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WHY THE DESPERATE, DISHONEST RUSH TO STEAL KELLY, RILEY?
Nothing at all is collegiate, or remotely a teaching moment, about the way LSU and USC conducted coups and threw massive sums in stealing football coaches from other programs
In one unforgettable snapshot, a child saw right through the b.s. of the adults in the room. Stella Riley wasn't impressed by the jiggling of the famed Song Girls, or the reception thrown in the swanky 1923 Club, or the Coliseum video board greeting her dad with a "WELCOME TO THE TROJAN FAMILY: LINCOLN RILEY'' blast, or the sun-smothered panorama extending from downtown skyscrapers to the Hollywood sign on through to the ocean, or really anything else going on at this pompous school in this self-adoring city that she now must call home, like it or not.
As her father grinned for yet another photographer and flashed yet another two-fingered salute, the official hand gesture of University of Southern California football, a 5-year-old girl wasn't happy about the Trojan Marching Band member blowing a trumpet about a two-point conversion from her face.
So, she plugged her ears and looked away from it all.
Only 42 hours earlier, she was back in Oklahoma, the only home she and her sister have known, assuming their father was sticking around as head coach of the beloved OU Sooners after he'd announced, "I'm not going to be the next coach at LSU.'' They weren't alone in thinking the Rileys were staying in Norman. Now, the girls and their mother were swept in a 21st-century whirlwind, a dust devil that isn't healthy for college football or the purported higher academia on major American campuses. The in-house priority, as always, is locating the coach who can maximize a program and generate the most revenue. USC targeted Riley, the 38-year-old quarterback whisperer and recruiting maven, but it's beyond unsettling how the university's upper leadership didn't make a hire as much as execute a raid. Has all dignity in coaching searches been overwhelmed by desperation, hubris and dishonesty?
The same applies to LSU, which responded with a Golden Dome coup of Notre Dame for Brian Kelly. In both cases, there was such a mad rush to land their men that it felt like a bank heist, which goes disturbingly against the ideals that college life supposedly represents. Why so much sneaking around? Why the rush to stumble over themselves with an utter lack of ethics and a reckless eagerness to throw $100 million deals at coaches? How are we supposed to trust university presidents, Board of Trustees chairmen and athletic directors when they're in such a hurry to do — what, exactly? From here, the madness is about feeding the egos of well-heeled alumni and boosters, planting immediate seeds in fertile recruiting regions and satisfying the competitive urges of the school leaders themselves. Can't everyone just slow down? Can't there be an agreement not to steal someone else's coach until the bowl season is over? Oh, I forgot. College football has no governing body, ruled by the autonomy of massively wealthy Power 5 conferences filled with monster programs that conduct smash-and-grabs as they please, consumed by the fervor to prove who has the bigger male organ.
"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,” said USC athletic director Mike Bohn, sounding like he'd won a championship as he hugged and back-slapped Riley throughout his introductory news conference. "It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake.''
Said LSU athletic director Scott Woodward, outlining Kelly's mission: "His plan to take this program to the next level is the same as ours. He's not here to taste success. He's here to sustain his vision for what LSU football can become, and it's the same as ours. He's not here to simply fit into our culture. He's here to transform it. And most importantly, his expectations for LSU football are the same as ours. He's not just here to win. He's here to win championships."
None of it is a good look, or the proper way to teach young people about how to get ahead in the world. Basically, USC and LSU were so desperate to save their football souls and eye the future money grab — when more TV billions accompany an expected 12-team playoff — that their haste left unnecessary collateral damage in various directions. I've lost track of how many promises were broken. One minute, Kelly was telling the media that he intended to stay at Notre Dame through his retirement. "I mean, look, I think Mike Tomlin had the best line, right?'' he said of the Pittsburgh Steelers coach. "Unless that fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at it first. I’d have to run it by her.''
The check, as written by LSU, turns out to be $95 million, more than $100 million if he meets incentives. And suddenly, Kelly's word meant nothing. At least Riley left Oklahoma when it was clear the Sooners were eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration. Kelly is looking like the all-time carpetbagger, needing only 45 minutes to speak with Woodward and leap into the Jambalaya Jackpot, even though No. 6-ranked Notre Dame is positioned for a CFP berth if Cincinnati and Oklahoma State lose this weekend, entirely possible. And now, the CFP selection committee might punish the Fighting Irish players because of the coaching uncertainty, with committee chair Gary Barta saying, "This week it didn’t apply because the games had occurred and we evaluated based on those games. Once the championship games wrap up … the protocol does include the ability for the committee to consider a player or a coach not being available. Should that have an outcome of a game, that can be considered. At this point, we’ll have to wait and see how that factors in.” How unfair would that be, double-whamming the players for Kelly's escape-hatch actions?
