With the turn of the calendar page, we launch into the holiday season. Christmas revelers are shopping for gifts, bowl representatives are shopping for teams and college athletic directors are shopping for coaches.
It’s getting ugly out there.
Fans and media alike have taken aim at Brian Kelly, the new Head Ball Coach at LSU. Former workplace address: South Bend, Indiana, where he held the same position at the University of Notre Dame du Lac.
That’s the formal name of the school best known for college football. It means, in French, “Our Lady of the Lake” and Fighting Irish fans are wishing now that Kelly would go jump into one – or worse. He abandoned them and my media brethren have piled on.
It’s been much worse for Kelly than it has been for Lincoln Riley, accused simply of not having the cojones to coach in the Southeastern Conference when Oklahoma eventually makes the move. He chose what appears to be a cushier challenge at Southern Cal.
But it’s Kelly who has taken the brunt of the national criticism. The college football fan pounding on this keyboard says this: Spare me.
His move might have been handled better, no doubt. But Kelly is being ripped for a number of reasons, not many of which hold up.
Whenever a college coach, no matter what the sport, moves for a bundle of money, that’s the cue for fans and media folks alike to scream about the over-inflated contracts being handed out these days. No argument here.
As the father of a teacher who works with special-needs children, not to mention a police officer, I’m constantly reminded of which members of our society are under-paid and embarrassingly so. But that’s where we are right now, like it or not. Coaches, athletes, entertainers – many of them live like royalty while many who deserve it, don’t.
UK paid Mark Stoops a handsome sum to stay in place. If it hadn’t, someone else likely would have, sooner or later. It’s the cost of doing business, despite the fact that the first time his team falters, critics will battle for the head of the line, to be the first to say, “Waste of money.” His unprecedented success in the modern era says otherwise, at an appreciable volume. He’s done the work. Pay the man.
Kelly got huge money to make his move. Most of his players found out via social media. Welcome to the 21st century, where leaks abound. You can’t blame him unless it was the coach, his wife or his agent letting things slip. In the Twitterverse, nothing remains a secret very long.
As for contracts that seem to be cavalierly dismissed, keep in mind one thing: That door swings both ways.
Coaches almost without exception depart with multiple seasons remaining on their deals. Yes, they often include buyout clauses, sort of a parting gift for the institution that’s watching them trundle off to a bigger payday.
Media people and fans like to pretend they care about such things – the same folks who never blink when they decide it’s time for someone to get the pink slip. “Pay ’em off. Boosters will help with that,” they like to say. An AD once told me, “I hear that all the time. It never happens.”
Keep in mind – schools routinely fire coaches who contractually have more years coming to them.
That’s Dan Mullen on line one. Florida cut him loose before he was close to reaching the end of his first deal in Gainesville. His Gators played for the SEC title just last year.
The season before that, LSU entered the history books as one of the best teams ever in college football. Their coach, Ed Orgeron? Dumped before this season concluded.
Perhaps the best (or worst) example was TCU’s Gary Patterson. He all but invented modern-day Horned Frog football, in 20 seasons coaching Texas Christian to 17 bowl games (11 wins) and six titles in three different conferences. There’s a statue of the man on the Forth Worth campus, for crying out loud.
But the Froggies hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2018 and this season lost three straight, prompting the school to make a mid-season move on Patterson. He walked, rather than deal with lame-duck status.
When programs begin to stagger is when the howls begin, from fans and media alike. “Fire him,” they demand, with no thought of years remaining on contracts or the effect it might have on players, much less the cost to the school that has to pay him not to coach.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s good to cut and run. Orgeron’s program – and personal behavior – reportedly had spun out of control in the short time since the Bayou Bengals celebrated their national title. Recommended reading is Brody Miller’s piece in The Athletic, ” ‘He lost track of who he was’: Inside Ed Orgeron’s fall from celebrated son of Louisiana to LSU coaching pariah.”
But usually a job change is either about losing or the chance to win even bigger. That’s why Kelly left Notre Dame.
Yes, he’s signing on to coach in the tougher division of the toughest college football conference in the land. But his contract his huge, the facilities grand, the fan base rabid and the challenge to his liking.
Kelly appeared on “The Dan Patrick Show” on Fox Sports Radio Wednesday morning, as he often has through the years. Patrick asked tough questions; Kelly fielded them deftly with the exception of when Patrick asked, would Kelly have made the move if the Irish were ranked third in the CFP ratings? Meaning, in the national playoff picture? At that, Kelly hemmed, hawed and ultimately ducked.
Of his time at Notre Dame, Kelly said basically, “Mission accomplished.” Short of winning a national title, he did what he went there to do.
“The charge that I had was to modernize Notre Dame football,” he said, “to bring it back to relevance and consistency as one of the top programs in the country and we check all those boxes.”
He ain’t wrong. Under his tutelage, the Irish had five straight seasons of 10 or more wins. Only Alabama can make the same claim. And he leaves as the school’s all-time leader in victories.
Before Kelly arrived, Notre Dame football had become all but irrelevant. The Irish last won a national championship in 1988; they hadn’t finished in the final AP Top 25 since 2006, which was the last time they won 10 games. The following season, under then-coach Charlie Weis, they slumped to 3-9.
This is not a ringing endorsement of Kelly the person. What he did to get to Notre Dame was smarmy, bolting from a Cincinnati Bearcat team that had gone 12-0 and was preparing to play Central Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Not only did he leave, but he took some of his assistants with him.
UK network analyst Jeff Piecoro, who covered the Bearcats in his time as a talk-show host in Cincinnati, said UC quarterback Tony Pike told him that, heading into the bowl game, Pike was the one keeping the offensive unit organized. The Bearcats lost to the Knights, 51-24.
In that situation, Kelly hosed his players. Some say he did the same this week to the Irish. Veteran sportswriter Peter King described Kelly’s move as being a “kick in the crotch” to the Notre Dame players.
That may be the case because of the abrupt nature of the news. Kelly was on the west coast recruiting for Notre Dame, got on a private plane and by the time it had landed, he was the new head coach at LSU.
But whenever any coach leaves any job there are always complaints that the players are getting the short end. And they should not be forgotten in all of this.
But if there’s a positive spin it’s this: They have more freedom than they ever have, thanks to the transfer portal and the NIL deals they’re able to cut.
With coaches, however, the issue always seems to be timing and that is tied to one issue: Recruiting. Athletics directors will fire a coach midway through a season to get a head start on future players, sending the message that “We know things are messed up right now but we’re doing something about it.”
Coaches bolting before bowl games is another function of timing. The regular season ends, the recruiting season kicks into high gear and THEN teams head for their respective bowl game sites. They want to get a head start on recruiting for their new employer.
Ideally, coaches wouldn’t be allowed to move until the season is completely over. But then you’d have dozens of high school recruits who sat in their homes in December, listening to recruiting pitches from head coaches who have new jobs by early January. And such a mandate likely wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.
Coaches ignore contracts and move on. Administrators ignore contracts and fire coaches. Players are asked to ignore all the movement and pick a school based on something other than a relationship they might have built with a recruiter over the span of 18 months.
They system stinks. And there’s not much hope it will get any better.