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ATLANTA — Brian Kelly has clearly learned a thing or two about staying in your cultural lane. In his first words at SEC Media Days — “Good afternoon” — he spoke with the Massachusetts accent of his birth, not the Foghorn Leghorn Cajun atrocity he attempted in his first public appearance as the Tigers’ head coach back in December.
At that game, Kelly stretched the word “family” into about five drawled syllables. Combine that with the cringeworthy dance moves he attempted while signing five-star quarterback Walker Howard — plus the awkward way he cut out on Notre Dame to take the LSU job in the first place — and it was fair to wonder, in the moment, if Kelly had stumbled face-first into a big ol’ pot of simmering gumbo.
Seven months and one spring practice season later, it’s clear Kelly’s got both feet firmly on the ground now. He’s earning the trust of his players. He’s luring in outside talent and learning the nuances of mining a talent-rich region. And he’s establishing a structure that could make LSU dangerous even in the toughest division in the toughest conference in college football. The Massachusetts coach and the Louisiana school are figuring out exactly how they fit together.
“Fit is about the ability to run a program at the highest level,” Kelly said. “I've done it for 32 years. I've had success at Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Central Michigan, wherever I've been. So running a program and then player development, I think those are the most important things.”
Getting LSU to a championship level has proven much easier than keeping it there. Ever since Nick Saban arrived on campus, LSU has suffered through a strange run of feast or famine, championship or catastrophe. Saban won in the 2003 season and soon afterward left for the NFL. Les Miles won in 2007 and lost in the title game to Alabama in 2011. Ed Orgeron led one of the great offenses in college football history to the 2019 season title … and was gone, thanks to a drop-off in performance and a chaotic behind-the-scenes operation, less than two years later.
Kelly arrived in December to a program that was squandering all of its vast opportunities, both because of geography and because of its SEC affiliation. Only 36 players were on scholarship when Kelly arrived, but he hit the transfer portal hard and started to establish a recruiting network in the labyrinthine world of Louisiana high schools.
Kelly has a plan that’s easy to say, difficult to execute: keep every key Louisiana recruit in the state, and pluck choice recruits from all over the rest of the country. He knows how to do the latter from a decade-plus on the national recruiting trail at Notre Dame, and he’s picking up tips on the former from knowledgeable Louisiana insiders.
“It's not just New Orleans and the greater Baton Rouge area. You have to get up north, all the way up through Shreveport, up to Monroe, all into the state of Louisiana,” he said. “Now, that doesn't mean you just take a kid from Louisiana because he's from Louisiana. If he's not rated as high, can you go out of state? Sure. But you better know the players in the state of Louisiana. That means the entire state. I think that's maybe where if I've gotten any feedback that maybe we needed to extend our recruiting efforts a little bit further north. I think we've done that.”
He’s also instituted a significant cultural change in Baton Rouge in moving away from the Orgeron Era, focusing on detail over bluster, data over feel, focus over disorder. So far, the players are buying in.
“As high-level players, we must take away what we did wrong the last couple seasons and make it better this season,” defensive end B.J. Ojulari said, “so we do not repeat the same mistakes.”
All the optimism in the state of Louisiana won’t put a single point on the board in September. Although Kelly hasn’t ever coached in the SEC — he mentioned Monday that he’s looking forward to visiting the Swamp and the Plains for the first time — he has felt the conference’s muscle. Alabama obliterated Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2012 season’s national championship game, and again knocked off the Irish 31-14 in the 2021 season Rose Bowl.
He’ll get a chance for revenge, of a sort, when Alabama comes to Baton Rouge on Nov. 5. He’ll also run the SEC gauntlet — Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M are all road games — in a serious case of careful-what-you-wish-for. If Kelly wrangles a winning record out of that schedule in 2022, he’ll quickly find out that nobody in Louisiana cares how he speaks or how he dances.
“I've gotten to love where I'm at in Baton Rouge,” he said. “I love the people. They love football. They love family. They love food. That fits me really well. I guess I should have been in the South all along.”
And if he can get LSU back to its winning ways, the people might just let him stay.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.