BATON ROUGE, La. – Give this to Brian Kelly: He’s operating from a position of strength.
The man played association football at Assumption College – not FBS or FCS, but association football – and one of his first jobs was as a softball coach at the school. Eight years later he rose to become head football coach Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he then worked as a head coach Central Michigan and then cincinnati and then Notre-Dame. And while no one in the history of Notre-Dame football had ever used Notre-Dame, he did just that this past winter. If the administration didn’t want to make the upgrades he wanted in the timeline he wanted, that was fine. No hard feelings. He would go LSU.
And what did he do when he got there? He let all the staff go except for offensive line coach Brad Davis. He even ran revered strength coach Tommy Moffitt after a tenure that spanned the coaching eras of Nick Saban, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron and spanned three national championships.
Kelly had a quarterback room that also had blue chip freshmen in it Wanderer Howardsecond grader Garrett Nussmeier and Myles Brennan, senior in sixth year. One of his first steps was to convince Brennan to retire from the transfer portal. But the moment Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels became available, Kelly jumped at the opportunity to bring him in, knowingly could result in one or more quarterbacks going.
He has increased Kayshon Boutte, the star receiver and perhaps the most talented player on the squad, and he didn’t like what he saw. Kelly wanted to know why he wasn’t in full training. It didn’t matter that he was recovering from an ankle surgery at the end of the season or that he was flirting with a move. Kelly called him outpublicly question his commitment.
Forget about fitting. Forget the whole “fish out of water” tale. Kelly rocked the boat, grabbed the helm and took command.
Speaking to the media in late November after agreeing to sign Kelly to a massive 10-year, $95 million contract, LSU President William Tate called him “the most accomplished football coach this university has ever hired.” “. Among his credentials: He is the most successful active coach in college football and has been named Home Depot Coach of the Year three times. And Kelly exuded just that level of confidence as he spoke to ESPN from his new office one morning this spring.
“Look,” he said, “this is my 32nd year. So you would expect me to have a pretty good idea of what the plan should be and what it should look like. If not, I was just throwing balls in the air. Air for a long time and I’m the happiest Irish Catholic in college football history.”
Nobody leaves Notre Dame, he said, but at the same time very few people understand how rare and alluring a second act is in football – the allure of building something from scratch on your own terms. Is it fun? He grinned.
“No doubt,” he said. “In a way, it’s also a new start in life, right? Being there for 32 years and having that jump start and then having the opportunity to lead a program like LSU, what’s wrong with that?”
Don’t ask anyone in South Bend that question. There are still some hurt feelings. But at Baton Rouge, they couldn’t be happier to have Kelly ahead of Sunday’s season opener against Florida State in New Orleans (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
THE LAST COACH To come in at LSU and make such waves was Saban — another underdog who got troubled at Michigan State and headed to the SEC looking for more.
Kelly said he actually spoke to Saban, who encouraged him to take the opportunity. Saban said his message to Kelly is simple: The people of Louisiana are amazing and passionate.
“And if you can use that to your advantage,” Saban said, “it’s going to help you a lot to be successful.”
So Kelly leaned into anything Louisiana-related. He even tried out a Southern accent and learned to griddy — a dance popularized in football circles by former LSU star receivers Justin Jefferson and Yes’Marr Chase.
Who cares that he looked and sounded kind of ridiculous? Twitter went wild. And Kelly didn’t flinch. He attended the SEC media days in Atlanta and delivered the quote of the day.
“Understand now, I have a Boston, Midwestern, Louisiana accent now,” he told reporters. “It’s three dialects in one. It’s no longer fam-uh-lee, I’ve got all sorts of things to throw at you. Just be ready.”
This image of Brian Kelly grinning and practically winking at the camera is almost unrecognizable from the buttoned-up coach who’s been stacked on the sidelines for the past decade, and with good reason.
“I pretty much always wore a tie and a jacket,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of the way it is [Notre Dame] was perceived to me as an Irish Catholic growing up in Boston. Maybe I read it wrong, but that’s how I did it.
“Here, you know, you feel like you can wear shorts and flip flops and you’re a lot more relaxed. So if that’s one vibe, as a definition, it’s a very different vibe.”
