Adam Hunsucker: Brian Kelly will be judged by what happens in Baton Rouge – and Gainesville and South Bend

PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

Brian Kelly asked for this. Every single bit of it. The endless second-guessing and
dogged criticism come with the “bright lights” and “big stage” that Kelly claimed
to yearn for. This insatiable fanbase is his to feed now. Lest they continue hurling trash from the stands at the opposition and berating their own players on social media.

Welcome to LSU.

The horde never goes hungry. If this handler proves ill-suited to the task, its masters will find another. Though everyone involved here should avoid any instant prognostication of a new head coach making a terrible first impression. It didn’t help Kelly that LSU’s wasted season opener was played in New Orleans, or that every gaffe and blunder was presented to a national audience on Labor Day weekend.

No one in Baton Rouge or South Bend yet knows if Kelly’s $100 million exodus from Notre Dame was worth it. The South Bend part is important here. For better or worse, and even right or wrong, these two programs are intrinsically linked into the foreseeable future.

But things are never that simple in Baton Rouge, a place where the saying, “all politics are local” is taken to logical extremes.

LSU is fighting a war on two fronts perception-wise. The eastern theatre established when Florida hired Billy Napier, a complete nonfactor in LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s pursuit of a new coach last season, away from neighboring UL-Lafayette.

Kelly and Woodward are a match made in necessity. The coach believed he’d taken Notre Dame as far as it could go. The Irish made the College Football Playoff twice under Kelly, only to be annihilated by Clemson and Alabama. Kelly believed this to be a Notre Dame problem, not a “him” problem.

Woodward promised the world to the horde on a silver platter. He ignored Napier and former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who led Baylor to the 2021 Big 12 title and a Sugar Bowl victory, and turned to old friend Jimbo Fisher, who he hired at Texas A&M.

Neither Kelly nor Woodward were each other’s first choice. Kelly wanted out of Notre Dame before LSU came calling. It just so happened that LSU, where the last three coaches have all won national championships, was the one job he could land.

For Woodward, he brought in the big-name coach he set out to hire — Kelly was the last candidate who fit that mold — even if only to preserve his media-created reputation as a kingmaker.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Notre Dame promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to replace Kelly. While Freeman’s debut wasn’t any better than Kelly’s, blowing a three-touchdown lead to Oklahoma State in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, he has managed to somehow make the Irish a fan-favorite despite their history as college football’s elitist heel.

Perhaps that speaks more to Kelly’s trademark abrasiveness than Freeman’s popularity inside the industry.

Napier made a better impression in his debut as Florida upset a seventh-ranked Utah team picked to win the Pac-12. LSU visits Gainesville on Oct. 15, but even then is too soon to judge where either program is headed. This is a conflict that will play out over the coming years on the field and in recruiting.

Napier stocked his Florida staff with an LSU flavor. His first big move was to hire former LSU cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond to the same role former LSU running backs coach Jabbar Juluke, a former high school coach at New Orleans powerhouse Edna Karr, followed Napier from Lafayette. Rob Sale, Napier’s offensive coordinator, was a starting offensive lineman on LSU’s 2001 SEC championship squad.

The horde can thank Woodward for this. Napier may not have been good enough for Woodward, but he was for an historic rival who now has an even more personal stake in beating LSU.

Like everything in this sport, recruiting will decide if Woodward made the right choice with Kelly. Notre Dame boasted the top class for the 2023 cycle throughout the spring, but as Freeman has since learned, recruiting classes aren’t locked up until December.

While Notre Dame’s only five-star pledge decommitted, Florida and LSU have shot into the Top 10 by most recruiting services after slow starts. Kelly lacks Napier’s Louisiana connections, a short-term problem that contributed to the Tigers missing out on highly-touted in-state prospects like quarterback Arch Manning and defensive back Derek Williams — at least for now.

To Kelly’s credit, LSU secured commits from wide receiver Shelton Sampson Jr. and offensive tackle Zalance Heard, two of the state’s top-10 senior prospects.

The truth is a good coach can win at all three of these destinations. LSU and Notre Dame will likely never meet unless it’s in the postseason. The Florida situation is more precarious, since the Gators and Tigers play annually.

This will matter little to the horde, who despite three national titles in 20 years and status as an SEC elite, have been driven mad watching Nick Saban build Alabama into an unstoppable war machine. And with the same blueprint Saban used to transform LSU’s entire football existence.

Kelly must feed the horde. Or the horde will eat him.

1 Comment

  1. Let’s hope the horde doesn’t choke! Somehow it feels that my associate LSU fans forgot how poorly our team played the last two years. Quite frankly, they were abominable to watch. I know you are right about Gainesville and South Bend, but we need to quit gigging Coach Kelly and the players. What I saw last Sunday, was promise. Yes, this team lost, but it is on schedule and by October it will be ahead of schedule and in the long run Kelly will win and win the BIG notable games.

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