Checkmate: Notre Dame’s loss is LSU’s huge gain

by Doug Ireland, Journal Services Sports

Lots of people checked their Powerball tickets Wednesday at 10 p.m., hoping they hit the jackpot, and could claim a prize that will be worth over $100 million in take-to-the-bank money.

Not Brian Kelly. He already won. Notre Dame’s all-time winningest football coach is the newly minted, emphasis on the word “minted,” man in charge at LSU.

Lincoln Riley also won a big pot of gold. He was the guy nearly everybody thought was going to be the LSU football coach. Instead, he headed west, not south, from Oklahoma and is the new top Trojan at Southern Cal.

They are each poised to collect more than $10 million annually for at least the next decade from their new jobs, after shocking everyone at their old ones. Riley became embroiled in speculation last Friday that he was going to be the new head Tiger, and didn’t refute anything until the postgame press conference after OU’s loss to Oklahoma State late Saturday night, when he denied a direct question whether he was heading to Baton Rouge.

A bit earlier that evening, in Tiger Stadium, during the second half of the spectacular finale of fired head coach Ed Orgeron, word began circulating among the very well connected that there wouldn’t be a Lincoln driving to the LSU football facility.

Everybody fond of the purple and gold was ebullient about the game’s outcome and thrilling finish, won with 20 seconds left 27-24 by the Tigers over Texas A&M at the expense of the man initially at the center of speculation about the LSU post, Aggies’ coach Jimbo Fisher.

LSU beat one of its biggest rivals. The Tigers sent out the colorful, passionate and loyal Coach O in unforgettable style while knocking off those aggravating Aggies led by Fisher, the man who spurned the Tigers five years earlier; or, if you prefer an alternate version, LSU finally shed itself of Coach O and his ineffective staff while knocking off those oddball Aggies led by Fisher, the man who spurned the Tigers five years earlier, thereby opening the door for that crazy Cajun to take the helm.

Whatever the perspective, Tigers were hootin’ and hollerin’ about stunning A&M, until a seemingly astute reporter asked Riley a pointed question in aptly-named Stillwater, Okla. 

LSU’s anticipated coronation of the Sooners’ brilliant young coach was off. Turns out, the reporter was too specific with his inquiry. By lunchtime Sunday, Riley, family and some of his staff were packing bags for the Left Coast.

Talk about a plot twist. For many Tiger fans, and in the eyes of much of the national and Louisiana media, the heir apparent had been kidnapped and found a new home. What seemed to be a master move by LSU’s low-key but highly effective coaching search manager, athletics director Scott Woodward, was apparently up in smoke. There were possibilities, but compared to Riley, they all seemed like three-day-old Thanksgiving leftovers – palatable, just not worthy of great enthusiasm.

Florida took a flier on Ragin’ Cajun coach Billy Napier, who was on the outer edges of LSU’s sphere of interest. No Napier? No matter. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Mark Stoops of Kentucky, Michigan State’s Mel Tucker, former Tiger defensive coordinator and successful second-year Baylor head coach Dave Aranda, even former Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl champion coach Doug Pederson (who played at ULM, then the NFL, and began coaching in Shreveport at Calvary Baptist High School 15 years ago) were appealing options. A ride on the Lane (Kiffin) Train, not so much – his excellent work in Oxford hasn’t erased doubts raised by his (apparently) formerly frisky lifestyle as a single man, along with his brash personality.

Next to nobody had Notre Dame’s Kelly on LSU’s list. Not the three-time national coach of the year. Not the guy whose record in the last five seasons (54-9) was virtually identical to Riley (55-10) at OU. Not the coach who has more victories (284 in 31 total seasons, said LSU’s announcement) than any active coach in big-time college football, and the second-best winning percentage in major college football (behind only you know who). Not the man who led the fabled Fighting Irish to the College Football Playoffs in two of the last three seasons, and a 113-40 record in his 12 seasons in South Bend.

Nope. Because just last week, Kelly was asked if he would ever leave the Irish, and snapped off a flippant answer dismissing the suggestion. Even a $250 million deal (his figure) would still have to pass his bride’s muster, the Kelly gang loved South Bend so much.

Behind the scenes, however, there were tremors. Notre Dame players don’t have a spacious, cutting-edge academic study center – they often do homework in the hallways of the Irish football facility. They don’t have their own training table (code for bottomless buffet), but have to retask a recruiting lounge into a dining area. These concerns and others were discussed by Kelly and his boss, UND athletics director Jack Swarbrick, but nothing was happening. Swarbrick said Tuesday he noted some “Freudian slips” by Kelly recently revealing some “restlessness” and said he wasn’t astounded at Kelly’s departure. He was the only one.

Today, Kelly, for a dozen seasons in charge of the storied football program on an iconic campus featuring Touchdown Jesus, is in his first few days on the job across the street from Mike the Tiger’s lair. The former Golden Domer now has LSU’s Golden Girls cheering for him. 

He’s not Nick Saban of Alabama, or Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney, or Lincoln Riley. But he is universally regarded on that level in the college game. Still, nobody, except his agent Trace Armstrong, saw him moving to another college. He’s often been suggested as an NFL coach, with the Chicago Bears said to have him on their short list for that anticipated opening.

But Armstrong saw opportunity, and knew his client preferred coaching on campus. Armstrong’s reward:  he will collect as much as three percent, the industry standard for negotiating coaching contracts, of Kelly’s LSU haul.

Even more spectacular than that roughly $300,000 annual commission? Armstrong is also Riley’s agent. He’ll be cashing in those California dollars, too.

Did Riley have both USC and LSU on his table, and when he went west, Kelly bolted for the Bayou State?

Or were they just better fits where they’ve landed – Kelly with one of this century’s most dominant programs, with all the resources in place, and Riley ready to restore the luster at once-proud USC?

It seems Armstrong, a former Florida star and longtime NFL defensive tackle, was playing chess while his counterparts were playing checkers. The short, pudgy, quiet guy at the next table: the LSU AD, Woodward.

When it appeared he was boxed out of the glamorous Riley sweepstakes, within 24 hours, Woodward completed the mission of scoring a “home run hire” replacing Orgeron.  Whether or not OKC to BR was the original flight plan matters not. Checkmate, y’all.

Woodward took Notre Dame’s king, and few will argue LSU football as of Dec. 1, 2021, isn’t what Kelly said in the Tigers’ press release Tuesday.

“Our potential is unlimited.”


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