BATON ROUGE — Brian Kelly arrived at LSU doing a southern accent so badly that he will get a starring role when they do The Big Easy remake.
Then he tried to dance in a recruiting video and nailed “the white man’s overbite” from Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally.
But since then, the former Notre Dame coach has begun “the process,” a term famously repeated by former LSU coach Nick Saban when he drastically turned the program around beginning in November of 1999.
The roster is not the greatest. But considering where it was in that bayou disaster film called the Texas Bowl last January 4 when the Tigers lost 42-20 to Kansas State, Kelly has performed miracles that would make the Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame Stadium proud. LSU had 39 players on scholarship in that game. The Tigers are in the 70s now with their spring game on Saturday (2 p.m. eastern, ESPN +, SEC Network +) and will be at 84 by early August, Kelly said.
Kelly has tossed his dancing shoes and dialect dalliances away and put his head down. He is not complaining about the transfer portal. He’s a frequent flyer on it and desperately needed something like that. And now, he has the makings of a decent team that could win eight games next season, which would be just three away from the total number of wins between the last two LSU teams.
Saban won just eight games in his first season at LSU in 2000, but it was clear the team was going places. It just looked better coached.
“LSU football from an organizational perspective is so much better. So happy to see the program I love reverting back to a Saban approach,” said @HeightsTiger on Twitter on Monday.
Other than Saban himself, Kelly is clearly the most Saban-like coach at LSU since Paul Dietzel (1955-61). Dietzel inherited a 5-6 team and won a national championship in his fourth season in 1958. Saban inherited a 3-8 team after the 1998 season and won LSU’s next national championship in his fourth season in 2003.
The next two coaches, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron, won national titles in their third full seasons, but they also inherited winning programs and very talented rosters. They didn’t have to build from the ground up.
And after each national title under Miles and Orgeron, the team plummeted — from 12-2 and 6-2 in the SEC in 2007 to 8-5 and 3-5 in 2008 and from 15-0 and 8-0 in 2019 to 5-5 and 6-7 in 2020 and ’21. Dietzel and Saban maintained better after national titles — from 11-0 and 6-0 in 1958 to 9-2 and 6-1 in 1959 and from 13-1 and 7-1 in 2003 to 9-3 and 6-2 in 2004.
Kelly, much like Saban, doesn’t waste time, and he doesn’t suffer fools. Kelly doesn’t try to be cute. Not since the dance video, anyway.
He exudes organization. You can just feel it.
“It’s really about trying to build strong habits,” Kelly said of a daily health questionnaire he has all players fill out. “The consistency of approach is really important to me. To do it once in a while is not really going to effect change.”
Saban liked to say his coaching often boiled down to one thing: changing behavior.
Daily good habits change behavior by growing into traits, Kelly likes to say.
“Where do you see that? They don’t jump offsides,” Kelly said. “They make good decisions. They’re on time. They’re not going to make foolish mistakes. It goes to winning. When people ask me about winning, I talk about good habits. They’re all intertwined in some fashion.”
As much as LSU won from 2005-19, it was plagued by sloppy, foolish and penalty-ridden play at times. Truth is, LSU has not been a disciplined, well-drilled, low-penalized team since Saban left.
But don’t listen to me and @HeightsTiger. Listen to what Kelly’s current players and coaches say about him.
Here are the top five most revealing quotes about Brian Kelly since spring football began:
5 – “He’s transparent. Coach Kelly said the best player is going to play quarterback.” … Transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels from Arizona State.
4 – “It’s easy to coach under him in this way — everything’s defined. The vision’s defined. The work day’s defined. The attention to detail that you need as a program is defined. Very little guessing. And I’ve been at some places where you kind of feel your way. He’s very open to ideas, but at the same time, there’s a definite road map.” … Defensive coordinator Matt House.
3 – “Coach said we’re going to be a long-run team. We’re not going to be here for the short. I’ve only known him for two or three months, but I can already feel the energy.” … Sophomore wide receiver/tight end Jack Bech.
2 – “I wasn’t shocked by him leaving Notre Dame. He’s always been someone who’s up for a challenge. He’s always been someone who is a builder or a resurrector. ” … Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.
1 – “Complete 180. Hasn’t been smooth all the way. But the one thing Coach Kelly has harped on is accountability. There’s really no pushing stuff to the side. If you’re late, you’re late, and there’ll be consequences. Everything’s mandatory — tutoring, class. And there’s no getting around it. If you don’t do it, you’re going to get called in. Some guys may have previously been able to get out of it. Now, we all have to be accountable to each other.” … Sixth-year senior quarterback Myles Brennan.