Irish Goodbye: a record of all my thoughts on the BK/MF transition

Irish Goodbye
Michel Marchand
December 2, 2021

Most sports fans have never heard of L.A. legend Anthony Davis.

No, not that one. Some of you probably already know this story, but USC running back Anthony Davis caught a touchdown pass right before halftime against defending national champion Notre Dame in 1974, then ran back the third-quarter kickoff for a touchdown. He added two more scores as the Trojans, who had spotted the Irish a 24-0 second-quarter lead, blew ND right out of the Colosseum, winning 55-24. This was on top of six touchdowns Davis scored the last time the Irish visited SoCal in '72.

He tells this possibly-apocryphal anecdote to anyone who will listen: after the '74 onslaught, a woman approached him and stuck a crucifix in his face. "You must be the devil," she supposedly said, before closing with:

"Nobody does that to Notre Dame."

Wiktionary defines Irish goodbye as "a hasty exit made without saying farewells to anybody."

It's also listed as "offensive," most likely referring to the cultural denigration and not the act itself. Still, it shouldn't be a surprise that when news broke Monday that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly accepted the same position at LSU, it not only rocked the sports world, but it offended almost everyone associated with Notre Dame, including assistant coaches who were hitting the pavement to lock down Kelly's ND recruiting class of '22. One found out by checking the news on his phone just after visiting a potential recruit and his family at their home.

"The news broke when I walked out of the house," he told The Athletic's Matt Fortuna anonymously, "so I look like a fucking asshole."

Jack Swarbrick was more matter-of-fact when he spoke to the media on Tuesday. According to the ND athletic director, Kelly "did not discuss with me the conversations he had with other universities."

To the rest of the team, the breakup was over text.

"Men..." Kelly began, "Let me first apologize for the late night text and, more importantly, for not being able to share the news with you in person that I will be leaving Notre Dame." The text arranged a team meeting at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, where Kelly spoke for about three minutes before swiftly getting on a jet bound for Baton Rouge, where LSU had rolled out the purple carpet for him on his first day on the job.

"This is a historic moment for Louisiana State University," said school president William F. Tate IV on Wednesday, proud as a peacock to share the news that hadn't been news for almost two full days. In a meandering acknowledgement, Tate stated that Brian Kelly was the first Notre Dame coach in 114 years to leave "that fine institution" to directly accept a coaching position at another university.

In other words, nobody does that to Notre Dame.

However, Brian Kelly has done it all over. As ESPN reported, only twice in the last 30 years has a Power 5 coach who's won 11 games in a season bolted for another school: Brian Kelly, from Notre Dame to LSU in 2021 and Brian Kelly, from Cincinnati to ND in 2009. Before then, BK left Central Michigan during contract renegotiations, ghosting the Chippewas to sign up with the Bearcats.

"Legacies are not part of what I spend time thinking about," Kelly said to a reporter during the LSU press conference's Q&A. "People will evaluate me based upon my life's work and how I've treated people, and make their own decisions."

But why did Brian Kelly decide to leave a school that he'd invested a dozen years in and overtaken Knute Rockne to become the all-time winningest head coach? Why walk away from a team that had made one national championship game and two playoff semifinals — with the possibility of a third if Saturday breaks right — to coach a squad that finished the 2021 season at a breakeven 6-6?

If you ask — and many are, including the reporters at the press conference, radio host Dan Patrick and everyone who's even casually aware of college football — Kelly's got stock answers locked and loaded.

"This is so much about alignment," Kelly said at the presser, as if his new contract stipulated bonuses for every time he used the word (and it might). "I think it just comes down to, for me, an alignment about excellence, that's what I'm about. Excellence in academics, excellence in academics and athletics here at LSU."

For the record, U.S. News & World Report spots LSU at #172 on its list of university rankings, in a tie with Valparaiso University and five other schools. Notre Dame is in the top 20.

Initial opinion suggested something else was on Kelly's mind: money. A shitload of it. Fifteen million dollars was the first number to hit the Internet, a staggering amount that threatened to completely unbalance the sport.

But is it really a cash grab? When the initial reports were corrected, Kelly's base salary was revealed at around $9.5 million, but with a flotilla of stipulated incentive bonuses based on performance. It's tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison to his previous salary, because Notre Dame is a private institution that does not have to disclose its books. Kelly's contract there is a more guarded secret than the Coca-Cola recipe, but Fortuna guesstimated the annual value between $7 and $8 million. It was recently re-upped after the 2019 season, so whatever the pay actually was, it's impossible to conceive that Notre Dame couldn't have matched or beaten it.

According to Swarbrick, they never got the opportunity. "Which, frankly, I appreciated," he noted. "When we talked, he indicated that he was resigning to take another position. He thanked me for the opportunity the university had provided to him, thanked me for our friendship, which I very much appreciated, and I wished him all the best."

