Brian Kelly's Going Where?!
By Stiofán Mac Fhilib
Having penned a piece on Notre Dame’s keys to the season back in the Summer it had always been my intention to come back after the season and compare reality to expectations. Did Brian Kelly rebuild or simply reload? I’d say the answer is a bit of both, though perhaps more the latter. But never mind that, in a much more surprising turn of events, once the 2021 regular season had finished, he upped sticks and moved down south to Baton Rouge and the 2019 National Champions, LSU.
Few people in these islands – and by ‘few’ I do, of course, mean that I can’t actually think of a single one – are more clued into SEC football than The Touchdown’s George Somerville, and even his excellent and exhaustive write up on the LSU coaching search did not include the possibility of Brian Kelly swapping northern Indiana for Louisiana.
He’s the first Notre Dame head coach since Thomas A. Barry in 1907 to leave the Irish to go to a similar post at another school. Though ten years after that Jesse Harper also walked away from the HC role in South Bend, to go home and work on his ranch in Kansas. As you do. But either way it’s quite an historic event for a CFB programme that could almost copyright that adjective.
Reloading Or Rebuilding?
What made his decision such a shock, even in this brave, new world where Lincoln Riley would decide to swap Oklahoma’s imminent departure to the SEC for the challenge of resurrecting USC, was how he had built upon his 43-8 record in the previous four years to lead the Irish to an 11-1 regular season and a #6 ranking from the playoff committee heading into Thanksgiving. It would only take a bit of chaos on Championship Game Saturday to see Notre Dame sneak into a CFP semi-final for the third time in four years, cementing the programme’s place in the second tier of CFB teams, just behind Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. And possibly Georgia, if we’re reviewing this list in mid-January.
2021 had seen Kelly finally overtake Knute Rockne’s all-time wins record in South Bend and record five successive double-digit win seasons for the first time ever at Notre Dame. And ironically some around the programme felt that this season had been one of his best ever coaching jobs at ND, given the amount of injuries and lost talent that he had had to overcome.
Four 2020 Offensive Linemen went to the NFL, along with their QB. The new OL took time to settle, a process exacerbated by injuries that resulted in four different starters at LT. Jack Coan eventually found his feet at QB, but only after Kelly had had to juggle three different QBs in various games. The defence lost perhaps its best LB in pre-season and played half a season without the nation’s top Safety, and its best player, Kyle Hamilton.
Kelly’s critics would point to some of his own decisions that led to the hole he and his team found themselves in, but in fairness the in-season job to cope with adversity and improve across the board was truly as impressive as it was pleasantly surprising.
Twelve Years A Coach
His twelve years in South Bend can be split into two distinct eras. 2010 to 2016 saw him go 59-31 and reach the BCS Championship Game in only his third season. But either side of that 12-1 2012 campaign he only reached double-digit wins once, with arguably his best collection of talent in 2015. Throw in the academic scandal of the ‘frozen five’ in 2013 and it was far from all plain sailing. And then the wheels well and truly came off in a disastrous 4-8 season in 2016.
What happened after the conclusion of the 2016 season should earn Kelly the undying gratitude of a number of FBS head coaches, as well as a percentage of the money he helped them earn. Clay Helton and Jim Harbaugh in particular were two of the biggest beneficiaries of Kelly sitting down with his AD and agreeing to wholesale changes in order to successfully turn the programme around.
Nothing new there in one sense, but in Kelly’s case Notre Dame 2.0 was hugely successful in relative terms and allowed other beleaguered coaches to persuade their own ADs to give them more time and try to ‘do a Brian Kelly’. Helton only managed a couple more seasons out of it but Harbaugh is currently a work in progress so we shall see.
Kelly replaced his OC, DC and Strength and Conditioning Coach. The final five seasons of Kelly 2.0 saw the Irish go 54-9 and reach the college football playoff twice, and end the 2021 regular season only just on the outside looking in. And right now there are probably around 125 other FBS schools who would love to be in Notre Dame’s overall position.
Human nature being what it is, sustained success only serves to raise fans expectations and the Irish faithful are no different. It may seem surprising to outsiders but a significant proportion of the fanbase felt that he had taken ND as far as he could and that, grateful and all as they were for the job he had done transforming the programme from where it was in 2009, they were at least open to the idea that some fresh blood, with a different skill set to Kelly, might be more successful. And there has always been a minority who flat out never warmed to him and would happily have driven him to Baton Rouge themselves.
When you look at how stable the programme is right now, it’s hard to recall just how much of a mess it was in back in 2009 after Charlie Weis’s departure as Head Coach. Kelly was the ‘Programme Builder’ that AD, Jack Swarbrick, felt the school desperately needed and he evolved into an excellent CEO with a reputation for letting his assistant coaches coach. And the talent level across the roster is hugely improved compared to when he arrived.
