The coaching carousel in college football is utter insanity right now. Lincoln Riley leaves Oklahoma for USC, and now Brian Kelly is leaving Notre Dame for LSU.
Okay, right off the bat: a fucking 7am meeting?
Are you serious Brian Kelly?
To tell your team that you’re leaving them–something they already know? What more can you possibly “share” with your team?
You’re gonna still make them show up at 7am just so you can mouth some platitudes and then peace TF out? There is no reason this conversation should be longer than about 1 minute: “Men, I have accepted another job effective immediately. It has been a great honor coaching you all, and just to be clear: me taking this other job is not an indictment of any of you. I love you all, you’re all great players and even better young men, and I would recruit every one of you all over again. We had some ups, some downs, we built something special, and I will cherish these memories forever. If any of you wish to transfer and come down to LSU with me, we can talk about that in the coming days. You all have my phone number, don’t ever hesitate to reach out to me going forward. [So and so] will be taking over as interim head coach going forward and I now open up the floor to him. Best of luck to you all.”
That’s basically it. I don’t even know if he’d be allowed to mention that last part about transferring, that probably constitutes some sort of recruiting violation I’m sure.
There is no way a departing coach who’s taking a job at another school effective immediately can launch into some prolonged speech. Nobody wants to hear it. The facts are clear to everyone.
I’m probably making too big a deal about the 7am meeting thing, and I’m only half serious about it. It does admittedly seem like they already had a 7am team meeting scheduled based on Kelly’s text. But still, I’m sure the players are all rolling their eyes.
The immediate takeaway here, though, is this: Guys never leave programs like Oklahoma and Notre Dame to take other jobs. When you’re the head coach at OU or Notre Dame, you either fail and get fired, or succeed and retire on your own terms. OU and Notre Dame are destination jobs. They have been for decades.
But apparently not anymore.
Every year when there’s major coaching vacancies, there’s always all sorts of “What if?” articles and chatter on social media. “What if Nick Saban takes the Texas job??” Remember that one from a few years ago? And then from earlier this season: “What if Jimbo Fisher goes to LSU????”
Stuff like this is usually always pie-in-the-sky, little more than college football fans letting their imaginations run wild. Coaches with good jobs tend to stay put in those good jobs. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
But not this year. This year, the crazy what-if scenarios are coming true.
As of now, the following high-profile programs either have or have had a coaching vacancy during the 2021 season:
- Notre Dame
Those are all top-10 jobs in college football.
Right now, I’d say Alabama and Ohio State are the two best jobs in college football. Georgia is in the top-10, probably Texas as well just because of the move to the SEC and the fact that they have more money than anybody else, even if the program has been in the shitter the past decade.
To complete the top 10, I’d say it’s a race between Michigan, Clemson and Texas A&M. Texas A&M is a stupidly rich program, even if they aren’t an elite program historically in terms of winning. They can be with all that money. As for Clemson, I don’t know if it’s an elite job or an elite program even though it has been elite these past 5 years or so. I feel like without Dabo, Clemson could fall off and drop down a tier.
(I feel like if they got that generational elite QB prospect, Texas A&M could be another Clemson and move up to elite status. Clemson was a B/B+ program for many years, then became an A/A+ program once they got DeShaun Watson, and then Trevor Lawrence. I think A&M is capable of that as well if they ever get a can’t-miss QB prospect.)
I’d probably still have to put Clemson in the top-10 though just because of the success they’ve had lately. I’d rank it like this:
- Ohio State
- USC (in a past article I had LSU as a better job than USC, but I now think USC is better. Lincoln Riley had his choice between USC and LSU and he chose USC.)
- Texas A&M or Florida, idk.
- Notre Dame
Anyway, we’re now witnessing major upheaval at the top of college football. You generally just do not see these top programs poaching each others’ head coaches.
Nick Saban coached LSU and then coached Bama, but he had a 2 year stint in the NFL in between the two, so that doesn’t really count. Urban Meyer went from Florida to Ohio State, but he took a year off in between, so I don’t know if that counts, either.
Steve Sarkisian has coached at both USC and now Texas, but there were a lot of stops (to say the least) in between.
I really cannot recall the last time we saw a coach jump directly from one top-10 job to another, and now we’ve got it happening twice in a matter of days.
The craziest thing about this Brian Kelly news is that Notre Dame could still make the playoff!
They are 11-1 right now!
