SOUTH BEND — Their hometowns are separated by 3,000 miles, their schools by 2,000 miles, their ages by 10 years and their experience as head coaches by about two decades.
Other than a few crisscrossed recruiting trips, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Stanford’s David Shaw seem to share very little in common.
Yet, in terms of university mission statements, football success and academic achievement, the two head coaches couldn’t be more similar.
Kelly is a 56-year-old Boston native who has spent all 36 years of his coaching career working in the college ranks, arriving at Notre Dame in 2010. Shaw is a 46-year-old native of San Diego who spent nearly half of his 24-year coaching career working in the NFL before taking the Stanford job in 2011. The background and career paths for the two couldn’t be more different, but the mutual respect is always evident.
“I think he’s run a great program,” Kelly said when asked to share his impressions of Shaw. “If you look at him as the president of a business or an organization, there’s a great consistency from the top to the bottom there, and that usually equates to success, and it has in his case.”
The two teams reunite Saturday night for the 22nd consecutive year and 32nd time overall when Shaw and his No. 7 Cardinal (4-0) visit Notre Dame Stadium to face Kelly and his No. 8 Irish (4-0).
“It’s a difficult place to win,” said Shaw, who is looking for his fourth straight win in the series. “And it’s gotten louder over the years. They have done a great job in creating a very good home field advantage.”
It is the first matchup between two top-10 teams at Notre Dame Stadium during Kelly’s nine seasons in charge, though both teams have been ranked in eight of the nine meetings between these two coaches. Shaw holds a 5-2 series advantage over Kelly, while overall, Stanford has won seven of the last nine meetings in the series, which dates to 1925.
This rivalry features another wrinkle in that to the winner goes the crystal chalice called the Legends Trophy, the only rivalry trophy missing from the Notre Dame case of the six it plays for.
“We want that Legends Trophy at Notre Dame, that’s where it belongs,” said senior linebacker Drue Tranquill, the only Irish player on the roster to play in the 2014 game when Notre Dame last beat Stanford. “We got to get that back here, players take a lot of pride in that, this game means a lot to us.”
This game almost always carries high stakes, and high drama, and expect the same again as many are calling this a possible springboard to the College Football Playoffs.
Five of the previous seven games between Kelly and Shaw have been decided by a touchdown or less, and more often than not, they haven’t been decided until the final possession in the closing seconds.
“They’ve been great games,” Kelly said. “A great rivalry between two institutions.”
And often an important launch point to a great season and a top-tier bowl game.
In 2012, Kelly needed an epic goal-line stand at home to preserve a 20-13 overtime win over Stanford and protect an Irish run to the national championship game. In 2011 and 2013, Shaw’s Cardinal needed November wins over Notre Dame to help secure a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl, respectively.
In 2015, Stanford parlayed a 38-36 comeback win against Notre Dame into a Pac-12 championship, a victory over Iowa in the Rose Bowl and a No. 3 final Top 25 ranking.
And while fierce competition on the football field helps to define the relationship between Stanford and Notre Dame, it is only one thread. Two football coaches that have won about 75 percent of their games at their schools have also graduated most of their players. According to 2017 Graduation Success Rate numbers, the Stanford and Notre Dame football programs both graduated 96 percent of their players, tying for the third best mark in the country.
“There’s some similarities,” Kelly said, “in the sense that we both are trying to achieve excellence both in the classroom and on the football field as a primary mission.”
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