And talking of his arrival in 2009, it is perhaps ironic to see so many Irish fans desperately upset at the unpleasant manner of his exit this week. Twelve years ago this was precisely the way in which he left Cincinnati…
So why leave? And why now? Publicly Kelly has spoken of being presented with a fresh challenge that he simply couldn’t turn down. And Swarbrick, in his first post-departure press conference, talked about how he had had a sense for a while that Kelly was open to a move to pastures new. Twelve years is a long time in any job and Kelly has always had an eye for at least looking at what is out there. He interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles before the players had barely finished showering after their BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama in January 2013.
Some have alluded to dissatisfaction around facilities, relative to the other top schools, but the Irish have undertaken a massive programme of improvements during his tenure. And will continue to do so. I’d presume one of the key drivers, if not the main one, is his desire to win a National Championship and the talent he feels is required to do so. And this is where both his move and the subsequent decisions back in South Bend by Swarbrick get interesting.
Kelly had a contract with ND to 2024, said to be worth around $7.5m per year in total. The Irish appeared to have no plans to extend that further at the moment. LSU, in desperate need of a Head Coach, and with an AD who not only likes to make splashy hires, but who also has the funds to pay over the odds if required, were prepared to offer $95m over ten years, 90% fully guaranteed (100% if he were to win a National Championship). So that’s an extra six years to try to achieve his dream. Bear in mind that back in 2014 when Notre Dame signed a home and home deal with Texas A&M for 2024 and 2025, Kelly famously opined that by that stage he would be “sipping a mai tai on the beach”. Now it seems he’ll be on the sideline in Tiger Stadium instead.
I’d imagine Kelly feels it is easier to assemble the talent required to win an NC at LSU than with the Irish. Which in turn brings us to probably the most important aspect of this whole story: recruiting. Shortly I’ll look at how Kelly might fare in Louisiana and the SEC and the first thing to bear in mind in relation to that is also the most relevant issue here: Brian Kelly doesn’t like recruiting.
Yes, his playoff teams were good, but they lacked key depth, as well as top QB development. The 2018 semi-final with Clemson summed this up perfectly. Most CFB fans remember only the final score – 30-3 – and many will happily use it as an excuse to mock Notre Dame’s ability to compete at the very highest level. The reality, however, was significantly more nuanced.
With 28 minutes played, the score was 9-3 to Clemson and the Irish defense was holding Trevor Lawrence and co. in check. The Notre Dame DL, with four starters now in the NFL, played exceptionally well. And Julian Love, ND’s best CB, who would be drafted in the 4th round that Spring was closing down Clemson’s best receivers. He then had to leave the game with a head injury, and in the final two minutes of the first half, Lawrence torched his backup, Donte Vaughn, for TD passes to Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. The Irish held Clemson to seven points in the second half but the game was never in doubt.
That lack of backup depth was critical. And it was down to recruiting not being good enough to compete at that level. And the person ultimately responsible for that was Mr B Kelly, Esq. But, I hear you say, you can’t recruit that level of talent to Notre Dame. Academic restrictions. Small town. Cold weather. Not enough pretty girls. You have to go to Mass every day. Those shibboleths we shall come back to when looking at the potential replacements for Kelly.
What Are They Getting In Baton Rouge?
In three words? “Not Ed Orgeron”. They are getting a 60 year head football coach who has an absolute wealth of experience, with over 30 years in coaching, and who has won at a high level wherever he has been. Who knows what it takes to have an unbeaten regular season and make the playoffs. He is a great programme builder who has made some excellent co-ordinator hires in the second half of his time in South Bend. He is used to dealing with high quality student athletes in a disciplined environment. And he does not like recruiting.
Some Head Coaches live and breathe it. Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day. These guys seem to genuinely enjoy grinding on the recruiting trial. Brian Kelly, not so much. In his final season at ND he noticeably got much more involved, in relative terms, and the outcomes improved accordingly. Curiously those who have interacted with him face to face in this particular environment almost invariably compliment him on his ability to come across very engagingly. He just doesn’t seem to want to do it as much as many of his competitors at the very top of the profession. So how that will play out in Baton Rouge and the SEC will certainly be interesting to observe.
Many irate Notre Dame fans bear him, and by extension his new team, nothing but ill will in the coming seasons. I have to confess I am not one of them. I am genuinely fascinated to see how his tenure unfolds in this new environment for him. I can’t see how it won’t be something of a culture shock on both sides.
It will be curious to see how the players, admin, fans and media take to his ‘right kind of guys’ and constant talk of ‘traits’. And his unique sense of humour – think ‘dad jokes’ but less funny – may be eye-opening to a new audience. But in a role where hob-nobbing with politicians apparently is part of the job description, the son of a Boston Democrat alderman should be able to fit in to some extent.