When he left an interview at the SEC media days, a reporter asked how his first crawfish was and Kelly stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh,” he said, lighting himself, “we had about 10 of them.”
Then he vented for a minute. A good crawfish cook is all about the spices, he said, but when you’re eating one as part of a college event and water and soda are the only options to quench your thirst, they just don’t cut it.
“Because that’s really the essence of a crawfish boil: drinking beer,” he said.
Bingo. Change his birth certificate. He can now claim Louisiana.
But matching only works in the SEC if you’re winning, and Kelly concedes that likely won’t happen overnight.
“It’s coming together,” he said. “It’s a process.”
As he considered leaving Notre Dame, he said he viewed LSU like a distressed asset in the business. it regularly turned a profit (profit) despite some fairly obvious shortcomings. He said unequivocally, “The tire came out of air.” Losses and missteps off the field quickly mounted under Orgeron after winning the 2019 national championship ongoing NCAA investigationwhich Kelly was informed of by officials prior to his arrival.
“Then you come here,” Kelly said, “and you look at the injury report and the APR [academic progress report] and you look at the transfer portal.”
He studied a roster that included fewer than 40 available grantees and a receiver taking first-team snaps at quarterback.
Then he walked through the facility and saw offices that had been empty for a year. Some positions that were filled, he learned, were not clearly defined.
He completely restructured the human resources office, separating high school and transfer recruitment and hiring special staff for the state of Louisiana. Of the 15 transfers the program signed, Kelly said seven were not offered by LSU after high school, went elsewhere and wanted to return home. There were high schools in the northern part of the state that Kelly said had been neglected by the previous staff.
Signing recruits like Howard and offensive tackle Will Campbell — who hail from Monroe and Lafayette, respectively — was a statement, Kelly said, and something to build on.
So far, players have been receptive to Kelly’s demands for accountability. linebacker BJ Ojulari said their schedules are now “on point”. Close end Jack Bech said the little things, like checking daily that you’ve been taking your vitamins, take priority. There are daily wellness questionnaires that players must complete. Once they do, their name will flash green on a plaque in the facility that tracks their progress.
The training was more intentional and less physical – less “punch”, linebackers Mike Jonessaid.
“We’ve done a really great job taking care of our bodies and exercising smart,” Jones said. “I’ve had times in my years here where I’ve tried to chop off the boys’ heads, but now you really have to protect your teammates. And I believe that leads to success. You know, the teams that make it. In the end it’s usually the healthy teams.”
There is no talk of a conversion year here. On defense, Ojulari pointed to the addition of coordinator Matt House, who came from the Kansas City bosses and has SEC experience from his time in Kentucky.
“We have people like Ali Gaye, MassonSmithMike Jones,” Ojulari said, naming Smith a potential #1 defensive tackle draft pick. “We have Jay Ward, Sevyn Banks. We’ve brought so many people who will be able to produce for us.”
Nobody knew what to expect when Kelly arrived. No one saw it coming, Ojulari said. Jones said he needed to check with someone to make sure it was the same Brian Kelly he knew from Notre Dame.
“But then I heard his reason for it,” Bech said. “Because he knew it was going to be a challenge.”
And that resonated with the players. They saw Kelly wear khaki shorts and slip-on shoes to the office all summer, and they thought he was very comfortable in a new environment.
On Monday, Kelly settled into his first official week of play as head coach at LSU. During a press conference, a reporter recalled Kelly’s first day at work and whether he’d had enough time since then to achieve anything he wanted.
“How ready are you?” asked the reporter.
Kelly adjusted the mic and said not to dismiss it as coaching language that “our process has really started to take hold.”
It’s all about intent, he explained, whether it’s checking players’ sleeping habits, what they eat or how they train.
“So that kind of total preparation,” he said, “they understand that now.”
He continued he expects challenges and expects ups and downs. But he said he feels good where they stand.
Whether LSU goes out and beats Florida State is unclear. The Tigers are 3-point favorites.
But one thing is clear: Kelly is convinced of his plan.
As he begins another chapter in his career, he’s confident he can surpass what he’s achieved before.
There’s only one glaring hole left on his résumé, and that’s a national title.
And that’s exactly what’s expected of him, according to athletic director Scott Woodward during Kelly’s inaugural press conference in December.
“He’s not just here to win, he’s here to win championships.”