Just when you thought the college football coaching carousel couldn’t get any wilder than Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma for USC, LSU stuns everyone by landing Brian Kelly from Notre Dame. Is this a smart move for the Tigers? What does this mean for an Irish team that could still make the playoff? And what could possibly be next? Our reporters break it down.
Is this the right move for LSU and Brian Kelly?
Tom VanHaaren: I don’t know what makes for a good hire anymore, but I don’t think this is a good fit. Kelly has coached in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana his entire career. He’s now going into the state of Louisiana to recruit and try to establish relationships. The timing is odd to me, because he just hired Marcus Freeman as his defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and was recruiting at the highest level Kelly has recruited at with Notre Dame. It seemed like he was building some momentum for the future and had established a foundation within the assistant coaches.
Alex Scarborough: I understand the notion that Kelly will be a fish out of water in Baton Rouge. I can’t picture him peeling a crawfish, either. But remember who took over the program in late 1999. Nick Saban didn’t have a single tie to the region when he arrived at LSU. He was a West Virginia kid who coached primarily in the Big Ten, and he made it work, winning a national championship in 2003. And I wonder if Kelly’s thought process in choosing LSU was that dissimilar from Saban’s back then when he felt he’d maxed out at Michigan State, looked around and realized that LSU was a gold mine in a state loaded with talent (it has the highest number of NFL players per capita in the country) and no Power 5 school in state to compete with.
Chris Low: LSU athletic director Scott Woodward was determined to get a big name, and he got one. Brian Kelly is one of the most established coaches in college football at one of the most storied programs in college football. He’s been able to recruit nationally at an elite level and has guided Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff in two of the past three seasons and the BCS national championship game to cap the 2012 season. But recruiting in the SEC ain’t (as they say down south) for everybody, and that’s ultimately going to be the big question with Kelly. Can he consistently recruit in the SEC footprint against the likes of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher? He was wise to keep some of the best recruiters from the previous staff. That way, he’s not starting all over again on the recruiting trail.
Mark Schlabach: Woodward promised LSU fans he’d land a whale, and while it wasn’t Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, he plucked one of the biggest names in the sport. Kelly’s run at Notre Dame was probably the second best in school history, behind only Knute Rockne, although he never guided the Irish to a national championship. I don’t know if he’s the right fit for the Tigers, but he was the best option left on the board. He recruited well at Notre Dame, despite its stiff academic requirements, so he and his staff won’t have a problem recruiting in talent-rich Louisiana.
What will be Kelly’s biggest challenge at LSU?
Scarborough: Building out his coaching staff and larger recruiting infrastructure is priority No. 1. Think about Kelly’s background. He grew up in Massachusetts and his coaching stops include Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. That doesn’t scream SEC, does it? While Kelly could cherry-pick high school players from across the country at Notre Dame, being at LSU requires owning the state of Louisiana and winning more than your fair share of battles in the Southeast. It requires building relationships in places like New Orleans, Houston and Atlanta. And those relationships aren’t easily forged. Kelly will need familiar faces to help keep the pipeline of talent to LSU open.
Heather Dinich: Forget recruiting and all of that. It will come with the territory and is easy to sell. The priority has to be the culture, and the acknowledgement of a Title IX lawsuit that in June added former coach Ed Orgeron as a defendant. There is also an ongoing NCAA investigation into the program. While LSU’s faceplant on the field since winning the national title has received the bulk of the attention, the university’s failures off of it can no longer be ignored. The lawsuit, which was first filed in April and accuses LSU of failing to properly investigate sexual misconduct allegations, obviously doesn’t invovle Kelly, but he inherits the situation. It didn’t leave with Orgeron. Kelly has to win big – and most importantly, he has to do it the right way every step of the way. Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame hasn’t exactly been squeaky clean. Last January, Notre Dame was placed on one-year probation for recruiting violations. While it pales in comparison to the allegations LSU currently faces, there can’t be — and shouldn’t be — any more missteps in Baton Rouge.
Schlabach: Kelly’s best player at Notre Dame this season was safety Kyle Hamilton, who is from Atlanta. Jerry Tillery, who in 2019 became the first Irish defensive lineman to be drafted in the first round in 22 years, is from Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s not like Kelly hasn’t recruited any players from the South. I’ve always said that LSU is one of the top two or three jobs in the country because almost every kid in that state grows up dreaming about playing for the Tigers. In Georgia, a lot of kids want to play for the Bulldogs, but just as many end up playing for Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and LSU because there’s so many. Kids from California leave for schools all over the country. Recruiting won’t be a problem for Kelly and his staff. Quite frankly, his biggest challenge is cleaning up the mess that Orgeron created over the last two seasons. LSU’s culture was broken, players were opting out left and right, and the coaching staff was a mess.
Adam Rittenberg: He needs to show he can be a pedal-down lead recruiter every day of the year. As a former Notre Dame assistant told me, Kelly is an excellent delegator, but recruiting doesn’t drive him the way it does some of the coaches he will compete with in the SEC. His adjustment to the way head coaches must recruit to succeed in this region and in this league will be significant. Kelly knows X’s and O’s and player development. Like Mark noted, he has recruited enough players from the region to Notre Dame. But whether he can program himself to dig into recruiting like the top coaches he will face remains a major question mark.
What should Notre Dame do now?
