Brian Kelly shocked Notre Dame fans and college football when he abruptly bolted his College Playoff hopeful squad for the bayous of Louisiana earlier this week. While the news may have come out of nowhere, as an outside observer I suggested this as a possibility weeks ago when LSU announced it would not retain Ed Orgeron at the end of the 2021 season. When I brought this up to the circle of Notre Dame fans I was with, it was immediately dismissed as a lateral move, that he would only leave for the NFL, or that he couldn’t handle the media and pressure of the SEC. While the latter will be revealed in the coming years, a few things seemed to be exposed regarding Notre Dame’s status in the college football landscape and should have many of their fans worried that this sustained run of excellence might not be matched for a while unless the athletic department looks in the mirror for some tough answers.
First let’s talk about Brian Kelly the coach. I understand why Notre Dame fans are angry that he left so abruptly, especially with his team still on the fringes of a College Playoff birth, which would be the program’s third in four seasons. There seems to be little doubt this will impact the selection committee’s view on Notre Dame, and could be influencing the school’s seemingly abrupt finding of Kelly’s replacement from within. But I would ask any fan, when is a good time for a coach to leave a program? Ideally it would be after the season and all recruiting has been wrapped up. However, Brian Kelly is not retiring, he is moving on to another job. He is moving to bring in elite talent to his new program before the first signing period, while trying to see who else he might be able to secure in the second signing period in the winter. He has built Notre Dame into a winner, and he wants to do the same at his next job as soon as he possibly can. Without a known opponent or bowl destination at this time, it makes perfect sense for him to leave Notre Dame when he did. The players and remaining coaches will have plenty of time to gather their thoughts and re-focus once the bowl pairings are announced in a week.
The bigger issue for Notre Dame should be on why Brian Kelly left for LSU. Lots of people are going to assume that it is for money, and I’m sure that is a good part of it, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that Brian Kelly was only getting paid a couple million dollars as reports have suggested. The benefit of being a private institution is that contracts, and more importantly funding, are not mandated to be made public. The fact that Brian Kelly did not give Notre Dame time or ask for a counter-offer suggests that his leaving probably wasn’t about the money. He likely could have gotten similar compensation to what LSU was offering while still maintaining and enjoying the incredible success he had built in South Bend.
So why would he leave if it wasn’t all about the money? In my opinion, it is because he knows he had taken the program as far as it was going to go, and he wants to get to that next competitive level. Now before Notre Dame fans start jumping down my throat and screaming about LSU’s .500 record the last two years and the fact that they have lost at least 3 games every year the past 10 seasons, with the exception of their national championship season, let’s discuss the realities of the LSU job and the Notre Dame job.
Notre Dame might be the single most difficult coaching job in the entire country. Every season starts with the one and only goal Irish fans can hope for, win a national title. The reason for that is that Notre Dame does not play in a conference. Lose a game in September, and the season feels like it is lost in South Bend. The hardest part for the head coach of the Irish from that point on is trying to keep his team focused on playing good football. Sure there are some traditional rivalry games, but how much do those games really mean to the players?
Notre Dame is just one of seven FBS schools that remains independent, so each year it’s schedule rotates with different opponents. Most schools backload their schedules with conference games, so it is difficult for Notre Dame to get quality opponents on the schedule late in the season because of conference commitments with the other schools. This allows Notre Dame to front load their schedule with high quality opponents in the first few weeks, and then fill in with the yearly rivalries with Navy, USC, and Stanford. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, those schools have been really bad the last few years, which really inhibits their strength of schedule and ability to garner high profile wins late in the season. Couple that with their head scratching move to form a 5 game annual partnership with the ACC, a notoriously weak football conference in recent years, and Notre Dame has not had many opportunities to play in spotlight games during recent years in the colder months when college football gets heated up.
