas, also without a National Title. He holds a commanding .770 win percentage with the Irish and a 103-34-11 combined record as a Head Coach, which earned him a place in the College Football Hall of Fame with the 1951 class. 


After his 7th season with the Irish, Layden left coaching in 1940 to become the commissioner of the NFL, signing a 5-year contract for a whopping $20,000. Layden carved his place in NFL history as the commissioner who guided the league through the strife of WWII, where many teams struggled with starters fighting in the war. Notably, Layden oversaw the merging of teams like the Steelers and Eagles due to a lack of players and the pause of the Cleveland Rams operations for the 1943 season. Due to the patriotic state of the country, Layden made the National Anthem a required and official staple of NFL stadium experiences as a way to pay tribute to players and fans who served in the armed forces. Layden retired as commissioner following the 1946 season.

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

7

16th

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770

0

0



6 - Brian Kelly

Let's get it out of the way - Brian Kelly's abrupt and unceremonious departure from South Bend for LSU has left a bad taste in many Irish fans' mouths, and rightfully so, but that cannot undo the decade-plus of impact he had on the program's history and trajectory. It's not always the case that we see a small-time coach hit the big stage and leave a blue-chip program like Notre Dame in a better place than when he found it, but Brian Kelly took it to a new level and saved it from years of consistent struggles. Before his exit, Kelly became Notre Dame's all-time winningest coach and the second-longest tenured head coach in school history. 


Because of his time coaching at Cincinnati, Kelly is known for opening the extensive coaching pipeline between the Bearcats and the Irish. He ultimately brought his successor and Notre Dame's 30th Head Coach to South Bend, this list's No. 9 entry, Marcus Freeman. Kelly posted 113 wins and only 40 losses in his 12 years with the Irish (Not accounting for retroactively vacated wins), with only one losing season in 2016 (4-8). He led Notre Dame to a National Championship appearance against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in only his third season and two CFP appearances in 2018 and 2020. Kelly was also named the Home Depot Coach of the Year 3 times and National Coach of the Year twice in 2012 and 2018. Despite no longer being with Notre Dame, Kelly is the winningest active coach in the FBS.


Although Kelly might not have gotten the Irish entirely over the hump when it comes to graduating from the 1B tier and joining the 1A tier of college football competitiveness (I.E., Alabama, Georgia), he did return the Irish to a level of relevance that it hadn't seen in quite some time. Adding in the role he played bringing our Freeman to South Bend in the first place, it's plain to see how much influence Kelly had in putting Notre Dame on a trajectory to eventually get over the hump he first collided with in 2012 and learn to hold their own against the best college football has to offer. Despite being the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, Kelly's 12 years in South Bend without a National Title keeps him out of our Top-5 list. His combination of tenure and lack of a title works against him in this scenario, and while he holds a significant place in Notre Dame history, he comes up just short of our 1A Notre Dame Head Coaches tier.

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

6

29th

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739

0

0



Final 6-10 Rankings

Rank

Coach Order

Name

Span

Tenure

Record

Win Pct.

National Titles

Heisman Winners (Started in 1935)

6

29th

Brian Kelly

2010–2021

12

113***–40

.739

0

0

7

16th

Elmer Layden

1934–40

7

47–13–3

.770

0

0

8

13th

Jesse Harper

1913–17

5

34–5–1

.863

0

0

9

30th

Marcus Freeman

2021–present

3

19-8

.704

0

0

10

20th

Terry Brennan

1954–58

5

32–18–0

.640

0

1956 - Paul Hornung



In "Part 2" or this ranking list, we'll finalize our top 1-5 Notre Dame Head Coaches and break down the reasoning behind our choices.


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