Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“We Got Our Guy” shirts sold separately on every campus currently conducting a coaching search).
FOURTH QUARTER: THE SPORT IS OFF ITS ROCKER
Welcome to the wildest week in the history of college football—and guess what? It’s only Monday! The entire industry has been gobsmacked by blockbuster power moves, blueblood-on-blueblood crime, job hops few saw coming, absurd spending … and the promise of still more massive dominoes to fall.
If the entire enterprise all feels out of control, well, that’s because it is.
On Sunday, USC raided Oklahoma (31) for Lincoln Riley, at what is assuredly a staggering price tag. For those scoring at home, that was the school tied for sixth all-time in national championships (USC, with five) going and getting the hugely popular coach of the school that is third all-time in national championships (Oklahoma has seven).
On Monday, LSU raided Notre Dame (32) for Brian Kelly. That’s a school with four nattys riding in and swiping the coach of a school that has won eight. It is even more shocking in a general sense than what happened Sunday—and it becomes downright incomprehensible when you factor in this: The Fighting Irish can still make the College Football Playoff.
It’s really not much of a long shot at all for the 11–1 Irish, who were ranked No. 6 last week and figure to be no worse than that when the new CFP rankings are released Tuesday night. An Alabama loss to favored Georgia in the SEC championship game could position Notre Dame to slide into the top four, or at least be in a résumé tussle for that spot with Oklahoma State.
Meanwhile, the coach is out on the road allegedly recruiting—but in fact was finalizing a deal to leave. In a profession rife with weasel moves, this one by Brian Kelly (33) ranks very high.
(If the Irish make the Playoff and he wants to stay and coach, it seems highly likely that Kelly would get the same treatment then athletic director Bo Schembechler gave outgoing basketball coach Bill Frieder before the 1989 NCAA Tournament. A Notre Dame man is going to coach Notre Dame in the Playoff.)
The predatory hiring cycle will now move on to Oklahoma and Notre Dame. And while the probable names in play at OU wouldn’t further destabilize the current Playoff race, the same might not be said of Notre Dame.
In other words: hug Luke Fickell (34) tight tonight, Cincinnati. It seems incomprehensible that a man of Fickell’s professed loyalty to his current school, and this current team in particular, would abandon a pioneering Playoff cause now. Assuredly, Fickell would tell Notre Dame to cool its golden heels until this run is done—if he would leave at all. But the incomprehensible seems to be happening a lot lately in college football, so the suggestion here is to trust no one and suspect that the most mercenary behavior possible can and will occur.
One source familiar with the Kelly–Notre Dame dynamic said Monday afternoon that if he was indeed going to LSU, the reason would be a weariness with trying to move Notre Dame further off its entrenched philosophy for where and how football fits within the university mission. “It will be because he wants Notre Dame to be less ‘Notre Dame–like,’” the source said.
Kelly already has pushed for and received greater latitude in admissions for his players. Whether the additional less “Notre Dame–like” things he could be interested in pertain to further academic changes, pleasure-dome facilities, housing arrangements, NIL opportunities—that was unclear. But the religious and academic leadership there isn’t going to roll over for a put-out coach, even if he’s the winningest in program history. Failing to win a football championship since 1988 hasn’t stopped the school from having a top-10 endowment and a top-20 academic ranking nationally.
Notre Dame is hardly a pristine place, but in the dramatically changing landscape of college sports, it isn’t going to be at the forefront of an Anything to Win land rush. LSU, on the other hand? Ehhhhhh. It’s pretty clear where the priorities lie there.
If Kelly is frustrated by not being able to close the gap between Very Good and National Championship Good, he probably chose wisely in moving to a school where the last three coaches have won it all—and two of them aren’t even great coaches. The interesting aspect is that Kelly is running into the mosh pit of Southeastern Conference competition, while Riley is running away from it for the advantages of USC.
LSU, when running at its highest level, should be able to compete with Alabama and Georgia for SEC primacy. It’s been just two years since the Tigers went 15–0. The recruiting territory is ridiculous. Kelly is probably betting that he can get the same great players Ed Orgeron did, coach them up twice as well, get everything on his wish list granted by the administration and grab that elusive national title.
Kelly is 60. Nick Saban (35) is 70. Kelly can, in theory, outlast the King of the SEC—unless he has a 4–8 season as he did in 2016 at Notre Dame. Then he gets devoured by the beast he signed on with.
But the LSU contract will assuredly be for so much guaranteed money that Kelly can get fired, go buy a private island and live happily ever after. It’s the direction in which the sport is careening—far past the barriers of fiscal reasonability, or even common decency. It wasn’t many years ago that $5 million was a staggering annual salary. Now that’s been doubled—and then some, if the rumors about Riley’s USC deal are remotely accurate.
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Athletic directors who laid off or furloughed workers, cut sports and sounded the general alarm about the long-range future of college sports are now spending like drunken hedge-fund titans. Mel Tucker (36), career record of 17–14, just got 10 years and $95 million. Jimbo Fisher (37) got a 10-year, $94 million deal from Texas A&M before he flopped this season, going 8–4. James Franklin (38), coming off a 7–5 season, just got a raise to $7 million a year from Penn State. And so on.
College athletics has been careening toward this place for a while now. The entire enterprise was coerced—by the courts and public pressure— into finally allowing the players to have some of the cut and a mobility between jobs commensurate to what the coaches have enjoyed. Whether it was in response to that, or simply out of next-level greed, the next steps were expanding the College Football Playoff (39) and realignment (40). (For the record: expanded Playoff good, realignment ruinously bad.)
The confluence of events has knocked everything off its moorings. And Lord knows, the leadership vacuum isn’t going to get it back on balance. The annual bloodsport of hiring and firing coaches has reached a point where none of it makes sense, and nobody is capable of holding the principal figures accountable.
Here’s the funny thing: The phrase so many college leaders used in describing what would happen when players could transfer immediately and making money off NIL was that it would become “the Wild, Wild West.” But as this year has unfolded, who has really taken college athletics off the rails and into a new realm of anomie? The adults in charge, naturally.
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