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It would only require one or two results this weekend – none of them farfetched – for Notre Dame to reach the College Football Playoff for the third time in four seasons, including each of the past two.
If it happens, Notre Dame will compete once again in the playoff … only this time without its head coach.
It is the latest example of a sport gone mad – with money, with realignment, with championship aspirations, with deception and ego, and power plays and who knows what other good soap opera stuff. Whatever it is, know this: Brian Kelly is expected to leave Notre Dame after 12 seasons to take over a rebuilding project at LSU.
The Tigers job, of course, opened in October because the school fired its coach, Ed Orgeron, just a season and a half after he led LSU to a national title.
Confused? Go ahead and be. It’s one cutthroat move begetting the next cutthroat move.
The only reason LSU decided on Kelly is because it couldn’t pry Lincoln Riley, who had his own powerhouse job at Oklahoma, to come to Baton Rouge. Instead Riley left the Sooners, whom he’d led to three playoff appearances, for USC, who has been a dysfunctional mess going on a decade.
Look, college football has always been a theater of the absurd, the playground of the desperate and depraved, a perfect cocktail of ridiculousness and boosters with money to burn. Yet even in the long annals of this wonderful, colorful, purely American creation, there has never been a 24 hours like this one.
If there was one constant it was that successful coaches at the biggest of programs stayed put, lording over fiefdoms until they lost their winning magic or were undone by age or scandal. Bear. Woody. Bo. JoePa. And so on and so on. Those guys never left. They never even looked. Even five years ago they didn’t.
That was a quaint era. This is something different, a relentless race to the perceived top where even the bluest of blue-blood programs can get poached in the flash of a new contract. It’s a time when schools have to hand over near tens of millions in extensions just to keep up-and-comers with only limited success. It’s a sport where the churn of who is going where overshadows the actual games.
Brian Kelly to LSU makes no sense; yet all the sense.
The first is simply the belief among college football coaches that nearly anyone can win a national title in Baton Rouge. Nick Saban resurrected the place and won it all in the 2003 season. Everyone respects that.
Afterward though, both Les Miles (2007) and Orgeron (2019) captured national titles as well, even though there is hardly a single coach in college football who thinks it was because of any schematic advantage either brought to the table. If anything, the championships were believed to have been won in spite of them.
So a coach of Kelly’s coaching acumen – he won two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State, built Cincinnati to a perfect season and is the winningest coach in Notre Dame history – figures how could I fail? At 60 years old, why not take one charge at all the marbles?
That’s the power of LSU. It has all the requisite facilities, budgets and institutional support a coach could dream up. More important, it’s the only Power 5 program in a talent-rich state where high school prospects hold incredible devotion to the place.
The athletes are there. And thus so is the chance to field a team capable of toppling Saban’s juggernaut in Alabama … or anyone else who gets in the way.
So as bizarre as it sounds at first, someone such as Kelly clearly believes it would be easier for him to take a team that went 11-11 over the past two years than continue with his Notre Dame program that is 44-6 since 2017 and may actually reach the playoffs ... six days from now.
And this despite the fact that Kelly’s recruiting is on a considerable upswing in South Bend, with a possible top-five group about to sign later this month and the start of an even stronger one for the Class of 2023.
The money, of course, will be enormous in Baton Rouge as well. But it’s not like Kelly is hurting for cash. The contracts are more about scoreboard keeping than anything else at this point.
It’s much of the same sentiment that led Riley to leave Oklahoma, a program that was humming on all cylinders and had years of incredible recruits lined up to play there. OU, however, had decided it was moving out of the more winnable Big 12 – where the Sooners reigned supreme – to the SEC, where the sledding is tougher.
So Riley bounced to USC, where the road to the playoff and a national title – plus lots of local recruiting talent – should be easier. At least, that’s the theory.
Now Oklahoma and Notre Dame are looking to grab someone else to remain relevant to their rabid, win-now fan bases. The cycle spins.
Loyalty is a rare thing anymore. Not for the coaches, but also not the schools. Coach O wouldn’t have been fired so quickly a decade ago. Dan Mullen doesn’t get bounced out of Florida after one bad year and some shaky recruiting rankings. Jimmy Lake wouldn’t have been let go at Washington after just 13 games.
Everything is next, next, next … it’s not even now, now, now.
Certainly not when Brian Kelly, staring down another playoff appearance, flat out gives up the winner he built and figures he has a better chance somewhere else.
And they used to get upset when the players sat out bowl games.
Days of innocence, it was.