From Touchdown Jesus To Death Valley

Rick Sarro Tuesday, January 4, 2022 Comments Off on From Touchdown Jesus To Death Valley
From Touchdown Jesus To Death Valley

I’m sure LSU athletic director Scott Woodward has caught his share of largemouth bass, speckled trout, maybe a few monster reds and a trophy tarpon or two. He can now add a whale to that list.

Woodward sat back and watched Florida get the waves rolling with the hiring of UL-Lafayette’s red hot Billy Napier. It made a ripple of sorts in the SEC.

A short time later, he saw USC make a headline-grabbing splash by luring Oklahoma’s offensive savant Lincoln Riley to Rodeo Drive, Hollywood, and the bright lights of Los Angeles.

A day and a half later, with LSU fans squirming about and getting antsy, Woodward emptied the pool, if you will, with the big whale — the sort of huge splash hire he has come to be known for, by naming Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly as LSU’s new head football coach.

Don’t kid yourself and discount the brand power and history of Notre Dame football. 

This was an unexpected move by the 60-year-old Kelly, who was seemingly entrenched after an 11-1 season. In an odd twist, it was an expected maneuver by Woodward, who certainly lived up to his ever-growing reputation as a stellar back room salesman and negotiator.

No other Fighting Irish coach has ever left South Bend’s storied program on their own accord for any reason other than retirement. Brian Kelly did so after a 45-minute phone call from Woodward, who must have laid out a features and benefits type sales pitch that would make Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins proud.

On the flip side of this courtship, Woodward had to sense that Kelly, who has turned down other college and NFL inquiries before, might be willing and ready to jump ship with the right kind of incentives.

A 10-year contract worth more than $100 million with added bonuses and perks was no doubt a huge part of Woodward’s ability to close the sale.  But I think one reality finally hit Kelly square on his Irish noggin.

He could get Notre Dame in the playoffs and maybe into another national championship game. But he knew the odds were long for his winning a national title by coaching the Fighting Irish. Kelly had to know he couldn’t beat the very top teams with the high academic standards at Notre Dame that shackled his recruiting efforts. Then there’s also the problem of trying to lure 4 and 5 star recruits from warm and sunny California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia to the grey and cold flatlands of South Bend, Ind.

Don’t get me wrong. Kelly has done some nice work over his 12 years with the Fighting Irish: five straight 10-win seasons, two college football playoff spots and that BCS national championship berth in 2013. He has been able to recruit some speed during the last five years, but still not enough to consistently beat the likes of Alabama, Clemson, LSU (Kelly’s, 2018 Fighting Irish rallied to beat LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl), Ohio State or Florida when it really counts.

The final College Football playoff rankings had Notre Dame on the bubble, just outside the final four with a No. 5 ranking.

If you can get past the “Fairy godmother coming with a $250 million dollar check” quote, I do believe Kelly opted for LSU to “be under the bright lights and on a Broadway stage” — to coach top-level talent and match wits and brawn with the best teams and coaches in college football. And that meant going south to the SEC.

“The SEC, we know about its prowess in terms of success, the players, the teams and the coaches. If LSU did not have the alignment and the leadership, the people and the desire for excellence, the SEC really doesn’t matter to me. It’s this university that happens to be in the SEC matters to me the most. When you get this university, LSU, with the leadership it has and the cohesive[ness] of leadership across the board. And it’s in the SEC … ding, ding, ding …” exclaimed Kelly, explaining why it was a winning combination of coming to LSU and competing in the nation’s No. 1 FBS conference.

In his introductory press conference, Kelly made numerous mentions of the word “alignment,” and actually referred to “strategic planning.” At times it sounded more like an Amazon or Apple quarterly conference call with stock analysts than a football coaching press conference.

And there is nothing wrong with that, because that is who Kelly is at his core. And it clearly shows the change of direction LSU sought.

Alignment of excellence. Alignment of leadership. Alignment of academics.

Like a politician running for office, Kelly adopted a phrase or message and kept pounding it: driving the point home to set his platform.

It’s a smart move in many ways. But he better hope the fans, or more importantly the players, buy into it.

LSU president Dr. William Tate is using his own acronym CLAW to describe Kelly’s “Character, Leadership, Attitude on academics and Winning tradition.”

I’m not convinced, as many LSU fans and some insiders thought, that Woodward’s first choice (after Jimbo Fisher shot down any notion of leaving Texas A&M) was Oklahoma’s Riley.  I’m sure he had a call with the whiz kid from Norman, and maybe got into some specifics with his agent Trace Armstrong, who, by the way, is the agent for Kelly.

