How Brian Kelly plans to turn LSU into a perennial national title contender in college football

A former NFL player turned sports agent, Brian Kelly has been able to build the LSU football program into a national power.
He’s taking charge of Notre Dame after leading Cincinnati for four years and leading them to their first conference title in over 30 years.

Brian Kelly is a former head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. He was also the offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators and has been hired to be the new head coach at LSU. His plan for turning LSU into a perennial national title contender in college football. Read more in detail here: who will coach lsu in bowl game.

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    ESPN’s Pete Thamel

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana – Outside the LSU football facilities, a black Model X Tesla with falcon doors is parked in the head coach’s slot. When you go into Brian Kelly’s new workplace, your senses are assaulted by an incandescent purple carpet. If you type Kelly’s name into a search engine, you’ll find that criticisms about his dancing skills dominate the results.

There’s enough to divert attention away from the most intriguing college football deal of the offseason. Cut through the eye-popping graphics of Brian Kelly’s shift from the navy and gold of Notre Dame to the purple and gold of LSU, and the clear template for Kelly’s success in Baton Rouge remains.

Kelly chose LSU over Notre Dame because the latter had superior geographic access to players and a higher possibility of winning a national title.

How can that happen? Distilling LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s splashy $95 million experiment to a single statistic is easy. Notre Dame won 94.2% of the time as a favorite over the past five years, according to ESPN Stats & Information — better than any power conference team. That includes Kelly winning his final 40 games as a favorite at Notre Dame.

While Kelly enters LSU in a moment when the roster lags behind the talent of SEC West rivals like Alabama and Texas A&M, the program remains ideally situated to soon become the betting favorite in nearly every game. And that’s the edge Woodward sought to capitalize on with his axis-shifting hire.

Kelly is now a coach in a state where talent abounds, much like Abita in the French Quarter. Louisiana has more NFL players per capita (68) than any other state, accounting for one out of every 68,498 residents. There is no close second, with one for every 86,368 people in Georgia (124).

Most importantly, there is no Power 5 institution within state borders with whom LSU may compete for such athletes. Louisiana has had the fifth most ESPN 300 recruits (137) and the fifth most top-50 recruits in the last decade (29). However, unlike programs in other hotbeds like California, Texas, and Florida, LSU does not face any in-state competition.

Kelly previously told ESPN in his office, “If we have guys that are comparable to or better than them, we’re going to win at a very, very high, high rate.” “And I believe it has influenced my preparation as a head coach and in preparing football teams. So that expertise, those years, those three decades and more, is unquestionably beneficial when it comes to preparation when you have the horses.”

Kelly may be a Massachusetts Yankee waking up in Mike the Tiger’s court, but he is far from a dunderhead. Prior to his arrival at LSU, Kelly, 60, won 284 football games at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame. LSU sacked Ed Orgeron after failing to finish with a winning record in the two seasons after the Tigers’ star-studded 2019 national championship, and his employment on the Bayou is an evident collision of seasoned coach and sinking program.

Kelly said, “I’m here to win a national title.” “I came down here just for it.”

LSU’s last three coaches, Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Ed Orgeron, have all won national championships. Kelly’s ability to enhance the program will depend on how he manages the nitty gritty of recruiting rather than how he does the Griddy dance.

“So far, I believe it’s been a tremendous hit,” said Nelson Stewart, the seasoned coach of New Orleans’ Isidore Newman School. He grinned as he recognized the conversation on cultural differences. “You could hear a lot of the same rumblings when Coach Saban arrived from Michigan State. That was quickly forgotten.”

Kelly’s Hall of Fame résumé would get a final flourish if he could turn LSU into a national winner.

Brian Kelly guides a guest around LSU’s football headquarters on a recent bright morning. He jokes that the prevalence of grilled oysters is the largest cultural adjustment of his relocation, and demonstrates the converted storage room that houses his Peloton, yoga mats, and blocks to battle the inevitable excesses.

Kelly works out with a personal trainer three times a week and cycles the Peloton. With a giggle, he replied, “Now I’ve got no excuse.”

More difficult than burning off the local delicacies will be getting LSU’s weak lineup in condition. Dueling shots capture the divide that helped fuel LSU’s fall as Kelly goes into the staff room.

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In the staff area, there are over 50 black seats gathered around an expansive conference table, with some even elevated above like a loge section for a staff meeting. A pair of position-by-position recruitment boards, one for Louisiana exclusively and the other for the whole country, flank the staff room on the walls.