If any one of the teams in the top-4 loses this weekend, Notre Dame would be in great shape to get a playoff spot. Even if just Baylor upsets Oklahoma State (and it wouldn’t even be that big of an upset; it’s a 4.5 point line right now), Notre Dame could plausibly get into the playoff.
In fact, if Georgia wins and knocks Bama out, and Baylor wins and knocks Okie State out, then Notre Dame is almost definitely going to the playoff.
This is so crazy right now.
Immediately there’s growing chatter about Notre Dame going after Luke Fickell. But what if, assuming Cincy wins its conference title game, this all unfolds in a way that pits Cincinnati against Notre Dame in a playoff game, which would be a rematch of their October tilt in South Bend? It is not at all out of the question that Cincinnati and Notre Dame could be playing each another again in the playoff. All it would take would be Georgia winning and Michigan losing to Iowa. Then, we’d probably get a 2 vs. 3 Cincy-Notre Dame semifinal game.
College football is utter chaos right now. That’s really all I can say at this point.
Another leading candidate for the Notre Dame job is their current defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Marcus Freeman is a rising star in the coaching rumor mill, but he’s only 35 years old, has never had a head coaching job before and this is his first season at Notre Dame. Marcus Freeman is so young I can still vaguely remember when he was playing linebacker at Ohio State–he was a 5th round draft pick in 2009.
Is Notre Dame going to hand over the reigns to a guy like him, who has only been at Notre Dame for one season and has never been a head coach before? It remains to be seen, but it also feels like if they don’t promote him, someone else will hire him to a head coaching job. That’s how much of a hot commodity Freeman is viewed as right now.
And then of course there are the Urban Meyer rumors. Urban was the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame from 1996-2000 and has in the past said that Notre Dame is his dream job. This was back in 2008, and he had no hesitation to say so even when he was head coach at Florida. I don’t know if this is still the case, or if Notre Dame would even want him, but I think it would be foolish to fully dismiss the Urban Meyer option at ND.
Back to Luke Fickell, what’s interesting is that he makes $3.4 million a year at Cincinnati, but if he were to take the Notre Dame job, it would be a significant pay cut. I’ll get more into this later but Brian Kelly makes something like $1.8 million per year, which is really low compared to other high-level FBS coaches.
I don’t know that the salary aspect would completely discourage Fickell from taking the Notre Dame job, but it is something to consider.
As for Brian Kelly himself, who we’re finally now getting to, I really don’t blame him for leaving Notre Dame for what he perceives to be greener pastures.
I am of the opinion that he has basically maxed out at Notre Dame. He made a National Championship in 2012, got blown out by Bama, and he’s been back to the playoff several times, only to get blown out by better programs each time. I don’t really know how much better Notre Dame can get–or, rather, how much better Notre Dame could get under Brian Kelly.
Does this mean Notre Dame can’t ever win a National Championship? Maybe, maybe not. I think some coach could win the big one at Notre Dame, but it would be awfully difficult. Saban probably could. But I don’t know who else could. It’s a uniquely hard program to coach. You have restrictions on your recruiting that other schools don’t have–namely academic ones.
I think this move is an admission by Brian Kelly that he’s never going to be able to get over the hump at Notre Dame, and this is his final push for a Championship. The last 3 LSU head coaches have won National Championships, can Kelly become the 4th?
He will certainly be able to recruit like hell down there, free from the restrictions of Notre Dame. But he will also be playing a much tougher schedule now, too. Is he prepared to run through the gauntlet of Bama, Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas A&M and a resurgent Arkansas just within his own division?
Even if you get out of that division, Georgia is waiting for you in the SEC Championship Game.
In order to win a National Championship at LSU, Brian Kelly is going to have to, in all likelihood, beat both Bama and Georgia in the same season. Is he able to do that? I’m skeptical. It’s hard to imagine that happening, to be honest.
I think Brian Kelly is a very good coach. When he took over Notre Dame, the program was in shambles. In the final three years under Charlie Weis, Notre Dame went 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6. Kelly replaced Weis in 2010 and by 2012 he had Notre Dame undefeated and playing in the National Championship. It was really a remarkable turnaround. Kelly is undeniably the best coach Notre Dame has had since Lou Holtz.
But his tenure was also marked by consistent failures against elite teams:
- 2012: Lost the BCS National Championship Game to Alabama, 42-14.
- Kelly was 3-4 against Michigan overall.
- 2013: Lost 35-21 to #14 Oklahoma at home in the regular season.
- 2014: Lost 31-27 at #2 Florida State in the regular season.
