If Brian Kelly had a dollar for every mean tweet circulated about him during the week after he became the new head football coach of the LSU Tigers, he’d be sitting on a pile of money about $95 million high.
Oh, man, how about that?
It was Kick Kelly week in America after he left behind Notre Dame and its 11-1 season for a new position in Baton Rouge. When that week was over, though, Kelly still had that bag and a revealing pattern emerged in the rankings announced by the College Football Playoff committee.
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The No. 4 team was the Cincinnati Bearcats, the program he essentially invented nearly two decades ago, taking over a nicely built roster from previous coach Mark Dantonio and energizing a community that was indifferent to college football generally and particularly the brand played at UC. Kelly built the stage that has made a star of current coach Luke Fickell.
The No. 5 team was Notre Dame, the program Kelly invigorated with his gift for offensive football and his tenacity. The Irish had gone through three coaches unable to win even 60 percent of their games in the dozen years before he arrived — four if you count George O’Leary, who resigned before coaching a game because of discrepancies in his resume. The Irish were only 91-67 in 13 years before Kelly. They were 106-39 with him, which included two CFP appearances, one in the BCS title game and a 54-9 record the past five seasons.
Precisely 20 percent of this season’s most accomplished teams owe a huge amount of their success to Kelly. If there was any doubt, there’s your proof that LSU hired itself one hell of a football coach to take over for Ed Orgeron. Kelly is easily the best to grace the campus since Nick Saban left in 2004 to try the NFL.
And the Tigers won two national titles since.
It’ll be an upset if Kelly doesn’t find a way to make that three sometime in the next half-dozen years.
It was astounding how many were astounded that Kelly would leave Notre Dame at this point. When I visited with him in September on the eve of his ascent to the top of the Fighting Irish list for career coaching victories — he was set to break a record Knute Rockne had held for 90 years — it was not lost on him that ND had been a daunting place for even its most successful coaches.
Ara Parseghian lasted only 11 seasons on the job, even though he won two national championships and 84 percent of his games. Lou Holtz won one championship and could have won another but left after 11 years. Dan Devine won the 1977 national title but had enough after six years.
Kelly told me he was unaware of that history when he left Cincinnati in 2009 to become Irish head coach.
“I really didn’t know about that until a few years into it and then I thought: Huh, what a coincidence!” Kelly said then. “I thought about the job even more and, OK, it makes sense to me.”
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Kelly’s tenure of 12 seasons is the longest of any Irish coach since Rockne. It might have been Kelly’s mistake to leave for another college than for a television gig, like Parseghian and Holtz.
Because the absurd mechanics of college football recruiting place so much emphasis on the month of December — it’s not the new early signing period, because coaches were doing this long before Kelly abandoned the Bearcats in advance of the 2009 Sugar Bowl — colleges demand that their new hires get to work immediately on that vital aspect of program building. Kelly left with ND technically still available to be selected for the CFP, although it would have taken a longshot combination of results.
It would have been preferably had Kelly and LSU been able to withhold their announcement until the CFP field was established and Notre Dame was absent, but the stupid recruiting rules allowed — no, encouraged — programs not competing in conference title games to actively visit prospects last week. Delaying meant disadvantage.
There is no graceful way for a college coach to accept a new position, especially in football. No one in men’s basketball since Bill Frieder in 1989 has dared take a new job before the NCAA Tournament ends for his team, but timing is less consequential because the recruiting calendar — while more demanding on the coaches — makes better sense for the structure of the sport. In football, you get out and get to work on your new program or you get left behind.
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There are aspects of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame that warrant criticism, perhaps even vilification. The incident in 2011, when student worker Declan Sullivan died because the portable tower where he stood while filming a team practice was knocked over by a strong wind, was a horror. Kelly never was assigned formal blame — Notre Dame was fined by Indiana’s OSHA — but that circumstance always will be revisited in discussions about his career.
The histrionics regarding the etiquette of his departure for LSU, however, were as overproduced as a Marvel movie. It was time for him to move on. Unlike his most successful predecessors in the post-Rockne era, Kelly was not compelled to avoid coaching football as a means of recovering from the demands of running the Irish. He can do what he does best — what he does better than most — and be paid handsomely for the effort.
Kelly will be a part of this year’s College Football Playoff only in spirit, but he’ll be there in the flesh before you know it.