VanHaaren: I think Notre Dame should hire Marcus Freeman as the head coach. He has done an excellent job recruiting in a short amount of time at Notre Dame. He is a young coach who relates to the players and has well established relationships at the high school level in the Midwest. It would make for an easy adjustment and given the pool of available coaches, I don’t know who else would make a splash. Freeman hasn’t been a head coach before, but he has a lot of what it takes to be a head coach and I think he could build off of what the staff has done this season.
Dinich: Fickell, Fickell, Fickell. It makes perfect sense — he could win there on a big stage, and he would take over a program that is already a playoff contender and in excellent shape.
Low: This one’s almost too easy. Luke Fickell checks every box. He’s as solid a person as he is a football coach and would thrive in the Notre Dame culture. He’s a lifelong Midwesterner and has done a fabulous job of transforming Cincinnati’s program into a national contender. The tricky part becomes: What would he do if the Bearcats make the College Football Playoff? How would he navigate that timetable, because he’s not the type to just walk away from his team with so much at stake.
Scarborough: It’s about a two-hour drive from South Bend, Indiana, to Evanston, Illinois. If it’s me, I’m getting in a car, knocking on Pat Fitzgerald’s door and making him tell me no. I get it that he went to Northwestern and loves Northwestern because why else would he still be there, but he’s done his time and he has to know there’s a limit to what he can accomplish at his alma mater. At Notre Dame, the sky’s the limit, and unlike most head coaching opportunities, he wouldn’t be taking over a program that has fallen on hard times. He can walk right in — he doesn’t even have to get on a plane — and make a run at the playoff.
Schlabach: Fickell is the obvious choice, but Notre Dame is going to have to wait for him if the Bearcats make the playoffs. I know big-time programs don’t want to do that because of the early signing period, but they’re going to have to be patient if he’s the best candidate.
Rittenberg: The timing might just be off for Fickell, unless Notre Dame is willing to wait until January. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell wants this job and would be a strong choice to replace Kelly. His mentality would connect well with Notre Dame’s players, and he knows the area well after spending all of his pre-Iowa State career in his home state of Ohio. Freeman also would be a smart choice, despite his age and lack of head-coaching experience. He will get a big-time job soon, so why not get ahead of the pack and hire him now?
Could this affect Notre Dame’s playoff hopes?
Dinich: No. Because the selection committee doesn’t look ahead, Notre Dame’s 11-1 record is all the group will consider. While it’s certainly a unique situation for a playoff contender, the committee would treat it in the same way it would a team that could potentially lose a key starter for a semifinal, whether because of injury or suspension or any other reason. In 2014, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was injured in the regular-season finale against rival Michigan. The Buckeyes knew they would have to turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones for the Big Ten championship. The committee didn’t evaluate Ohio State without Barrett that week, though. Because of the win against Michigan, the committee moved the Buckeyes up one spot to No. 4 that week. They would evaluate Notre Dame the same way – to this point.
Schlabach: I certainly hope not. If the Irish are penalized because their coach inexplicably bailed on them right before they might be told they’re in the playoff, then everything is broken in college football. And that would be sad.
What’s the next most intriguing domino in the coaching carousel?
VanHaaren: I’m scratching my head about Oklahoma’s situation. I don’t know who they can hire to replicate what Lincoln Riley has built there. Sooners fans don’t want to hear this, but he brought a cool factor to Oklahoma in addition to his high-powered offense. It was everything recruits wanted in a program. He’s gone and a lot of prospects were going to Oklahoma more for Riley than the school itself. There aren’t many young coaches out there that could replicate that or give Oklahoma a similar feel.
Schlabach: What if Miami ultimately decides to fire Manny Diaz? The Hurricanes are looking for a new athletics director, after firing Blake James, and that might set off its own set of dominoes. Whoever is hired as AD will have to decide whether to keep Diaz, who is 21-15 in three seasons with the Hurricanes. If Diaz is let go, would the Hurricanes be able to pry Mario Cristobal former UM player Mario Cristobal away from Oregon and back to South Florida? If not, Miami might turn to Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, a deft play-caller who loves South Florida. As crazy as the last 48 hours have been, the coaching carousel might not be done spinning anytime soon.
Rittenberg: Miami is definitely a spot to watch, especially with the lingering athletic director situation. Speaking of ADs, I am fascinated to see what Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione does after Riley’s surprising exit. While many around OU are upset about losing Riley, the program wasn’t really that close to winning a national title with him. I see this as a chance for Oklahoma to restore its identity on defense and bring in someone with the personnel vision — not just the schematic vision — to lead the program into the SEC and back to the national championship stage.
Low: Everyone is going to be watching Oklahoma after Lincoln Riley traded in the SEC recruiting octagon for the Los Angeles sunshine, and really, who could blame him? But what about Duke? Yes, Duke. We know who Mike Krzyzewski’s replacement will be in hoops, but despite the record in recent years, replacing David Cutcliffe on the football sideline will be no easy task. Duke had foreclosed on football before Cutcliffe arrived, and he built the program back from the ashes. The Blue Devils reintroduced themselves to the bowl scene on Cutcliffe’s watch and even made an appearance in the ACC championship game. Ultimately, his hand was forced by Duke’s new administration, which now has to decide what are realistic expectations at Duke because Cutcliffe set bar as high as anybody since a guy named Steve Spurrier won a share of the ACC title in 1989.