That weak closing schedule can play a double-edged sword for Notre Dame. In past years that Notre Dame has made the College Football Playoff or been in BCS contention, fans were often saying for the last six to seven games of the season that Notre Dame had a clear path to the playoff because there wasn’t a big challenge. While that may have aided the Irish in getting to those games, often times when they went up against those high quality opponents they were beaten relatively badly. A lot of that had to do with not facing high quality opponents late in the season. When the made the playoff in 2020, they had beaten Clemson earlier in the year and then played them again in the ACC Championship game. Playing that level of opponent, prepared them to play Alabama to one of their tougher games of the season. Conversely, when Notre Dame made the playoff in 2018 and lost 30-3 to Clemson in embarrassing fashion, they played one ranked opponent after the first week of October. When you have to set your schedule out well in advance, you really don’t know if you’ll have meaningful games down the stretch against high quality opponents.
More importantly, when you play in a conference, you high level teams have a chance to showcase and earn their way in by beating another high level team in their conference championship game. This weekend Oklahoma St. has a chance to claim a playoff spot by beating a top 10 opponent. If Baylor were to beat Oklahoma St., a strong case would be made that they should leap frog Notre Dame and get into the playoff because they would have 3 wins over top 15 opponents compared to 0 for Notre Dame. That is the advantage of playing in a conference. It offers hope at the end of a season for really good teams. It is one last opportunity to impress the committee. Brian Kelly knew the Notre Dame didn’t have a chance to make the playoff regardless of what happens this weekend. He also knows how important and exciting those games are for players, coaches, and fans. Players don’t opt out of conference championship games. It is what they play for all year. The opportunity to bring home a trophy and a ring are things that kids cherish for a lifetime. Brian Kelly wants to experience that. As the all time winningest coach in the storied history of Notre Dame football, he only got to experience the thrill of winning a postseason or bowl game 5 times, including 2 over the school he left Notre Dame to go coach. If you don’t think conference championships matter, watch the reactions and celebrations of the winning players this weekend. They are much more emotional that winning a random bowl game in a stadium that may not be entirely filled. Brian Kelly knows that, and at this point in his career he wants that.
Brian Kelly is a competitor and a fiery man. His demeanor has been critiqued, analyzed, and even modified over the years. There are even random photographers that suddenly want to bring that to light after Kelly scorned their program for another. I would be willing to bet that a big reason Brian Kelly left Notre Dame is because he wants the rush of playing in big games, true rivalries. Notre Dame has the rivalry with USC, but those schools don’t have fanbases that interact throughout the year across multiple sports. The fans get into it, but the players don’t show the same kind of fire and hatred you see when you watch Michigan and Ohio St., Michigan and Michigan St., Ole Miss and Mississippi St, Auburn and Alabama, or Texas and Oklahoma. Those are legitimately schools and rivalries where the players and fans genuinely dislike each other on a year round basis. Those games catch the eye of the nation every year, even if the teams might be a little down. Outside of LA and South Bend, the Notre Dame/USC rivalry doesn’t move the national needle unless both teams are highly ranked, which has not been the case for a long time.
Brian Kelly has an ego. He will walk into most rooms and believe that he is better and smarter than most people in that room. Ask anyone who has encountered him or been around him. His personality is suited for the same conference division as Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, and Jumbo Fisher. He wants to be talked about in the same breath as those coaches, especially since two of them have the one thing he’ll likely never get at Notre Dame, a national championship.
It isn’t difficult for Big Ten coaches to motivate kids to play in cold weather when they’re going up against an arch rival in a trophy game. They may be coaching a number of kids that weren’t offered by the rival program or know a large amount of the guys on the other team personally. For the most part, those kids will show up ready to play, along with the fans every Saturday in November. At Notre Dame, it cannot be easy to motivate kids that are not facing a rival, not playing for a playoff bid, and not hunting down a conference championship when it’s cold outside and you’re playing Wake Forest or Syracuse. It can be easy for coaches focus to wander during the week, so credit to Kelly for rarely allowing that to happen during his tenure. However, if he can recruit and coach the way he has to a cold weather school that has an average late season atmosphere and that doesn’t have heated rivals, imagine what he’ll be able to do when the stakes are higher. At this point in his career, he is craving that challenge and that stage to keep motivating him to continue to pour all of his energy into his job.