"It's never easy when you leave," Kelly said at the Q&A about the Irish team he left. "We did our best, I wanted to get in front of them, and I was fortunate that I had that opportunity to get in front of 'em and tell 'em that I was coming to LSU face-to-face, because that's everything that we've done in my life, and I'll do the same thing here at LSU, we will look you in the eye and we will tell you what we're doing, we'll be transparent."

"At the end of the day, you're not going to do something that is morally or ethically not sound," Kelly told Dan Patrick in terms of dealing with the awkward transition, about two minutes before claiming that he was out on the recruiting trail in California for Notre Dame on Monday morning and accepted the LSU job that afternoon.

"Wait a minute, you're recruiting in L.A. yesterday? . . . How does that work?" Patrick asked incredulously. "You're recruiting as Notre Dame's head coach, get on a plane, en route back to South Bend, you find out this deal has been solidified?"

"Yes sir," Kelly replied. "True story."

If Kelly is telling the truth about transparency, and he wasn't pitching Notre Dame to recruits with a foot out the door, then he decided to jettison his 12-year career, a new home he'd just built, the charitable foundation he and his wife Pacqui had raised over $5 million for, and the Pacqui and Brian Kelly Comprehensive Breast Center in Mishawaka — she's a breast cancer survivor — for a new job, far geographically and culturally from both his Northeastern roots and Midwestern coaching experience, based on a day's worth of phone calls.

It's not quite accurate to say that Pacqui's name has come up in this saga more than expected, but only because nobody refers to her by name. Last week, Coach Kelly made a now-infamous remark about how a "fairy godmother" would need to offer him a check for $250 million to convince him to leave Notre Dame. But "my wife would want to take a look at it first," Kelly quipped.

At the press conference, Kelly jokingly referred to "the boss," nodding toward Pacqui in the front row. "She was part of that decision-making process. There was no turning back."

Apparently she didn't have quite so exorbitant a price — and didn't need it all up front.

According to Matt Fortuna, the "fairy godmother" line — which one South Bend-area TV reporter trolled Kelly with at the Q&A — came in response to rumors that Kelly was leaving for USC. Fortuna tweeted that Kelly called them "smokescreens," saying "folks throw names out there so that other folks don't look where they're supposed to look."

"There was no plan in place as I entered the 2021 season that I was looking for another opportunity," Kelly vouched at Wednesday's Q&A. This was perhaps an indirect response to something Swarbrick said the day before at his presser, when he was asked if Kelly's sudden departure caught him off-guard. "I was not surprised," he said. "There had been enough in the weeks leading up that gave me a pretty strong sense that there might be other things that were attracting Brian."

In retrospect, Swarbrick's comment makes a lot of sense, as the otherwise amiable Kelly made some strange decisions in the 2021 season. The oddities began with a postgame interview after the Week 1 narrow win against Florida State, where Kelly channeled Anthony Davis' old USC coach, John McKay, with a joke: "I'm in favor of execution — maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight."

Okay, so it wasn't a funny joke.

More tactically, Kelly's YOLO spinning of the quarterback merry-go-round at nearly random intervals spoke to someone who was, simply, bored.

Kelly's statements for the move are ambiguous, which stands to reason since he has a three-decade fluency of coachspeak. The reasons he gave Tiger fans are effusive bordering on ass-kissing. "I came down here because I wanted to be with the best. The resources here are outstanding," he said during the Q&A.

LSU does have an advantage there. According to 24/7 Sports, the Tigers' facilities rank #7 in college football, while Notre Dame checks in at #16. But ND invested nearly half a billion dollars just in two buildings alone — the Campus Crossroads stadium renovation and the Irish Indoor Athletic Center.

"We always are talking about the program's needs and how to improve it, and there was not anything identified at any time that was something we could not accommodate or meet," Swarbrick noted. "We just didn't have those things come up."

Kelly continued: "It starts with the alignment, excellence, the standard of expectations. Listen, you’re looked at in terms of championships here, and I want that. I want to be under the bright lights. I want to be on the Broadway stage. That’s what my passion is, so yeah, that’s part of the draw, there’s no doubt about that."

To which Notre Dame fans, perhaps snobbishly but justifiably, wondered why he went from a place that already had excellence, championship expectations, and top-billing exposure to a place that only occasionally has those but also thinks the word "go" is spelled with three different vowels and an X.

In contrast, on "The Dan Patrick Show," Kelly explained his goals when he took over at ND. "The charge that I had was to modernize Notre Dame football, bring it back to relevance and consistency as one of the top programs in the country and we check all those boxes . . . Our process was about graduating champions and we did that and the outcomes were what they were. But that was never my intent, it was to modernize the football program, which we did, with infrastructure and improvements. It was certainly about consistency in performance and graduating football players. All those things were accomplished."

He came to Notre Dame to rebuild the brand, and if they won along the way, great. It's a skinny tightrope to walk, because if he said "I came to Notre Dame to win championships," then he'd have to admit that he failed. But whether he likes it or not, an undeniable aspect of his legacy at Notre Dame remains that despite the ecosystem he built, ultimate success eluded him.

