The Real Reason Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly Abruptly Left For New Jobs

Over the weekend, two bombshell stories dropped: the first was that Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley was leaving OU effective immediately to take the USC job.

The second was that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was leaving effective immediately to take the LSU head coaching job.

The moves were announced literally the day after the 2021 college football regular season concluded, and it left fans of both OU and Notre Dame, and even fans of other programs, in disgust at the abruptness and apparent callousness of the moves.

OU has two losses and basically has zero chance of making the playoff, and all that’s left is their bowl game. OU fans are more upset with Riley over the fact that he was supposed to be the hand-picked successor to Bob Stoops who would lead the program for years to come, and instead he bolted for what he perceived to be a better job.

Brian Kelly’s move seemed especially cruel given that the Irish are currently 11-1 and very much alive in the College Football Playoff hunt.

Chief over at Barstool, who is a Notre Dame alum, wrote this (along with including videos of Kelly’s 4 minute speech to the players):

None of it sits right with me. The timing, the callousness, not giving ND a chance to match, and leaving basically pre dawn after a bullshit speech. And it was bullshit. “I want what’s best for you”…while trying to snatch every coach and leave the program in ruins. “You’re one of the best 4 teams in the country”…but now you’re fucked according to the committee because he quit. “You have tremendous talent”…but I need kids who can’t spell SAT but can play in the SEC. “No one is at fault”…but, like…Kelly is here. The whole thing sounded like a Dad sitting his kids down to tell them he’s leaving their mom for a side piece. 

If he had just got up there and said “hey…they’re paying me $100M” then I think everyone would be like “well…shit. Okay”. That’s not what he said. He’s always been a politician. 

I get it. Notre Dame alumni and fans have every reason to be pissed off.

But let’s be real: every major college football coach is a politician to some degree. NFL coaches, too. It’s just the nature of the game.

There’s a reason these two coaches left their jobs when they did, though. And it’s not because they’re just dickheads (although as I wrote yesterday, Brian Kelly seems like he might just be a dickhead).

The reason they bailed on such short notice instead of coaching through the end of the season is because of the NCAA’s rules on the Early Signing Period, implemented in 2017.

Previously, National Signing Day for high school football recruits was in early February, meaning coaches would have 1-2 months from either the end of the regular season (late November/early December) or the end of the postseason (early January) to make their final sales pitches to recruits and solidify their recruiting classes.

But now, under the new Early Signing Period rules, that is no longer the case. The NCAA now allows recruits to commit to schools in mid-December. The move was made ostensibly with the interests of the recruits in mind, as now they’re able to commit to schools before the schools make any potential coaching changes, which generally used to happen after the Bowl games, so early January.

Think about it: you’re a high school recruit, you’ve been talking to a particular school for well over a year, and you’re planning on committing there in February. But then the school fires the head coach before National Signing Day, hires a new coach, and you, the recruit, are left scrambling. You don’t know if you’ve still got an offer on the table under the new coach, and there’s only a few months left until National Signing Day.

So the idea with Early Signing Day was to allow recruits to commit before coaching changes are made.

But as we’re seeing now, this actually doesn’t protect recruits from coaching changes. Because now schools are just firing their coaches even earlier (like in the middle of the season) and new coaches are being hired immediately upon completion of the season (like with Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly).

The Early Signing Day rules have had the effect of pushing the coaching hiring/firing cycle up in the calendar. LSU and USC both needed to get a new coach in place before Early Signing Day, which is December 15 this year, and it meant that Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley both had to leave their current jobs immediately to prepare for Early Signing Day.

Programs with coaching vacancies have to have head coaches in place by early December nowadays. It’s just the way the rules are set up.

Both LSU and USC could not wait until the season was over to make their new coaching hires. They had to get a head coach in place before December 15.

But now, both Oklahoma and Notre Dame are screwed–Notre Dame especially given the fact that they’re still in the hunt for the Playoff.

Now, Notre Dame has to worry about finding a new coach before December 15, and worry about the Playoff if they do in fact get in.

Oklahoma is also left scrambling with just a couple of weeks left before Early Signing Day.

Every coaching vacancy creates a coaching vacancy somewhere else, whether it be a head coaching vacancy or a coordinator vacancy–it’s just how it works. A head coaching vacancy at a big program sets off a chain reaction all down the line.

The new early signing rules have made being a college football head coach even more time-consuming and difficult. Colin Cowherd has been saying for years now that the new rules make it less appealing to be a college football coach these days–the burnout factor is just so much higher, and the pressure is non-stop. You literally have no down-time at all. Being an NFL head coach is now seen as a lower-stress job than being a college football head coach.

Imagine being a coach at one of the 4 schools currently in position to make the playoff: your regular season ends, and now you have to begin prepping for your Conference Championship game, and at the same time you’re worrying about National Signing Day on December 15. Then you’ve gotta worry about the playoff a few weeks later.

Coaches now have to prepare for the Playoff and put the finishing touches on their recruiting classes. It’s almost too much to handle.

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