Fish out of water? Brian Kelly rocks the college football boat at LSU

ByAlex Scarborough ESPN logo
Sunday, September 4, 2022

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Give Brian Kellythis: He operates from a position of strength.

The man played club football at Assumption College -- not FBS or FCS but club football -- and one of his first jobs was coaching softball at the school. Eight years later, he climbed all the way to head football coach at Grand Valley State in Michigan, which he then leveraged into head-coaching jobs at Central Michigan and then Cincinnati and then Notre Dame. And while no one in the history of Notre Dame football had ever leveraged Notre Dame, that's exactly what he did last winter. If the administration wasn't going to make the upgrades he wanted on the timeline he wanted, fine. No hard feelings. He'd leave for LSU.

And what did he do once he got there? He let everyone on the staff go with the exception of offensive line coach Brad Davis. He even let revered strength coach Tommy Moffitt walk after a tenure that spanned the Nick Saban, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron coaching eras and included three national championships.

Kelly had a quarterback room that included blue-chip freshman Walker Howard, sophomore Garrett Nussmeier and sixth-year senior Myles Brennan. One of his first moves was convincing Brennan to withdraw from the transfer portal. But the moment Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels became available, Kelly jumped at the chance to bring him in, knowing full well it might lead to one or more quarterbacks leaving.

He sized up Kayshon Boutte, the star receiver and perhaps the most talented player on the roster, and didn't like what he saw. Kelly wanted to know why he wasn't fully engaged in practice. It didn't matter that he was recovering from season-ending ankle surgery or that he'd flirted with transferring. Kelly called him out, publicly questioning his commitment.

Forget fitting in. Forget the whole "fish out of water" narrative. Kelly rocked the boat, grabbed the wheel and took charge.

When LSU president William Tate addressed the media in late November, after agreeing to sign Kelly to a massive 10-year, $95 million contract, he called him "the most accomplished football coach this university has ever hired." Among his credentials: He's the winningest active coach in college football and three times has been named Home Depot Coach of the Year. And Kelly exuded exactly that level of confidence speaking to ESPN from his new office one morning this spring.

"Look," he said, "this is my 32nd year. So you would expect that I have a pretty good idea of what the plan should be and how it should look. If not, I've been just throwing balls up in the air for a long time and I'm the luckiest Irish Catholic in the history of college football."

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 appeal of building something from scratch on your own terms. Is it fun? He grinned.

"No doubt," he said. "It's a restart in life, too, in a sense, right? To be in it for 32 years and have that jump-start and then have 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 there. But in Baton Rouge, they couldn't be happier to have Kelly ahead of the season-opener Sunday against Florida State in New Orleans (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app).

THE LAST COACH to come in and make waves like this at LSU was Saban -- another outsider who grew restless at Michigan State and went to the SEC in search of something more.

Kelly said he actually spoke with Saban, who encouraged him to take the opportunity. Saban said his message to Kelly was simple: The people in Louisiana are great and passionate.

"And if you can use that to your advantage," Saban said, "it will be very, very helpful to you being successful."

So Kelly leaned into all things Louisiana. He even tried on a Southern accent and learned how to do the Griddy -- a dance popularized in football circles by former LSU star receivers Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase.

Who cares that he looked and sounded sort of ridiculous? Twitter went wild. And Kelly didn't back away. He went to SEC media days in Atlanta and delivered the sound bite of the day.

"Understand now, I have a Boston, Midwestern, Louisiana accent now," he told reporters. "It's three dialects into one. It's no longer fam-uh-lee, I got all kinds of stuff to throw at you. Just be ready."

This image of Brian Kelly, grinning and practically winking into the camera, is almost unrecognizable from the buttoned-up coach who stalked sidelines for the past decade, and with good reason.

"I wore a tie and a jacket virtually all the time," he said. "Maybe it's because it's how [Notre Dame] was perceived to me as an Irish Catholic growing up in Boston. Maybe I read it wrong, but that's what I did.

"Here, you know, you feel like you can wear shorts and flip-flops and you're much more relaxed. So if that's a vibe, as a definition, it's a totally different vibe."

As he was leaving an interview at SEC media days, a reporter asked what his first crawfish boil was like and Kelly stopped dead in his tracks.

