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Kelly came to LSU for nights like Saturday

John Marcase

by John Marcase

November 7, 2022 at 11:00:00 PM

Tigers stun Bama in OT

Saturday was the reason.

Brian Kelly leaving Notre Dame to take the LSU football job last November was a stunner.

Just a few days earlier, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley was rumored to be the next coach of the purple and gold. Riley denied it in the postgame press conference following OU’s loss to Oklahoma State to conclude the Sooners’ regular season in the Bedlam Series. The next day, news broke Riley was taking the Southern Cal job.

Conventional wisdom said Kelly’s hiring by LSU athletic director Scott Woodward was a panic move when Riley spurned LSU.

Kelly’s hiring was stunning on many levels. The biggest may have simply been the fact the winningest coach in Notre Dame history was leaving for another college job. That had never happened before at the most storied college football program in history.

Why? Why would Kelly leave the Irish, who were still in contention to make the 2021 College Football Playoffs?


Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 in the 2006 BCS Championship game.

Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14 in the 2021 Rose Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal game.

Twice, Kelly’s Notre Dame teams were denied a championship due to Alabama.

Notre Dame, for as much success as the Irish have achieved in football, they haven’t won a national title since 1988. Kelly had great teams, but it was becoming more and more difficult to have the great players needed to compete against SEC and Big 10 powers for championships.

Some of it is Notre Dame’s rigorous academic standards. It has long been rumored the academics at Notre Dame were not pleased when Lou Holtz won Notre Dame’s last title and demanded the school strictly enforce its admission standards. Whether that is true or not, the Irish have rarely contended since. And the few chances they have had, they were easily outclassed by the Tide, Clemson and Ohio State. 

In fact, Notre Dame has not won a major bowl game -- think traditional New Year’s Day -- since beating Texas A&M, 24-21, in the Jan. 1, 1998 Cotton Bowl.

So, Kelly jumped at the chance to compete against the Alabamas and Ohio States with equal talent. He still doesn’t have equal talent.

That’s what makes Saturday’s 32-31 overtime win over Alabama satisfying on many levels.

“I had never beaten Alabama,” said Kelly Saturday night. “Those things are kind of like you want to check the box and move on. I was emotional not for myself, but I was emotional for our team because I know what we looked like in January, and to see where we are today, that’s pretty emotional.”

Even with a roster that still needs major work, Kelly has LSU in position to face defending national champion Georgia in the SEC Championship game. All that stands in the way of playing for a spot in the College Football Playoffs is Arkansas, UAB and Texas A&M.

That’s pretty amazing when you think about the reaction to LSU falling to Florida State, 24-23, in the season opener two months ago.

Even in defeat, something was different about this head coach and coaching staff than the two previous ones that produced national championships. There was no panic. Adjustments are made -- at halftime, during the game and between games.

Despite the win over Alabama and whatever unfolds in the remaining weeks, for Kelly, for LSU, and for followers of the Tigers, the best is yet to come.

Compare the current shape of the LSU program to a year ago. And compare it to the shape of its major competitors in the SEC West -- Texas A&M, Auburn and, yes, Alabama. Compare it to incoming Oklahoma and Texas.

Yes, Brian Kelly knew what he was doing when he bolted South Bend for Baton Rouge.

It was for many more nights like Saturday.

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