Kelly’s first assignment at LSU was to create an organizational framework to best utilize how the 52 new staff people he recruited go about their business in order to capitalize on all of that expertise. Due to a lack of job description, he discovered “people chasing their tails” when he arrived. As a result, officials tried to fill in the gaps, which caused even more uncertainty.

Kelly came to the following conclusion quickly: “There was no org chart.” That’s business jargon for organizational chart, and he discovered a football program that moved like a nose tackle on a balancing beam.

Kelly’s first task after arriving was to create a “clear, thorough, and integrated organizational structure.” “We had wonderful individuals here before,” he says, “but they didn’t have well-defined duties.”

Kelly summarizes the situation as follows: “On any given day, I had no clue what hat they were wearing. I would go to a senior administrator and speak to them about financial assistance one day, admissions the next, and housing the following. They didn’t have defined duties and responsibilities in this situation, which made cooperation tough on the opposite side.”

Austin Thomas, the former structure’s general manager, “basically had his hands on everything,” according to Kelly. Kelly blew it apart and gave individual individuals control over critical areas including recruitment, personnel, operations, player services, and development. Kelly named Beth Rex, a longstanding staff member who worked with him at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, chief of staff. She is in charge of everything, and all of the departments report to her.

The outcome is what Kelly refers to as a “cohesive operating standard on a day-to-day basis,” which includes tasks as simple as installing Teamworks software, which aids with program scheduling and communication. It’s been around since 2007, and almost every college football team in the nation uses it.

Simply said, when every LSU employee walks into the office, they know precisely what they’re doing. This results in efficiency across the recruitment process, from the practice grounds to game day.

“I believe we’re going to win, and it won’t be the first time,” Rex said. “I believe we’re on the verge of putting something together that will last.”

USA TODAY Sports/Stephen Lew

KELLY VISITED UPTOWN NEW ORLEANS SOON AFTER ACCEPTING THE LSU POSITION and met with Nelson Stewart. Stewart has seen Gerry Dinardo, Saban, Miles, and Orgeron all come through and recruit at Isidore Newman in his 24th year of teaching.

Stewart has been the head coach for 17 years and appreciates the personal touch from the LSU staff. Kelly didn’t only inquire about his favorite players or game plans. Instead, Kelly inquired about Stewart’s favorite local eatery, joking that assistant head coach Frank Wilson wanted to take him to Popeye’s.

Clancy’s, a popular Uptown neighborhood spot that Stewart refers to as a “pay day” restaurant since he can only afford to take his kid there on pay day, was suggested by Stewart.

In comparison to previous LSU coaches, “no coach has come through and made as big of an effect as Brian Kelly,” Stewart remarked. “When you meet him, he exudes humility and honesty. You get the impression that you have known him for a long time.”

Kelly’s ability to assemble the sort of team that would enable him to restore LSU into a national contender will ultimately be determined by his ability to form true connections with high school coaches.

Kelly is putting forth the effort, according to Stewart and other coaches around the state. He was keen to point out that recruiting coordinator Brian Polian paid him a visit so soon after he was hired that he didn’t yet have any LSU clothing. He lingered for two hours, getting to know Stewart. Joe Sloan, the quarterbacks coach, contacts Stewart many times a week, usually to check in on him.

Arch Manning, the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2023, plays at Newman, which accounts for part of the buzz. Bo Bordelon, an LSU offensive lineman pledge who will enroll this summer, also plays there. (LSU was also the first to offer Bo’s younger brother, Brett, a 2025 freshman.) In the 1990s, their father, Ben, was an All-SEC lineman at LSU.)

During Stewart’s time at Newman, he believed that around 90% of the athletes offered by LSU ended up enrolling there.

“An offer from LSU is the most prestigious offer,” Stewart said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for children. LSU has the legacy, the facilities, and the camaraderie in recruitment. It’s a unique location. It really sells itself. When LSU football is on a roll, I don’t believe there is anything more thrilling in Louisiana.”

Kelly immediately learned that his passion for LSU is charbroiled into the state’s spirit, which is a far cry from his experience at Notre Dame.

When he came at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, a prestigious LSU feeder school that has produced talents like Tyrann Mathieu and Leonard Fournette, he was met with a school-wide announcement.

