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What’s the difference between working in the public sector and the private sector? For college coaches like Brian Kelly of Notre Dame, it can be summed up thusly: several million dollars a year.

It’s debatable whether Kelly belongs as high on the list of best Power 5 conference football coaches as one recent ranking suggests, but he is most definitely underpaid compared to his colleagues at taxpayer-funded universities.

The Notre Dame brand is alive and well

Start with the obvious. Notre Dame hasn’t been winning on the football field as often as Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, or Oklahoma, which is understandably an important factor in judging coaches. In fact, Florida State, perceived to be a program in disarray, has won more games than the Fighting Irish in the past decade.

However, Notre Dame is still an 800-pound gorilla in other ways that matter, and that begins with its independent status in football. The major conferences have expanded and realigned over the years to take advantage of NCAA rules allowing for a league championship game and to become attractive to television networks by reaching more major markets.

Although Notre Dame has joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in other sports and has an agreement to play a portion of its football schedule against ACC schools in games that don’t count in the standings, the Fighting Irish remain one of the few football independents. That gives the school two strategic advantages:

  • The ability to negotiate its own TV contract, which has meant a lot of money (and primetime exposure) from NBC.
  • Flexibility to schedule opponents from coast to coast, with road games strategically selected to maintain visibility in key recruiting territories.

The most important ramification of Notre Dame remaining a big player in the FBS? It is the only independent with a seat at the table alongside the Power 5 conferences when it comes to making the decisions that shape the upper echelon of major-college football.

Brian Kelly has been getting the job done

Coaching football is exhausting at Notre Dame, where Brian Kelly is only the fifth head coach in school history to last a decade. As a lot of counterparts in the SEC can attest, it’s the only sport that truly matters on campus in the eyes of a disproportionate number of students and alumni. And it is the only sport that the subway alumni – those who never attended the school but who nevertheless root for the Fighting Irish – follow.

On top of that, South Bend’s small-school feel is negated by being 90 minutes from the Chicago media market. Notre Dame is a popular destination for national reporters when there’s a big game – or big controversy – brewing. That translates into more media and alumni obligations than just about any other college coach in the country faces; enduring that for year after year is bound to wear a man down.

When Kelly takes the field this fall, he will have matched Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, and Lou Holtz by coaching in his 11th season. Only Knute Rockne lasted longer, although 13 seasons doesn’t really qualify as a long tenure.

Brian Kelly is 92-37 on the field at Notre Dame (The NCAA vacated 21 of those victories due to academic violations) through 10 seasons. Ten of the losses came in the first two years after inheriting a mess from Charlie Weis, and Notre Dame is 33-6 over the past three seasons. The 2018 season ended with a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the playoff semifinals.

How Brian Kelly stacks up with other coaches ranked the 25 best Power 5 head coaches. The top 10 looked like this:

  1. Nick Saban, Alabama
  2. Dabo Sweeney, Clemson
  3. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
  4. Ed Orgeron, LSU
  5. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
  6. Kirby Smart, Georgia
  7. Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
  8. Dan Mullen, Florida
  9. James Franklin, Penn State
  10. Ryan Day, Ohio State

Six of those listed appear in another top 10 – USA Today’s compilation of the highest-paid FBS coaches. Sweeney leads at $9,315,600, followed by Saban at $8,857,000. Riley and Orgeron, the two others ahead of Kelly on the CBS list, pulled down $6,384.462 and $4 million, respectively. The four ahead of Kelly coach at public universities.

Brian Kelly’s salary last fall was $1,665,020, placing him in the bottom half of the FBS at No. 75. Those ahead of him include No. 65 Dino Babers, possibly one more losing season from being fired at Syracuse; No. 61 Chris Ash, who was dumped by Rutgers; No. 55 Steve Addazio, who recently resurfaced at Colorado State after being fired at Boston College; and No. 43 Clay Helton, whose seat at USC is feeling toasty after a 13-12 mark over the past two seasons.

To be fair, the USA Today survey isn’t perfect, starting with the fact that not all schools report on the same fiscal calendar and their reporting methodologies can differ. For instance, Kelly and many other coaches have TV and radio deals either arranged or approved by the schools, which don’t have to report the compensation on their own disclosures.

Also, the numbers don’t include endorsements deals that coaches make with shoe and apparel companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Surely, Kelly ranks in the top 10% of the FBS in that respect.