I think Woodward was testing the waters between Riley and Kelly but wanted Kelly foremost.

“Simply put, he (Kelly) checks every box. There was a lot of interest in this job from coaches with incredible pedigrees. But none of them, none of them, held a candle to Brian Kelly,” Woodward proudly proclaimed at the press conference podium.

“Our conversations convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that his winning days are just getting started.  His plan to take this program to the next level is the same as ours. (Insert “alignment” here.) He is not here to taste success (insert Ed Orgeron here) but to sustain it (insert Nick Saban here). He is not here to simply fit into our culture. He is here to transform it.

“He is not just here to win but to win championships,” boasted Woodward.

On paper, Kelly’s recent resume slightly edges Riley’s, who has lost three College Football Playoff semi-final games by an average of 20 points.  Kelly’s two CFP semi-final games were lost by an average of 22 points. But Riley’s Sooners had failed to advance to a CFP championship game as opposed to Kelly’s Irish, who made it to the BCS title game eight years ago.

Kelly has two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State, and has amassed 265 total wins, which is second only to Nick Saban with 268. Kelly has also won three national collegiate coach of the year awards, the most of any current coach, and is the winningest head coach in Notre Dame’s long history. His only losing season with the Irish was 2016, when they finished 4-8.

All that being said, Kelly is 3-6 versus SEC teams, with one victory over Vanderbilt and two wins over LSU.

But in many of those losses to the SEC’s elite teams, it was like going on a big game safari hunt with a pellet gun.

Kelly has proven he can win big games against big teams and will do the same at LSU if he is able to continue the top recruiting classes started way back in Saban’s days in Baton Rouge, then continued with Les Miles and most recently the top recruits of Orgeron.

“I would be disingenuous to tell you I know this roster inside and out,” Kelly said. “I know the players and what the make-up is, and I know some areas of concern that we have to address and we have some work to do.”

Recruiting is one thing. But Kelly needs to decide pretty quickly who is doing that recruiting. That means putting a staff together and making some critical decisions on current LSU assistants he may decide to offer jobs to — namely top flight secondary coach Corey Raymond and running backs coach Kevin Faulk.

Receivers coach and top coordinator Mickey Joseph has already left LSU to coach the receivers at his alma mater Nebraska.

It didn’t take long for the grumbling to start across the state on just how an Irish Catholic Yankee was going to tell Cajun or Creole mommas and daddys how he was going to coach up their boys and graduate them from LSU.

Look, Woodward could not have gone a more complete 180, polar opposite from Coach O than he did with Kelly. But obviously, that’s what he wanted when he canned Orgeron back in mid-October.

Kelly admits he is more of a “CEO-type” coach, who leans on analyzing players’ strengths and weaknesses, using “strategic planning and processes” and is “demanding but never demeaning.”

Finding his comfort zone in the Louisiana culture may take some time.  This was evidenced by Kelly’s attempt at humor at his press conference asking the assembled if they liked Garth Brooks (pretty awkward). That indicated that it may be a long process.

Ed Orgeron witty and funny he is not.

But both Saban and Miles were Yankees, and they learned the ropes pretty quickly — recruiting the bayous and cane fields of south Louisiana, along with Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lafayette and even little Elton.

Kelly will do just fine given time. But he knows the clock is ticking. He says he has a “sense of urgency” to re-recruit those already committed players and secure a few others before the Dec. 15 early signing period.

Kelly should make his way to Lake Charles College Prep to re-sell 4 star running back TreVonté Citizen, who recently de-committed from LSU after the Orgeron firing.

The media and Irish fans’ firestorm over the timing and how Kelly left his team as Notre Dame still had a legitimate chance of making the playoffs as Kelly was flying to Baton Rouge should die down.  

The CFP Committee took care of that.

Playing in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus brings a high level of expectation and pressure — the sort that Kelly mastered over 12 years at Notre Dame.

Saturday nights in Death Valley will serve up the bright lights and big stage he so eagerly wants. The question will be, is Kelly a big enough star coach to follow in the footsteps of his three predecessors, who all won national championships for LSU.

“We didn’t come here to not be successful. Success for us will be the process. I’ve always been focused on process, process, process. The outcomes kind of take care of themselves. You are looked at in terms of championships here, and I want that.”

 And so does Woodward, who staked his reputation, judgement and legacy on this decision.

Catch Rick Sarro’s sports com- mentary Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and Saturdays at 6:30 and 11 pm. It also airs nightly at 9 pm on SuddenLink Cable.

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