It’s been amazing to see how quickly Notre Dame fans have turned on the best coach they have had over the last 30 years since his departure. Fans talk about how arrogant he is, how he wasn’t a players coach, and how none of his assistants wanted to go with him, despite looking at substantial pay increases. Suddenly, Brian Kelly seems to be this jerk that Notre Dame has been freed from. The players will blossom and the program will grow because they’ll have a player friendly coach that will somehow attract better players than they already had. To those fans, I’d be quick to point out that when Nick Saban left Michigan St. he took a similar approach to Brian Kelly. He famously sent a plane back to East Lansing and told any of his assistants they could get on it and join him at LSU. None of them got on that plane. Nick Saban’s career worked out just fine with a National Championship at LSU, while Michigan St. went to just two bowl games in the next seven years under the nice, loyal coaches who stayed behind. Similarly, I don’t think you’ll find many assistant coaches that rave about how nice guys like Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier were. Winning at an elite level comes at a cost sometimes.
I’m not suggesting that you cannot be a player and coach friendly head man and not be successful, but I will stand my ground and say that Notre Dame football will not be at the level it has sustained under Brian Kelly for a while after his departure. I hope the fans that are bad-mouthing him realize that they are approaching an end of an era. With the craziness going on in college football right now, and still considered one of the highest profile schools in the sport, Notre Dame took less than 48 hours to hire an internal candidate with zero prior head coaching experience at any level. The last time Notre Dame did this was when they replaced the legendary Lou Holtz with Bob Davie. Davie was known as a great defensive mind that had worked at some high level programs prior to being at Notre Dame, but he was not the right man to run an elite program and was dismissed after compiling a 35-25 record over 5 seasons. It took Notre Dame two more coaches before they re-established themselves as an annual contender on the national scene.
I’m not saying that Marcus Freeman is going to follow the Bob Davie path, but people who say he won’t aren’t basing that on anything other than hope. The college coaching carousel is in full effect right now, and Notre Dame had a chance to go after some really proven winners at the college level. Guys that have previous head coaching experience and have built non-traditional powers in annual contenders. It is baffling that Notre Dame would rush to make a decision to hire a coach who has been with the program for less than a year before reaching out to some of these other head coaches at Iowa St., Baylor, Northwestern, or Minnesota. Were they worried they would turn them down and it would make the program look like a joke? Were they trying to have a coach in place to maybe squeak into the playoff this year? Were they trying to save money? Either way, it seemed to be a rather panicked and short-sighted move to hire Freeman without reaching out to some big-time winners at the college level.
By all accounts, Marcus Freeman seems to be a great guy. Someone that will be easy to root for and stand behind. The players love him, which says a lot about him as a man. However, the same things were said about Tyrone Willingham. The Notre Dame job is different. Most fans and alumni are still living in a different era with a different mindset. A man of integrity that is loved by his players that goes 8-4 at Notre Dame isn’t good enough. What if Marcus Freeman goes 8-4 next year or 9-3? Will the whispers start to get louder? This time next year, all of the current juniors and seniors will be gone from the program, or have 1 more game left. Is it worth rushing to hire a guy right now that the current players love, but that he won’t be coaching half of that roster anymore in a little over a year? Were they worried about losing recruits in this years class? So far no one has decommitted or flipped to LSU, so maybe that is a testament to the current staff staying in tact. However, how will the fans feel about Freeman if they start off their season with a 20 point loss at Ohio St. next year?