Couldn't this have waited a few days? Couldn't LSU have paused? What possesses school presidents and ADs to suddenly abandon all professional courtesy? Is the pressure from the money people that intense? All you needed to know, at USC, was the outsized presence of Rick Caruso during Monday's celebration. He is the Board of Trustees chairman, a billionaire real-estate developer who is said to be weighing a run in the Los Angeles mayoral race. When the overmatched Clay Helton was fired in September, Caruso wrote a letter to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke that challenged Bohn and school president Carol Folt to think very, very, very big. Wrote Caruso: "We have a proud football tradition of excellence, and I am confident in our ability to attract a world-class coach who will return the USC football program to the most competitive and highest levels of collegiate football.” There he was at the press conference, two seats down from Riley. It felt like a mob boss had made a demand and pounced on his prey.
As Touchdown Jesus shot Kelly the stink eye, he slinked in and out of South Bend on LSU's private jet. His players and assistant coaches learned of his plans on social media, forcing Kelly to issue a late-night update Monday: "I will have more to share when we meet tomorrow at 7 a.m. but for now, just know that my love for you is limitless and I am so proud of all that you have accomplished. Our program is elite because of your hard work and commitment and I know that will continue. I will share more in the morning when we meet. Again, my sincere apologies for not being able to be the one to share the news directly with you.” When he did gather with them Tuesday, the goodbye speech didn't last four minutes.
"So many times people are looking for a reason to blame or there was a reason for something," said Kelly, who, at 60, is 23 years older than Riley. "There was nothing here but first-class in everything Notre Dame has done for me and my family. I saw my time here as a blessing working with incredible men on a day-to-day basis. There comes a time when you look in your life for another opportunity and I felt like it was time in my life for another challenge. And I saw that opportunity in a very short window and felt that it was best for me and my family to pursue a new challenge.''
His words were met with stony silence.
"Chase the bag, business first, I get it,'' senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy tweeted. "Best of luck.''
A day later, Kelly was conducting his own press conference in Baton Rouge, looking thrilled. "I've been called a players' coach, a CEO, demanding,'' Kelly said. "Whatever narrative you want to come up with, I’ve hit all of those.”
How about hypocrite? And slave-driver, as word comes of how Kelly, while at Central Michigan, made graduate assistants Robert Saleh and Matt LaFleur — now NFL head coaches — shovel snow and park cars during a party at his house. "We decided that when we’re in that position, we’re never going to treat people the way we got treated,” Saleh told ESPN in a 2019 profile of LaFleur.
So why would anyone be surprised that Kelly would flee South Bend in 45 minutes? "I came down here because I wanted to be with the best," Kelly said. "The resources here are outstanding. It starts with the alignment, excellence, the standard of expectations. Listen, you're looked at in terms of championships here. 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."
What, Notre Dame isn't a Broadway stage? The Gipper, the Four Horsemen and Rudy want a word with Kelly.
Because college football Saturdays never leave us unsatisfied, the greater mechanism soon will be pumped with even more TV fortunes. The money and subterfuge make the sport feel like an extension of the NFL, football without the college part.
Even Riley, with his downhome demeanor and backwater upbringing as the pride of Muleshoe, Texas, had to stop his gee-whiz, golly-gee comments — "Is this real?'' he said, before stopping to shed tears — to acknowledge the reality of his life transition. Just as Kelly had informed Notre Dame that it was a rung below LSU in the college football caste system, Riley was alerting Oklahoma that it was a notch below USC, in his view. And it required him and his chosen assistants to flee Norman like prison escapees before dawn.
"These guys got on a plane with me this morning, without a contract, without anything,” Riley said Monday. "I called them and said, 'You want to come?’ They said, 'Yup.' I said, 'All right, the plane leaves at 6 a.m.' They were there at 5:40. … It's been a whirlwind, honestly. Is there a little bit of shock, even now? Yeah.''
Really? With the two-hour time difference, why not a 9 a.m. flight to Los Angeles? A Thursday flight? Nah, there's no time to waste in college football, 21st-century style. He was asked how quickly he would clean up the USC spillage, only one mess inside a scandalous university.
"I've been in L.A. for a few hours,'' said Riley, looking at his watch. "So this is what L.A. is like.''
When Bohn confirmed Riley was his No. 1 choice for the gig, the country boy couldn't resist a shot at the administrative slicker. "You probably wouldn’t tell them if I was two or three, would you?” he joshed his new boss.
"No,'' said Bohn, taken aback but laughing all the way. "Are we going to have some fun with a guy like Lincoln Riley, or what?''
They'll all have fun until, oh, the first loss. Or the first killer playoff ouster. As Stella Riley seems to know already, no amount of money can keep the horn blowers from making a lot of bad noise. While her father was flashing his two-fingered salute, anything less than an annual playoff berth — and some national championships sprinkled in — will lead the fan base to shoot him a middle-fingered insult. That is the flip side of the dash for cash.
"The expectation for me was to be a legitimate contender for championships,” Kelly said.
"I just look at it like how can we not do it? How is it not going to work?'' Riley said. "This place is going to be the mecca of college football.''
If not, the next coups await them.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.