There’s always the possibility that he’ll cause some friction and rub some people up the wrong way, but in the cynical world of college football, how that is ultimately received will depend almost entirely on results on the field. That which people can happily put up with when you’re beating Alabama and A&M in the SEC West, can very quickly become another item on the list of ‘reasons we want rid of you’ if you lose four games a season. ‘C’est la vie’, as the French-speaking denizens of Louisiana might put it.
Where Now For Notre Dame?
This is where I’m taking my life in my hands by trying to write something that could well be overtaken by events before I even get the chance to e-mail it to the editor, let alone have it read by your good selves.
I’d suggest there are three main candidates worth focusing on right now. So in reverse order:
His mid-west ties together with the excellent job he has done building the Iowa State programme over the last few years have obviously not gone unnoticed and he has declined other lesser jobs in that time, perhaps holding out for a blueblood like ND, Ohio State or Michigan.
Legendary ND coach, Ara Parseghian, first brought himself to the attention of Notre Dame by beating them four straight years as HC at Northwestern. Fickell hasn’t quite managed that, but his 24-13 win in South Bend earlier this season certainly highlighted his credentials. What he has achieved at a G5 school in Cincinnati is remarkable, bringing them to the brink of the first ever playoff appearance for a G5 team. And there is obviously a precedent for the Irish swooping in to pluck a HC from the Ohio school!
Another coach with primarily mid-western roots who was DC at Cincinnati before upgrading to the same role at Notre Dame. By Fall camp many fans wanted him declared coach-in-waiting. After a slightly rocky start the same people were comparing him to Brian van Gorder, an insult of such magnitude that only ND fans can truly grasp how insulting to one’s very core it is. And by the end of regular season they are now ready to put Jack Swarbrick’s head on a stick if he not announced as the new HC yesterday.
Actually I say three main candidates but for the week that’s in it, would anyone be truly surprised if we woke up tomorrow morning to learn that some of ND’s richest fans had stumped up and persuaded Nick Saban to come to South Bend for $20m a year?! After all he IS a practising Catholic with mid-west roots who might ‘fancy a new challenge’…? Does anyone have Jimmy Dunne and Tom Mendoza’s numbers?
Recruiting Recruiting Recruiting!
But seriously the biggest thing to note in relation to the search is where the programme is right now. ND doesn’t need a programme builder. This is not Notre Dame in 2009. It’s much closer to what Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer handed over when they left Oklahoma and Ohio State respectively. And for me that is perhaps the best indicator of the direction of travel ND should be on.
Notre Dame has hired HCs before who had no head coaching experience. Generally it did not go well. But this is not 1981. And no harm, but Marcus Freeman is not Gerry Faust. The success of first time Head Coaches such as Lincoln Riley and Ryan Day, never mind Dabo Swinney, should give some comfort that the likes of Marcus Freeman can excel in the role.
It’s hard to understate to those outside ND football just how much of an impression Freeman has made in less than a year in his post at Notre Dame. With recruits, players, coaches and admin. He has almost single-handedly raised ND’s recruiting game and showed that perhaps contrary to what Brian Kelly had effectively demonstrated, it is possible to attract top talent to South Bend. It’s remarkable how much more cosmopolitan and warm South Bend seems to appear to recruits when someone with Freeman’s personality and drive is so heavily involved in the process. And is able to point out that the negative recruiting claim about having to go to Mass every day is complete nonsense.
It’s always natural when replacing a sporting coach to be tempted to just go for someone who is the opposite of their predecessor, or who has the one skillset the previous person didn’t, even if they themselves lack other key attributes. In this case, however, the focus on recruiting ability is simply a sensible recognition of the one missing piece in the jigsaw to try to finally get Notre Dame football over the hump to National Championship success.
I’m not the biggest fan of Kirby Smart as an in-game coach. There’s a time and a place for fake punts and his views on the subject clearly differ from mine. But he is one heck of a recruiter. And he was not wrong when he explained that a great coach with average talent isn’t going to beat a less gifted coach with a much more talented roster.
The appointment of a strong recruiter ought to generate a lot of excitement for Notre Dame fans, especially if they can come in fairly quickly, keep the 2022 recruiting class largely intact and win the NY6 bowl game the Irish will likely appear in. That combination would be quite the momentum builder for a team that will open the 2022 season at Ohio State, finish it at USC, and host Clemson along the way.
We now seem to live in a CFB world where the entry requirement for new HC contracts is as close to $100m as makes no odds. The entry requirement to playoff success though remains the same: high-level talent on the roster, and lots of it. For Notre Dame to win its first NC of the current century, it needs to take its recruiting to the level Kelly said he wanted to get to, but never achieved: top five. Is that even possible? Even if Freeman doesn’t get the job he has demonstrated that with the right people, yes, it very much is. The ball is in Jack Swarbrick’s court.
A VERY LONG-DISTANCE SUBWAY ALUMNUS OF NOTRE DAME, COUNTY ANTRIM-BASED STIOFÁN HAS BEEN A FAN OF THE FIGHTING IRISH SINCE 2000. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SMACFHILIB.