The other major thing that Notre Dame fans and administration need to address is how their schedule and lack of playing in a conference negatively impact the program and limit its ceiling. Looking ahead to next year’s schedule, there is currently 1 team program currently ranked in the top 25, and that is Ohio St. week one. The problem for Notre Dame is that if they lose that game, despite what they do the rest of the year, they do not have the opportunity to erase that loss in the minds of most people across the country. Yeah, some other program could rise up and present a challenge, but when your schedule is made years in advance, you just don’t know who will be good and who won’t. USC being down the last few years has hurt Notre Dame, but some argue it has helped them. If Notre Dame were to beat Ohio St., they would seemingly have a clear path to the college football playoff based on their remaining schedule. That is the same mindset that non-power 5 schools like Cincinnati have. Cincinnati’s only solid win was at Notre Dame this year. Some could argue that SMU was a good win, but that is like Notre Dame having to hope that other schools on their schedule have a good year to provide them with an opportunity for quality wins. The difference for Cincinnati is that they play in a conference, so if they win today over another top 20 opponent there is no doubt they belong in the playoff.
It would benefit Notre Dame tremendously to be playing a top 15 opponent today, but they still cling to this archaic philosophy of being independent and keeping all television and revenue to themselves. If Notre Dame doesn’t want to share, then they deserve to be left out of the playoff year after year. Currently Notre Dame has 0 wins against top 20 teams this season, the same amount as 1 loss UTSA, San Diego St., Houston, and Louisiana. So why is Notre Dame clinging to the hope that they might make the college football playoff? Has their schedule been that much tougher than those schools?
Notre Dame seems to think that rivalries with schools that aren’t even geographically close to the school are more important than playing against top programs in your area every year. Notre Dame insists on playing in California once every year for recruiting purposes. Currently they have 13 guys on their roster from California. Alabama which NEVER plays in California has 5 guys on their roster from the state. While both programs have been at a high level for years, I don’t think there is much debate about which school consistently has the better and deeper roster. So by playing in California every year, Notre Dame might have a slight edge in landing some recruits, but looking at Alabama, it shows there are good football players everywhere. If Notre Dame decide to play in one geographic location yearly, they could really sell kids in that area on coming to play for the elite program in their backyard. That is a powerful selling tool for the elite programs like Ohio St., Georgia, and Alabama that don’t have to venture too far for those kids. Imagine if Notre Dame joined the Big Ten or SEC and how that could change the recruiting dynamics of some of those other elite programs.
Instead, Notre Dame will cling to their traditions. Tradition that has most opposing fans viewing Notre Dame as a tourist destination for when their school plays there, instead of a play they think twice about wearing their teams gear because of the intimidating fans and environment. Notre Dame will still play their home games on a network that people have to go out of their way in bars and restaurants to find football games on, unlike the ESPN, Big Ten, and SEC networks that broadcast football all day long on Saturdays. It’s a given at 3:30 eastern on a Saturday that ABC and CBS will have on a premier college football game, while might be broadcasting Notre Dame versus the mighty California Golden Bears next season.
The details of Brian Kelly’s contract and LSU have really opened eyes among Notre Dame and college football fans, but the bigger question is, what is Notre Dame doing with all of that money that it keeps for itself? Money that is pretty similar to the revenue stream and sharing they would receive if they joined a conference, since all of the major ones have their own network. Even NBC this year for the first time did not broadcast every home game on the flagship network, a sign that viewership isn’t what it used to be. People may argue that they did it to promote their streaming service, but that’s not the truth.
The mystique of Notre Dame football from many decades ago is not there anymore. It is still a great program, but until they join a conference and play with the big boys consistently, they’ll be viewed as an outsider. They just lost an elite coach, and made a quick and TBD coaching hire. They have the opportunity to play Ohio St., Alabama, or Clemson every year, but they choose not to. Nobody feels sorry for them anymore, and if Marcus Freeman doesn’t produce like Brian Kelly did, it may be a long time before Notre Dame returns to any level of national relevance without making some major changes. Notre Dame can no longer act like the arrogant independent, because they are at high risk of ending what has been a very successful era in their program’s history.