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BATON ROUGE – Just when LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s search for a football coach was looking pedestrian, he rallied with a two-minute offense for the blockbuster hire of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Monday.
Kelly, 60, accepted the job Monday at a price of $95 million over 10 years, LSU said in a release Tuesday morning. He will be introduced at a press conference at noon on Wednesday.
Kelly is the winningest coach in Notre Dame history on the field at 113-39 (.743 winning percentage from 2010-21) as he passed the iconic Knute Rockne (105-12-5 from 1918-30) with a win over Wisconsin on Sept. 25. The NCAA took away Notre Dame’s 12 wins in 2012 and its nine wins from 2013 for academic misconduct.
He is also the first head coach since the early 1900s to leave Notre Dame for another immediate head coaching job without being fired.
“Brian Kelly is the epitome of a winner,” Woodward said. “His credentials and consistency speak for themselves.”
Kelly is the most accomplished LSU football head coaching hire in history at the time of the hire. He is 54-9 over the last five seasons at Notre Dame with College Football Playoff appearances in the 2018 and ’20 seasons. Notre Dame could be headed to the Playoff this season as well as it is 11-1 now and No. 6 in the CFP rankings and could move up in that poll tonight.
Kelly took Notre Dame to the BCS national championship game in 2012, just his third season, before losing to Alabama. He took the Irish to the College Football Playoff semifinals in the 2018 and ’20 seasons before losses to eventual champions Clemson and Alabama.
Kelly will replace Ed Orgeron, who was fired after a 3-3 start this season before staying on as a lame duck coach and finishing 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC — two years after winning the national championship at 15-0 in the 2019 season. The Tigers dropped to 5-5 in 2020. Orgeron will receive a $17 million buyout over the next four years.
“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion of LSU Football,” Kelly said. “Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”
Kelly will not coach Notre Dame in the playoffs or in a bowl, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday. So, he is expected to coach LSU in a bowl if it receives a bid at 6-6 and 3-5.
Kelly announced the news to his Notre Dame team in a group text late Monday, according to Pete Sampson, who covers the Irish for The Athletic.
“Men, let me first apologize for the late night text, and, more importantly, for not being able to share the news with you in person that I will be leaving Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I am flying back to South Bend tonight to be able to meet with you in the morning, but the news broke out late today. And I am sorry you found out through social media or news reports.”
Kelly was to meet with the Irish players on Tuesday morning.
“Just know that my love for you is limitless, and I am so proud of all that you have accomplished,” he said. “Our program is elite because of your hard work and commitment, and I know that will continue.”
Kelly and his family were expected to land in Baton Rouge at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, and LSU asked its fans to welcome him at the airport.
“I am fully committed to recruiting, developing and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud,” Kelly said.
Woodward’s swift hire of Kelly came just a day after his top target — Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley — took the USC job on Sunday. But there were reports as early as Nov. 1 by Lee Brecheen, a statewide recruiting and high school football expert who publishes Louisiana Football Magazine, that Woodward was very interested in Kelly.
Riley’s record over the last five years is remarkably similar to Kelly’s, as he is 55-10 with three Playoff appearances, but Riley is just 38 and would have been LSU football’s first hire of a true offensive coordinator head coach. The Sooners are 10-2 after a 37-33 loss at No. 7 Oklahoma State and No. 10 in the CFP rankings.
Riley, who was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator in 2015 and ’16 and learned under offensive mastermind Mike Leach as an assistant at Texas Tech, has had offenses clearly more flashy and progressive than Kelly. Riley has three top 15 finishes in passing offense in the nation over the last five seasons to zero in the top 35 by Kelly, whose attacks can be stodgy. But Kelly does tend to get the most out of his quarterbacks.
Oklahoma was No. 3 in passing offense in the nation in 2017 (361.8 yards a game), No. 7 in 2018 (322.9), No. 18 in 2019 (297.4), No. 14 in 2020 (315) and No. 30 this season (265.2). Notre Dame was 102nd in passing offense in the nation in 2017 with 178.9 yards a game, No. 36 in 2018 (257.5), No. 49 in 2019 (252.2), No. 58 in 2020 (237.4) and is No. 33 now (233.6).
Kelly’s background as an assistant coach was all on defense, but he has decades more head coaching experience than Riley as Kelly previously led programs at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan, from 1991-2003 with Division II national championships in 2002 and ’03, Central Michigan from 2004-06 and Cincinnati from 2007-2009 before going to Notre Dame.
Woodward may say he never offered Riley the job, but Riley may have told him no before an offer came. And athletic directors often ask a coach they have targeted if he would accept the job, if offered, thus giving athletic directors deniability because they can say they didn’t actually offer the job. The bottom line is, regardless of what Woodward or LSU people may say or spin now, Woodward clearly wanted Riley. As of last week, Woodward thought he had Riley.
And good for Woodward for swinging for the fences. He tried to get Riley. But USC is a better job than LSU based in several ways, including quality of life and weather in the Los Angeles area and proximity to quarterbacks, not to mention Hollywood. Two of the top quarterbacks in the SEC are from the Los Angeles area – Bryce Young of Alabama and Matt Corral of Ole Miss – as well as Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels. Riley could also likely dominate the Pac-12 quicker than the SEC. Better to play Nick Saban and Alabama or Kirby Smart and Georgia in the the playoffs instead of for SEC West or SEC titles.
Woodward also likely offered, or would have offered, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, whom Woodward hired in blockbuster fashion from Florida State to Texas A&M after the 2017 season when Woodward was the Aggies’ athletic director. But Fisher was never interested.
Woodward was never interested in Louisiana coach Billy Napier, a winning and rising young coach of 42 whom Florida snatched up over the weekend with just a week or two of work after Woodward had been looking since early October. Napier could soon haunt LSU the way Steve Spurrier did after LSU passed on him after the 1986 season when he was 41. Had LSU not hired Napier before Florida entered the picture, though, Napier would have likely gone to Florida over LSU anyway. Equal jobs for the most part, but better quality of life in central Florida, especially considering proximity to DisneyWorld for the kids.
Kelly is not as great a hire as Riley would have been because of Riley’s aerial exploits and his youth, but Kelly is a great hire. And as young as Riley is, Kelly could be at LSU longer as there is an excellent chance Riley will leave the Trojans for an NFL job from USC sooner than Kelly retires from LSU, which will likely be his last stop.
Kelly is also clearly a better hire than some of the other candidates Woodward considered, such as Dave Aranda, a former LSU defensive coordinator who is in just his second season as a head coach at Baylor, and Matt Campbell, who has been Iowa State’s coach since 2016 and previously was at Toledo, but would have been a tough sell and lacks the splash ripples of Kelly.
Funny, when LSU hired Nick Saban from Michigan State after the 1999 season, the fear was he would leave for the NFL — which he did a year after the 2003 national title — or for Notre Dame.
LSU now has the winningest coach in Notre Dame history.
The question is this. Will Kelly be as successful as Woodward’s previous hires at LSU? In just the last seven months, Woodward hired women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, who won three national titles at Baylor, in April and hired baseball coach Jay Johnson, who twice took Arizona to the College World Series, in June.
It has been a whirlwind for Woodward, who may have another hire to make soon with the conclusion looming of the NCAA’s voluminous investigation of men’s basketball coach Will Wade.
But for now, he deserves a break. Woodward may soon be able to just sit back and watch the championships flow in … and millions and millions of dollars flow out.