- 2015: Lost 24-22 at #12 Clemson in the regular season. Clemson would go on to make the National Championship game that year. ND also lost 44-28 to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in 2015.
- 2017: Lost 20-19 at home to Georgia. Georgia made the National Championship that year.
- 2018: Lost 30-3 to eventual National Champion Clemson in the playoff.
- 2019: Lost 23-17 to #3 Georgia at home in the regular season.
- 2020: Joined the ACC temporarily due to Covid, managed to beat Clemson 47-40 in an OT game at home, although Trevor Lawrence wasn’t playing. Clemson got revenge in the ACC Championship 34-10, and then Notre Dame lost 31-14 to Bama in the playoff.
- 2021: Lost 24-13 to #7 Cincinnati at home.
I will give Kelly credit for playing Georgia tough in those two matchups, although ND lost both games. Other than that, it’s a lot of lopsided losses.
Now whether this is due to the fact that Notre Dame had inferior talent, I don’t know. But Notre Dame consistently loses big to the elite programs. I don’t think you can fully blame the talent deficit, because while talent is extremely important in college football, the greatest coaches can overcome talent deficits. Not all the time, but certainly at least some of the time.
So that’s why I say Brian Kelly is a very good coach, but I don’t know if he’s a great coach. I think he might be just a notch below the best of the best in the sport.
I also wonder if Brian Kelly is really an “LSU guy,” you know? He’s an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, and now he’s going down to the bayou. It seems… incongruent. Doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven just in terms of culture and fit, honestly.
I just look at guys like Les Miles and Ed Orgeron, and then I look at Brian Kelly, and something just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to picture Brian Kelly as an SEC guy. Notre Dame and LSU are just such radically different schools culturally. I really don’t know if it’s going to work. My gut feeling says no.
And you also have to consider that, if the rumors are to be believed, Brian Kelly was not LSU’s first choice. I think they wanted Lincoln Riley. The Kelly stuff quickly came together right after Riley to USC was announced. I think Kelly was LSU’s second option.
Doesn’t mean Kelly can’t work out well down there, but it is something to think about.
Another big factor here is money. Notre Dame is a private institution, meaning it does not pay its coaches anywhere near as much as other top programs. In 2020, Kelly’s salary was reportedly $1.8 million. That doesn’t even rank inside the top 50 at the FBS level. Nick Saban is making over $9 million. No coach in the top-25 in terms of salary is making anything less than $4 million a year. Brian Kelly is ridiculously underpaid given the level Notre Dame performs at on a yearly basis.
Guys like Kirk Ferentz and Jeff Brohm are making more than double what Kelly makes, and Kelly has been the more successful coach.
The rumor now is that LSU is going to give Kelly $15 million a year and make him the highest-paid coach in the nation.
I’d leave Notre Dame for LSU, too, if they were offering me almost 10x the money.
When you take money into consideration here, it’s impossible to blame Kelly for leaving. Anyone in his situation would do the same thing.
I’ve already seen some self-righteous sports journalists bashing Kelly and calling him “gutless”:
Somebody offer Dan Wolken a $13.2 million raise and see if he can say no to it.
Actually, don’t. It’s already a travesty he gets paid any real money at all to pump out garbage articles like that one.
Look, it sucks that Brian Kelly has to leave his team before potentially going to the playoff, but this is how college football works. Recruiting is 24/7 365. He has to get after it down there almost immediately. LSU made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and it entailed bailing on his team before a possible playoff game–or a New Year’s Six Bowl Game at the very least.
I’m sure he didn’t want to do it this way, but that’s just how this sport works.
Still, though, I have to give Kelly credit for going to the SEC after we just saw Lincoln Riley avoid the SEC. Brian Kelly clearly ain’t scared of the SEC.
Do I think it’s going to work? For some reason, I don’t. I just have a hard time seeing it working. My gut is telling me it’s not a fit.
I think LSU will be good under Kelly, but I don’t see them seriously competing for National Titles. I think Kelly had it pretty good at Notre Dame. He had a pretty easy path to the playoff. Now he has the hardest path to the playoff imaginable.
However, history shows that if you do manage to get out of the SEC and into the playoff, you’re probably going to win the whole thing.
I just have a hard time seeing Kelly consistently beating Bama and Georgia–not to mention Auburn, A&M, Ole Miss and Arkansas.
I respect Brian Kelly for not being afraid to coach in the SEC, but I just don’t see him winning a National Title down there.