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Notre Dame Football: The Top Seven Fighting Irish Coaches of All Time

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Notre Dame Football's Top Seven Coaches of All Time

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With its storied 125-year history that includes the second best all-time winning percentage (and gaining on leader Michigan as you read) certainly the University of Notre Dame has been blessed with a number of great coaches. But while even the casual fan might guess who comes in at #1, all but the Fighting Irish historians might be surprised who this Rant writer ranks behind ND's famous 'Rock.'

No, it's not Charlie Weis, or Tyrone Willingham. Both started their Notre Dame careers with a bang, but ended with a whimper, and that just won't cut it at Notre Dame. Speaking of Willingham, his Notre Dame career was, rightly or wrongly, too short to be considered. Thus, the three football coaches with the best winning percentage (Knute Rockne is fourth!) for the Fighting Irish – I mean – Notre Dame, since they weren't called that yet, didn't make the cut either.

John Marks, 13-0-2, Thomas Barry, 12-1-1, and Victor M. Place, 8-1, did not "place" since they coached two, two, and one year respectively, and you'd have to add up all their careers to make one long enough to consider. Still, those years 1906-1912, were crucial, since they set the tone for the glory that would come. Speaking of (current) glory, Brian Kelly hasn't made it (yet) either...but if you win the championship in your third year like Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all did, I'm sure that five-year rule for great Irish coaches will be overturned as quickly as your man Manti Te'o upends another opposing runner.

Enjoy the list, and
Go Irish!
Tom O'Toole

Hey ND fans! Follow this link to get to Tom's latest ND features. Follow him on Twitter and visit him on LinkedIn. Subscribe to his feed here and email him here. And for you diehard fans, check out Suffering Irish too.

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#7 Jesse Harper

Jesse Harper 1913-TODAY IN ND HISTORY

Notre Dame record: 34-5-1, W/L% .863, coached ND 1913-17.

Owning the second best winning percentage (to Knute Rockne) of any Notre Dame coach of five years or more, most of Jesse Harper's accomplishments are tied to those of his famous successor. Went undefeated in 1913 (7-0) coaching Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais to the 35-13 upset of highly-favored Army in a game that revolutionized the forward pass. Also convinced the Notre Dame priests, most of whom would rather have Rockne teach chemistry, to let Knute succeed him.

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#6 Dan Devine


Notre Dame record: 53-16-1, one National Championship, W/L% .764, coached ND 1975-80.

Some list him higher, others not at all, the enigmatic Dan Devine DID win the National Championship in 1977, although many hold against him the fact that his savior that year, Joe Montana, started the season at third string and only got a shot when Rusty Lisch lost to Mississippi and Gary Forystek broke his collarbone. Devine also beat Michigan in the miraculous 1980 Harry Oliver game.

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#5 Elmer Layden

Four Horsemen: Elmer Layden, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, Harry Stuhldreher-NOTRE DAME.EDU

Notre Dame record: 47-13-3, W/L% .770, coached ND 1934-40.

The quiet one of the Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden never won a National Championship, but did bring the Notre Dame Fighting Irish back from the brink following Hunk Anderson's final 3-5-1 season. Coached Notre Dame to 1935 18-13 "Game of the Century" win over Ohio State, when the Irish rallied for three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including two in the final two minutes. Had two one-loss seasons before the pressure to "win 'em all" forced him to take an "easier" job; NFL Commissioner.

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#4 Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz photo by Don Stacy-UND ATHLETIC OFFICE

Notre Dame record: 100-30-2, one National Championship, W/L% .765, coached ND 1986-96.

The strict, funny and devout Lou Holtz owns Notre Dame's longest "pure" winning streak of 23 games, and his undefeated 1988 National Champions could have been joined by a couple of his one-loss teams (especially 1993) if he wasn't so resented by his peers. Rescued the Irish from the Gerry Faust disaster, and would have stayed to break Knute Rockne's win record if the ND administration, also resentful of his success, didn't force his resignation.

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#3 Ara Parseghian

Ara Parseghian-NOTRE DAME.EDU

Notre Dame record: 95-17-4, two National Championships, W/L% .836, coached ND 1964-74.

Resurrecting the Irish from the "de-emphasize football" years of Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich (the only Notre Dame coach with a losing record) and Hugh Devore, the "Era of Ara" would have produced three National Championships if not for a phantom hometown holding call that cost them their final game in 1964 against USC. Also brought Notre Dame back to the bowls after a 45-year absence with dramatic wins against Alabama and Texas.

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#2 Frank Leahy

Frank Leahy-SDSHOF.COM

Notre Dame record: 87-11-9, four National Championships, W/L% .855, coached ND 1941-43, 1946-53.

Another former player under Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy coached a whole class from 1946 to 1949 that never lost a game, amassing such talent many of his second and third stringers started in the NFL. This devout coach so monopolized the recruits from Catholic schools (many of which prayed for Notre Dame every fall Friday) schools like Michigan refused to play them. Resigned after ND president Father Hesburgh sliced the number of football scholarships.

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#1 Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne 1926-NOTRE DAME.EDU

Notre Dame record: 105-12-5, three 'undisputed' National Championships, W/L% .881, coached ND 1918-30. Simply the greatest coach of all time.

The all-time leader in winning percentage, Knute Rockne coached Notre Dame to five undefeated seasons, and some historians (there was no official "title" at that time) give him up to six National Championships. Famous for his offensive brilliance, few note that a staggering 50 of his wins were by shutouts. Rockne both revolutionized and popularized the college game, and his plane-crash death at age 43 was mourned not just by football fans, but the entire world.

Hey ND fans! Follow this link to get to Tom's latest ND features. Follow him on Twitter and visit him on LinkedIn. Subscribe to his feed here and email him here. And for you diehard fans, check out Suffering Irish too.