"Oh," he said, lighting up, "We had like 10 of them."

Then he proceeded to vent for a minute. A good crawfish boil is all about spice, he said, but when you're having one as part of a university function 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: to drink beer," he said.

Bingo. Change his birth certificate. He can claim Louisiana now.

But fitting in only works in the SEC if you're winning, and Kelly acknowledges that probably won't happen overnight.

"It's coming together," he said. "It's a process."

When he was thinking of leaving Notre Dame, he said he looked at LSU like a distressed asset in business; it was regularly turning a profit (winning) in spite of some pretty glaring shortcomings. Clearly, he said, "there was air coming out of the tire." Under Orgeron, the losses and off-field missteps piled up quickly after winning the national championship in 2019. There was an ongoing NCAA investigation, which Kelly was informed of by officials prior to his arrival.

"Then you get here," Kelly said, "and you look at the injury report and you look at the APR [academic progress report] and you look at the transfer portal."

He studied a roster that included fewer than 40 available scholarship players and a receiver taking first-team snaps at quarterback.

Then he walked around the facility and saw offices that had been left empty for a year. Some positions that were filled, he learned, weren't clearly defined.

He completely restructured the personnel office, separating high school and transfer recruiting and dedicating specific staff to target the state of Louisiana. Of the 15 transfers the program signed, Kelly said seven weren't offered by LSU out of high school, went elsewhere and wanted to come back home. There were high schools in the northern part of the state Kelly said had been neglected by the previous staff.

Signing recruits such as Howard and offensive tackle Will Campbell -- who are from Monroe and Lafayette, respectively -- was a statement, Kelly said, and something to build on.

Players so far have been receptive to Kelly's demands for accountability. Linebacker BJ Ojulari said their schedules have "pinpoint" accuracy now. Tight end Jack Bech said the small things, such as checking whether you've taken your vitamins each day, are priorities. There are daily wellness questionnaires the players must fill out. Once they do, their name lights up green on a board in the facility that tracks their progress.

Practice has been more intentional and less physical -- less "beat 'em up," linebacker Mike Jonessaid.

"We've really done a great job of taking care of our bodies and practicing smart," Jones said. "I've had times throughout my years here where I've been trying to knock guys' heads off, but now you have to really protect your teammates. And I believe that translates to success. You know, the teams that make it to the end are usually the healthy teams."

There's no talk of a rebuilding year here. On defense, Ojulari pointed to the addition of coordinator Matt House, who came over from the Kansas City Chiefs and has SEC experience from his time at Kentucky.

"We got guys like Ali Gaye, Maason Smith, Mike Jones," Ojulari said, calling Smith a potential No. 1 draft pick at defensive tackle. "We got Jay Ward, Sevyn Banks. We brought in so many guys that are going to be able to produce for us."

No one knew what to expect when Kelly arrived. No one saw it coming, Ojulari said. Jones said he had to check with someone that it was the same Brian Kelly he knew of from Notre Dame.

"But then I heard his reason why," Bech said. "Because he knew it was going to be a challenge."

And that resonated with the players. They saw Kelly wearing khaki shorts and slip-on shoes around the office all summer, and they thought he looked plenty comfortable in a new environment.

ON MONDAY, KELLY settled into his first official game week as head coach at LSU. During a news conference, a reporter harked back to Kelly's first day on the job and whether he had enough time since then to get all he wanted accomplished.

"How ready are you?" the reporter asked.

Kelly adjusted the microphone and said not to brush it off as coach-speak that "our process has really begun to take hold."

It was all about being intentional, he explained, whether it was checking players' sleep patterns, what they eat or how they practice.

"So that kind of total preparation," he said, "they understand that now."

He went on to say he expects challenges and expects ups and downs. But he said he felt good about where they stood.

Whether LSU goes out and beats Florida State is anyone's guess. The Tigers are 3-point favorites.

Time will tell how long it takes to win consistently and become competitive with the likes of Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC West.

But one thing is clear: Kelly is confident in his plan.

As he begins another chapter in his career, it's with a belief he can surpass what he accomplished before.

There's only one glaring hole left on his résumé, and it's a national title.

And that's exactly what's expected of him, as athletic director Scott Woodward said during Kelly's introductory news conference in December.

"He's not just here to win, he's here to win championships."

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