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Brian Kelly selfishly leaving for LSU with Notre Dame in playoff race puts sport’s hypocrisy on display

Brian Kelly selfishly leaving for LSU with Notre Dame in playoff race puts sport’s hypocrisy on display

Whatever Brian Kelly told the Notre Dame players on his way out the door Tuesday morning, his final team meeting didn’t include the words, “It’s not worth it.”

It didn’t need to. Kelly’s shocking actions spoke louder than any profound exit address. At perhaps the most storied sports program in the world, one in the thick of a College Football Playoff race with a national championship potentially within reach, Kelly punted.

The LSU job was more desirable. The Tigers needed him now with early signing day approaching. The money was certainly more substantial. For Kelly, it was not worth chasing the dragon that has kept the coach from getting a statue built outside Notre Dame Stadium.

On the same day Lincoln Riley was labeled a “traitor” on the Oklahoma campus for taking the USC job, Kelly called … and raised.

Six days before his team could get into the CFP for the third time in four years, Kelly not only accepted the LSU job, he left right away. That is unprecedented. In the history of the sport, few if any coaches have ever left with a championship on the line.

Among the messages Kelly sent: I don’t think the Fighting Irish are going to get to the playoff, but even if they do, I don’t care because they aren’t going to win anyway.

In three visits to the BCS and CFP, his Notre Dame teams have never won — or come close to winning — a game. The Irish have lost those three games by a combined 103-31.

There have been comparisons to Bobby Petrino’s departure from the Atlanta Falcons. But that team wasn’t in the NFL playoff race. This is like a coach of a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament leaving on the eve of Round 1 tip-off.

Here we are in what should be the most exciting week of the season. Instead, the conference championship games and playoff build have been hijacked by the coaches. They — and their agents — have set a new standard. What exactly is that standard, though?

“You’ve seen a significant shift: a shift in mobility and a shift in compensation,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday. “I don’t have the answer, but we better be asking it. What do we want college football to be and make sure it still fits inside the university environment?”

Swarbrick is in a situation where his program may make a playoff without a designated interim coach. He has that much faith in the football foundation left by Kelly.

That also begs the question: Why could Kelly not have waited a week to see if Notre Dame was eliminated? The prospect of being able to recruit Louisiana high school talent could have waited until then.

You can bet Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, who many believe is the favorite to replace Kelly, will make Notre Dame wait for the Bearcats’ playoff run to end. As he should.


The rest of us have little faith in the stunning hypocrisy of what college athletics has become.

Last week, Riley was on the cusp of a fifth straight Big 12 title and possible playoff berth. On Monday, he was tearing up at the prospect of coaching in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“The history of this program,” Riley said Monday at his USC introductory press conference, “is as good as it gets in college football.”

Let that sink in, Sooner Nation.

Kelly leaving less than a week before the Notre Dame program he nurtured back to health could clinch a playoff berth comes just eight days after he proclaimed his loyalty to the Irish.

“… unless the fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at that first. I’d have to run it by her,” Kelly said.

It was nice of Kelly to lighten the fairy godmother’s load. Turns out it only took a reported $95 million over 10 years for Kelly to depart immediately.

“It struck me how similar the comments [were] made by Lincoln the day before,” Swarbrick said of Kelly’s goodbye to the team. “It was just about another opportunity, right time for his family to take on another opportunity.”

What are we supposed to do with all that? The echoes of Nick Saban’s famous proclamation while coach of the Miami Dolphins — “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.” — begin to ring in our ears. In one sense, what are coaches hip deep in negotiations with a suitor supposed to do after giving 12 good years?

In another sense … WTF?

What are we supposed to believe these days? More than that, who are we supposed to believe? This sort of betrayal is merely a reflection of what college athletics has become.

Heartless realignment ravaged the game twice in a decade. The BCS and CFP created a class system that forced the have nots to play guarantee games against behemoths just to balance their budgets. The NCAA in general hasn’t been able to get its arms around cheating to the point it has all but thrown up his hands in this age of name, image and likeness.

The Power Five commissioners operated in their own self-interests last year as COVID-19 raged. There was no consensus on, well, anything — scheduling, testing, whether the games would be played.

In a way, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Notre Dame, which has acted in its own self-interest for decades as a powerful independent. Its decision to partner with NBC in 1990 to televise its home games rocked college football. It eventually destroyed the sport’s negotiating arm, the College Football Association, and set the foundation for the monster media rights fees commanded by conferences.

That, in turn, created a pot of money that gave rise to powerful agents leveraging millions of dollars for their clients. You might have noticed the market for top coaches was reset in just the last week with the Mel Tucker’s $95 million extension becoming official at Michigan State.

Craziness. In a period of seven days, we now have four coaches – Tucker, Riley, Kelly and Penn State’s James Franklin — making significantly more than the average NFL coach (average salary: $6.7 million).

In that sense, college football has become NFL Lite. The transfer portal is free agency. Recruiting is the draft. Those coaches who think of it as just that will be the most successful.

We can debate whether Kelly will have better access to the CFP at LSU another time. It was the way he left that is at issue.

A week ago, Notre Dame and Oklahoma had one loss between them. Today, neither has a head coach.

While we’re at it,  congratulations everyone. This season’s coaching carousel has indeed become bigger than the games in the biggest week of the season.

Maybe this is simply a glimpse of the future. The NCAA as we know it will soon be dead. These new contracts reflect a growing gap between millionaire coaches and the (still) underpaid labor force that plays for them.

Several college stakeholders who spoke with CBS Sports expect that, eventually, athletes will become employees of schools. Along with that will come collective bargaining. Agents will become even more powerful.

You think the buyouts are crazy now? Even the most unscrupulous coaches now have to swallow hard before asking for loyalty from their players.

The newly-formed College Basketball Players Association recently filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practice. It says the NCAA has been misclassifying college players as “student-athletes” for 68 years.

“The players score the points, the coaches get the money because the labor is free,” said Michael Hsu, a CBPA board member. “That makes it easier for them to pay these coaches so much.”

Are they all traitors in leaving at inconvenient times? No one can doubt the return on investment with Riley and Kelly.

Go to the thesaurus and call their actions what you will, but Kelly’s move was unprecedented for more significant reasons. There are six or seven teams still alive in the College Football Playoff.

The coach of one of them determined it’s not worth the time or effort to see how far his team can go. After all, the early signing period at LSU is only 15 days away.