The news conference to introduce Lincoln Riley as USC’s head coach on Monday was so full of grandiosity, athletics director Mike Bohn actually uttered the following words without even a hint of irony:
“It was never our goal to change the landscape of college football with one of the biggest moves in the history of the game, but we did exactly that.”
Bohn’s perch atop the mountain of coaching search bravado lasted approximately two hours.
Because for all the talk coming out of L.A. about shifting the paradigm of the sport by hiring Riley, LSU pulling Brian Kelly out of Notre Dame one-upped it in a manner that is even more shocking for an industry whose alarm bells should now be fully blaring.
Coaches change jobs all the time, and desperate schools do desperate things this time of year. But for Kelly to leave Notre Dame high and dry when his team still has a chance to win a national championship is both something we’ve never really seen in college football and a rubicon crossed that takes the sport down a perilous path.
How does anyone continue to pretend that this is amateur sports when a multi-million dollar coach leaves his players in the lurch while they could still end up playing for history? How does anyone take the sanctity of the College Football Playoff seriously when it means so little to Kelly that he high-tails it out of town before he even knows whether his team gets in?
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Just two days ago, after Notre Dame finished off an 11-1 season with a blowout win over Stanford, Kelly said the following: “We’ve got one of the best four teams in my mind in the country, without question, and we’re ready to prove it.”
And with the Fighting Irish expected to be ranked No. 5 or No. 6 by the selection committee on Tuesday, it wouldn’t have taken that much for Notre Dame to get in. If Georgia beats Alabama and either Cincinnati, Michigan or Oklahoma State loses their conference championship game, the Fighting Irish would almost certainly be in the final four.
In other words, Kelly bailed on one of six teams that still had a chance to win the national title. That’s not just the action of a broken man, that’s the product of a broken sport.
And college football better get its arms around this insanity before the playoff expands to 12 teams, where theoretically there could be 20-plus schools still in the mix at the height of the coaching carousel.
ESPN or any other television network better think twice about spending billions of dollars on a television product where coaches would rather chase big contracts for themselves than helping the unpaid amateurs etch their names in the history books. If the potential participants don’t care, why should anyone else?
For those who say you can’t blame Kelly for accepting a contract from LSU that is expected to be well north of $10 million per year, that’s bollocks. There is nobody to blame but Kelly for a classless, gutless exit before the kids he recruited to Notre Dame even know whether they’ll have the privilege of playing for a national championship.
By making this move now, Kelly should be a pariah in his profession, never thought of the same way again. He doesn’t care at all about those players, and whatever respect he had earned for his stewardship of the Notre Dame program over the last dozen years has been flushed down the toilet. He should forever be known as little more than a snake and a mercenary.
And yet, the larger story here is about a sport that is speeding toward the edge of an economic cliff while functioning in a manner that fundamentally devalues its core product.
No other sport does this. The Minnesota Vikings can’t offer to double Bill Belichick’s salary while he’s getting ready for the Super Bowl. In professional sports, there are contracts and consequences. In college sports, the culture of agents running roughshod over athletics directors has led to a gradual acceptance of the idea that they can do whatever they want, renegotiate contracts whenever they want and change jobs at will regardless of what it says on a piece of paper.
It’s one thing when a coach leaves for a new job and skips out on the Weed-Eater Bowl. But when it encroaches on the Playoff — the one thing that supposedly still matters in this sport besides money — you’ve got a real problem on your hands.
Notre Dame’s Playoff fate will be decided by a committee of 13 people who supposedly consider every factor involved in a team’s season and potential competitiveness. Will they look at the Fighting Irish the same way knowing that the program has suddenly been plunged into chaos?
It’s a fair question and a rotten outcome for the players who worked too hard to be kneecapped like this by a coach who is going to earn eight figures at LSU while they continue to get their scholarship, room and board at Notre Dame.
And yet, it perfectly embodies the current spirit of college football where schools can afford to offer 10-year contracts to coaches they want and dole out huge buyouts to the ones they grow tired of precisely because they aren’t required to pay the players.
If the new standard is $10 million-plus for coaches who haven’t won a national championship, just imagine the extensions Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and perhaps Kirby Smart are going to be looking for in their next round of negotiations.
This isn’t a sustainable system. At some point, the notion that a coach can take a new job while his team is still in the championship mix needs to be addressed with massive financial penalties and contractual consequences. If not, it’s only going to sow more chaos in the coming years.
As Bohn said, the landscape of college football absolutely changed Monday. It’s just that USC didn’t turn out to be the biggest culprit.