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'Kelly Was Willing to Dance': Inside College Football's Wild Carousel Moves

A new Sports Illustrated report looks at this past week's wild coaching carousel and what it means for college sports going forward.

Two of the country’s winningest coaches in recent memory—Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley—abandoned their programs to take over fellow powerhouse schools, signing contracts that are each expected to eclipse $100 million and stretch a decade in term.

Kelly left Notre Dame, which still has a chance to advance to the College Football Playoff, while Riley headed West to USC from Oklahoma.

The extraordinary moves have thrown a sport already heavily criticized for its lavish spending into a deeper divide.

Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, Pat Forde and Richard Johnson spoke to more than a dozen people within college athletics in various capacities about what the coaches’ moves say about the broader context of college sports.

A few of the notable nuggets from SI’s Daily Cover story:

  • When Florida’s job opened, its officials were alerted that Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly were willing to dance, sources tell SI. The Gators, though, were already set on their No. 1 target and the coach they eventually hired, Louisiana’s Billy Napier.

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  • While LSU fans buzzed about rumblings around Riley coming to Baton Rouge, Tigers AD Scott Woodward entered the final week of his search with two targets. Early in the process, he and a small committee of administrators identified six or so candidates, a who’s who in the sport: Jimbo Fisher, James Franklin, Kelly, Mel Tucker, Riley and NFL coach Matt Rhule. Woodward reduced the list to two or three finalists and none of them were Riley. Woodward made one final call to Fisher to see whether the Texas A&M coach was interested in the job but then went on to explore the candidates who were serious about coming to Baton Rouge. “[Kelly] was willing to dance,” says one LSU source, “so we kept working it.”
  • Those within the industry who spoke to SI praised USC for its ability to keep its negotiations with Riley under the radar given the size of the program and its media market. Said one Power 5 AD of USC AD Mike Bohn: "He was a magician."
  • A complicating factor in college football is the high-profile nature of the jobs. In the 2021 cycle, coaching opportunities at USC, Florida, Notre Dame, LSU and Oklahoma have opened. Notre Dame hasn’t had an opening since '09, while Oklahoma hasn’t had a true job search since 1998. Multiple people who spoke to SI blamed the exorbitant amount of coaches’ contracts on agents. Agents, meanwhile, defended their terms (particularly with buyouts) as necessary protection in a volatile industry, where job security is fleeting.
  • Richard Johnson points out, “In reporting this story, it’s a curious thing to look back on the Lincoln Riley post-Bedlam presser and you consider that Riley and LSU's real decision-makers basically already knew it wasn't a match. Knowing that, your perspective on everything changes.”
  • Multiple people who spoke to SI referenced a white paper entitled “Rising Expenses in College Athletics and the Non-Profit Paradox,” authored in 2019 by Kevin Blue. Blue, a former golfer at Stanford who has a master’s and Ph.D. in sports psychology, was an associate AD at Stanford and UC Davis’s athletic director by age 33. In his paper, written while at UC Davis, he lays out how it is by the sport’s very design we were always going to get here.

Click here to read the entire Daily Cover story.