In introducing LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly to the world, Athletic Director Scott Woodward alluded to that legacy: "He's not here to taste success. He's here to sustain it."

Although they don't control their championship destiny, the Irish, ranked #6 in the College Football Playoff standings, stand just four games away from a title. They need two teams above them to lose to prop them up to the top 4. Then they need to win two games to earn the title.

Or is that a flawed analysis?

If #1 Georgia just barely defeats #3 Alabama in the SEC Championship game, the Crimson Tide would have two very close losses. But an argument could be made that they might still deserve a spot over Notre Dame due to their strength of schedule, as both teams would have 11 wins.

The cost of Notre Dame's independence is that they can only guarantee a College Football Playoff berth with an undefeated season, while the SEC can, conceivably, get both division winners in, even if they have two losses.

"The SEC doesn't really matter to me," Kelly said during the Q&A before almost immediately undoing his own words by putting the emphasis at the end. "It's this university that happens to be in the SEC that matters to me the most. And so when you get this university, LSU, with the leadership that it has and and the cohesiveness of leadership across the board — and it's in the SEC?! Ding ding ding, right?"

Brian Kelly is certainly capable of recruiting championship-caliber teams. He's come so close at Notre Dame. But at LSU it will be easier. He doesn't have to recruit in L.A. when he can recruit in LA: according to Sport Source Analytics, Louisiana produces more NFL players per capita at speed positions (RB, WR, DB) than any other state. Neighboring Mississippi is #2. Those players will fall into his lap, to go with the top-flight offensive line and defensive front-seven talent he consistently pulls.

And while he'll have a tougher schedule, he'll have up to double the chances of making the top 4. Plus, when Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC in 2025, the likeliest realignment scenario is that Alabama and Auburn slide to the SEC East, meaning Kelly wouldn't have to face Nick Saban every year. In the new SEC West, LSU's toughest competition would be Texas A&M and the two former Big XII teams most unused to how the SEC plays defense. The annual path to the SEC Championship — and therefore the College Football Playoff, and therefore the national championship — becomes much straighter.

But what if he doesn't make it that far? LSU is not known to tolerate losers for very long.

That is where the genius of his contract really kicks in. The difference in his contract from Notre Dame to LSU isn't the annual salary — it's the length. After the 2019 season, his resigning was just for three years. But LSU offered a full decade. And, critically, if LSU fires him without cause, they still have to pay 90% of the $95 million base. If he wins the national championship and is still fired — the fate of the last two coaches — he gets it all.

When Brian Kelly signed the deal, he basically guaranteed himself more than $85 million over the next 10 years, a jackpot windfall in an age where most coaches start on the hot seat.

So, no, contrary to initial opinion, it wasn't all about the money. However, while he said leaving wasn't easy, the move does put him on Easy Street.

But he did do what he was hired to do at Notre Dame, accomplishing every possible goal save one. So the best response might still be Swarbrick's: thank you, and we wish you all the best.

May he and his fairy godmother live happily ever after.

"I have what I consider the finest job in college football. I have the opportunity to compete for national championships and not have the trappings of the Division I arena, the incredible pressure to win at all costs. I have absolutely found the job I want."

Brian Kelly, in 2001 while the coach at Grand Valley State


EPILOGUE: Perhaps the best credit to the decade-plus Brian Kelly spent rebuilding Notre Dame's football institution is that almost everyone around it chose to stay rather than join him on his spontaneous move to the bayou.

Notre Dame prides itself on being the pinnacle of the college football experience, so Kelly going somewhere else was mostly a personal insult. Their response had to be swift and spectacular.

The first name on the list was Luke Fickell, who is the current Cincinnati coach. But there were several problems: first, the Bearcats are also fighting for a spot in the CFP, so it would be a bad look to steal him away after being so upset by Brian Kelly leaving under similar circumstances. In fact, theoretically ND and Cincinnati could wind up in a rematch in the CFP, bringing up weird ethical scenarios.

Second, ND's loss of face wouldn't be fixed by just promoting Cincinnati's coach again. Notre Dame had to get the belle of the ball. (Another name popped up — Urban Meyer — who is a scoundrel bastard piece of shit and I can guarantee was never remotely considered.)

Finally, after coming so far, they could not allow it to be squandered by an uninspiring hire. (Most fans name this misfortune with a triumvirate of boogeymen: Davie, Willingham and Weis. But that's unfair — at the time, they were the best ND could get.)

Fortunately, the players, recruits, assistant coaches, fans and stars quickly aligned around one man: defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Brian Kelly landed him last year — over LSU — when he was the hottest coaching commodity in the sport.

But Kelly did his job recruiting Freeman: he recruited Freeman to the school, not the coach. (In fact, maybe BK knew this day would come all along?)

The future of the Freeman Era at Notre Dame is anyone's guess.

But nobody can call this hire uninspired.

I take it back. This might be the best response.

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