“I used to go to California,” he remarked, “and I’ve got to defeat USC and UCLA.” “On these youngsters, I have to defeat the local school. I walk into these classrooms and stand in front of the video board.”

In his 17 seasons as head coach at Edna Karr, experienced coach Brice Brown says that 70% of his players with LSU offers have gone there. Brown praised Kelly for coming to see him right after he was hired and staying for many hours. Wilson’s hiring, according to Brown, provided immediate credibility.

Wilson, who was a successful high school coach in New Orleans and is on his second term at LSU, is “very widely regarded in the state,” according to Brown. “His contacts will take him a long way [as they did] in the early part of 2010, 2011, and 2012, when LSU was a recruiting powerhouse.”

Kelly immediately discovered that coaches in northern Louisiana did not believe they were receiving enough attention.

Zalance Heard, the No. 73 player in the ESPN 300 for 2023, will be a nice test of that northern Louisiana region. Texas and Michigan have both offered him as a 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive lineman. Kelly and offensive line coach Brad Davis, according to Neville High School coach Jeff Tannehill, are doing a “excellent job” in terms of communication and outreach.

During Kelly’s visit, he also made something apparent to Tannehill that he had discovered since taking over. He’s favoring guys who won’t bring off-field difficulties, as keeping players has become a more vital element of college football.

Tannehill added, “He’s definitely going for the good kids.” “He’ll make sure kids get high marks and have good relationships with their professors. He’s doing a fantastic job of attracting youngsters with strong morals. That’s exactly what he’s wanting.”

IN 2022, HOW WILL LSU APPEAR? The 12 transfers Kelly brought in to restock the roster will play in LSU’s spring game on Saturday (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network+ and ESPN App).

Fourth-year tailback John Emery Jr., who missed last season due to academic concerns, exemplifies the dichotomy of untapped skill and infinite potential. Kelly’s eyes light up when he speaks about Emery’s glimpses of potential this spring, which include being timed at over 20 mph on the GPS system during LSU workouts. (Emery is dealing with a slight ankle injury and may miss the spring game.)

Emery is expected to be eligible this season, according to Kelly, which would be a significant help to LSU’s running game. Emery was ESPN’s top-rated tailback in the 2019 class and Louisiana’s best talent. In his first two seasons, he carried for 566 yards and seven touchdowns.

In the most recent Academic Progress Rate statistics given by the NCAA, LSU was rated worst in the SEC. Kelly’s infrastructure and accountability will include ensuring that players like Emery don’t miss seasons due to academic concerns.

“It’s a tragedy that the kid’s career was cut short,” Kelly added. “He’s really gifted.”

Former Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels is another guy whose career has been on the decline. After moving to Baton Rouge earlier this spring, he’s found himself in the middle of a tremendous four-man quarterback contest.

Daniels, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 185 pounds, weighed only 185 pounds while at ASU. Daniels’ physical growth and development were hampered following a rookie season in which he threw 17 touchdowns and two picks with that team mired in chaos. If Daniels gets the position, Kelly said the emphasis would be on getting him ready for the rigors of SEC competition. “He requires a coat of armor that he doesn’t have, and we’ll have to make one for him,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s first LSU squad is unlikely to be designed to compete in the SEC West right away. Woodward, the athletic director, told ESPN that he expects the new staff’s enthusiasm and infrastructural upgrades to be reflected on the field.

“What I want to see is what Brian’s teams have been like in the past,” Woodward said. “Winning in the fourth quarter and in November are two different things. Those will be the telltale indicators. That demonstrates buy-in and the importance of properly training and focusing them. Early in a coach’s career, laying a firm foundation is crucial.”

The outcomes have proved in the past that if the correct foundation is laid at LSU, the results will follow. Kelly is inheriting a club that last played with 39 scholarship players in a bowl defeat to Kansas State.

Kelly said he had different aspirations here than when he took over at Notre Dame because there is nowhere to go but up. That reconstruction was more focused on reintroducing the Irish to the mainstream of the sport, which he was successful in doing. There’s a new objective here, and he’s embraced it wholeheartedly.

“I believe the legacy is different here without winning a national title,” he said of how he’ll be remembered at LSU. “Look at how clear it is. I want to bring our program to the point where it can compete for championships on a regular basis.”

The “LSU football schedule” is a college football team located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The LSU Tigers are led by head coach Brian Kelly, and have been playing college football since 1893. In 2016, the Tigers won their first ever SEC title. Reference: lsu football schedule.

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