Brian Kelly has called a lot of creative plays over the years, but whenever he leaves a job, he dials up the same one. His players break the huddle and then realize Kelly is gone.
Even among all the unprofessional and selfish coaching moves we have seen in college sports, what Kelly pulled this week stands out. While his Notre Dame team waited to see whether it makes the College Football Playoff, Kelly took the LSU job. His players found out from news reports. According to The Athletic, Kelly sent them a message long after it broke saying, “whoops, sorry,” and asking them to show up at 7 a.m. for a team meeting. ESPN reported he spoke to them for 11 minutes. Halftimes last longer than that.
Kelly’s “sincere apologies” are laughable; if he had acted sincerely, he wouldn’t have to apologize at all. He could have called a team meeting two days earlier and said LSU had called and he was considering a move. He could have waited to see whether his team has a shot to win the national championship before deciding he wanted to go somewhere else.
But this is how Brian Kelly always leaves. Always, always, always.
In December 2009, his Cincinnati players showed up for the team banquet, and Kelly showed up escorted by two police officers. When the banquet ended, he told the Bearcats he had accepted the Notre Dame job. It was a better job, and he had every right to take it. But as receiver Mardy Gilyard told the Cincinnati Enquirer that night:
“I feel like there was a little lying in this thing. I feel like he’s known the whole time. I kind of had a gut feeling that he was going to stay because he told me he was going to be here. But it is what it is. He made a business decision.”
You know who could have warned Gilyard? Everybody at Central Michigan. Three years earlier, Kelly was negotiating a contract extension with CMU when he bolted for Cincinnati. CMU’s athletic director at the time, Dave Heeke, knew Kelly had been in the running for the Michigan State and Iowa State jobs, but those had been filled. Heeke had no idea Kelly had interviewed with Cincinnati. He called the way it happened, “disappointing and shocking, but it is what it is, so we’ll move forward.”
Heeke quickly addressed the Central Michigan players and announced the interim coach would be Jeff Quinn. This was news to Quinn. He had found out Kelly was leaving from another CMU staffer. Quinn had been working for Kelly for 18 years.
“I’m pretty sure everybody was disappointed,” linebacker Doug Kress told me then. “I was disappointed. ... Nobody has a problem with him leaving. It is just how he left.”
A few years before that, Kelly was coaching Division II Grand Valley State. He had built the Lakers into an absolute juggernaut, and in 2001, he told me this:
“I didn’t come to Grand Valley thinking I was going to end my career here in coaching. I thought this was one of the stops along the way. But I found a diamond in the rough. I have what I consider the finest job in college football. I have the opportunity to compete for national championships and not have the trappings of the Division I arena, the incredible pressure to win at all costs. I have absolutely found the job I want.”
The coach who did not want “the trappings of the Division I arena” or “the incredible pressure to win at all costs” just agreed to a $95 million contract at a place that fired a coach 21 months after winning a national championship.
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Look: Coaches change jobs. At some point, most people do. Anybody looking at Kelly’s rise can see that every move made some sense. Coaches are also entitled to change their minds.
But aren’t people tired of football coaches demanding honesty and accountability from everybody except themselves? At Lincoln Riley’s introductory press conference at USC, he said he only found out about USC’s interest after his Oklahoma team finished its season Saturday night. Then, magically, he and his agent hammered out all the details of his contract. Riley told such a blatant lie that USC fans should actually be relieved it’s a lie. Do you really want a coach who barely gave any thought to whether he wanted to be there?
Riley’s move dominated the news cycle until Kelly usurped it. His move to LSU is defensible for both the coach and the school. But then came the stories: of assistants recruiting only to discover that the boss had left and athletic director Jack Swarbrick saying Kelly had never discussed interest from other universities with him. Kelly is a terrific football coach. But he is 60 years old and still hasn’t learned the decency of an honest goodbye.
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