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BATON ROUGE – New LSU football coach Brian Kelly realizes he was not the first choice of LSU athletic director Scott Woodward, but he hardly seemed to mind at his introductory press conference on Wednesday at Tiger Stadium.
“Maybe I was the back-burner for him, I don’t know,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t my search.”
But Kelly, 60, was delighted that Woodward’s search found him as he accepted a $95 million, 10-year contract to leave Notre Dame’s head coaching job after 12 seasons on Monday. He will be the highest-paid coach at a public university in the country.
“It’s an exciting day for me,” Kelly said. “It’s an incredible opportunity and challenge in my life. It’s just an honor and an exciting privilege for me to be here. I came down here because I want to be with the best.”
Woodward confirmed after the press conference that “other coaches” were spoken to since the search began in October with the firing of coach Ed Orgeron after a 3-3 start and a 5-5 season in 2020 following the 2019 national championship at 15-0.
“Sometimes you have multiple choices, and all are great choices,” Woodward said.
Woodward would not get specific, but those close to him and his search have confirmed that his first target was Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, whom Woodward hired at A&M when he was the athletic director there in 2017. Another major target was Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who appeared to be interested last week but instead took the USC job on Sunday.
Woodward did say the pecking order of candidates before a hiring does not always matter and brought up former USC coach Pete Carroll, who was not the first choice to be the Trojans’ head coach in 2001.
“He was the sixth or seventh choice,” Woodward said of Carroll, who won national championships in ’03 and ’04 at USC.
Kelly also said that Woodward convinced him to take the LSU job in less than an hour, but he did not say when that conversation took place. His “back-burner” comment, though, points to that happening weeks ago, then Woodward coming back after things did not work out with Fisher or Riley.
The same sources who first correctly said Woodward would hire Arizona’s Jay Johnson to be baseball coach last June confirmed this Fisher-Riley-Kelly scenario on Wednesday.
“I can tell you this. When you talk to Scott, he has a clear way of communicating,” Kelly said. “It was 45 minutes, and I had an understanding of where LSU was from a commitment and how this was going to look. I’d say that’s pretty quick. There was no back and forth. We had a very substantive conversation, and that was it.”
Kelly said the lure of playing against the elite of the SEC is not what got him to LSU. It was LSU.
“If LSU did not have the alignment and the leadership and the people and the desire for excellence, the SEC doesn’t really matter to me. It’s this university that happens to be in the SEC that matters to me the most. LSU with the cohesiveness of leadership across the board, and it’s in the SEC,” he said as his voice raised. “Ding, ding, ding. Right? If LSU was in another conference, I would be interested in LSU in another conference.”
Kelly also sounded like he was looking forward to Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night.
“The resources here are outstanding,” he said. “It starts with alignment, excellence, the standard of expectation. Listen, you’re looked at in terms of championships here. I want that. I want to be under the bright lights. I want to be on the Broadway stage. That’s what my passion is.”
Kelly also wants to win a FBS national championship – something that eluded him at Notre Dame three times as he lost to Alabama in the BCS national title game in the 2012 season, lost in the College Football Playoff national semifinals to eventual champion Clemson in the 2018 season and then lost to national champ Alabama last season.
“A university like this requires a championship every year,” he said. “I’m so excited to see that stadium filled.”
Kelly also seemed to have a knowledge of LSU fans’ patent on tailgating early morning and day and night.
“I want the fans here early, tailgating and having a great time and filling the stadium and being enthusiastic,” he said. “But we’ve got to put a great product on the field, too, so my job is to put an exciting, winning team on the field, and come early and stay late, if you’d like.”
LSU’s 2022 season starts on Sept. 4 against Florida State in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans with the home opener on Sept. 10 in Tiger Stadium against Southern. But before that, singer Garth Brooks will be in concert in Tiger Stadium on April 30.
“I’m pretty excited about that,” Kelly said. “That should be really cool. He’s really, really good.”
But first, there is a lot of work in front of him as he will be interviewing current LSU assistant coaches, hiring coaches, including from his Notre Dame staff, preparing LSU for a possible bowl and recruiting with the first signing date on Dec. 15.
“I believe that I can make a significant difference here,” he said.
So does Woodward, a graduate of LSU and a Baton Rouge native who has watched three LSU coaches win national championships in the last 18 years – Nick Saban in 2003, Les Miles in 2007 with a runner-up finish in 2011 to Saban at Alabama and Orgeron in 2019. Saban left a year after his title for the NFL, then Alabama. Miles was fired in 2016 after the program slipped, and Orgeron was fired after the program slipped.
“Success follows him wherever he goes,” Woodward said of Kelly, who won two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State in ’02 and ’03 and turned around programs at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
“All he does is win,” Woodward said. “His resume is unrivaled. Simply put, he checks every box. His winning days are just getting started. His plan to take this program to the next level is the same as ours. He’s not here to taste success. He’s here to sustain it.”
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