‘I’m here to win a national championship’: Inside Brian Kelly’s LSU college football rebuild

Sports

BATON ROUGE, La. — There’s a black Model X Tesla with falcon doors parked in the head coach’s spot outside the LSU football facility. Walk into Brian Kelly’s new office and there’s an electric purple carpet that assaults the senses. Throw Kelly’s name into a search engine and the critiques of his dance moves dominate the chatter.

There’s plenty to distract from the core of the most fascinating college football transaction this offseason. Cut through the eye-popping visuals of Brian Kelly’s transition from Notre Dame‘s navy and gold to LSU’s purple and gold, and the obvious blueprint for Kelly’s success in Baton Rouge remains.

Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU because the latter has better geographic access to talent and an improved chance to win a national championship.

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 now coaches in a state where talent is as prevalent as Abita in the French Quarter. Louisiana has more NFL players (68) per capita than any other state, good for one out every 68,498 people in the state. There’s no close second, as Georgia (124) has one every 86,368 residents.

Most important, LSU has no Power 5 school within state lines to compete with for those players. In the past decade, Louisiana has the fifth most ESPN 300 recruits (137) and fifth most top-50 recruits (29). But unlike other hotbeds like California, Texas and Florida, there are no in-state schools to fight off.

“If we have players that are equal to or better, we’re gonna win at a very, very high, high percentage,” Kelly told ESPN in his office recently. “And I think that goes into the preparation that I’ve had as a head coach and preparing football teams. So that experience, the years, three decades-plus, is certainly an advantage in preparing when you have the horses.”

While Kelly may be a Massachusetts Yankee waking up in Mike the Tiger’s court, he’s certainly not a rube. Kelly, 60, won 284 football games prior to his arrival at LSU during stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. His hiring on the Bayou is an obvious collision of seasoned coach and a spiraling program, as LSU fired Ed Orgeron after failing to finish with a winning record in the two seasons after the star-kissed 2019 national title.

“I’m here to win a national championship,” Kelly said. “I came down here explicitly for that purpose.”

The past three coaches at LSU — Nick Saban, Les Miles and Ed Orgeron — all won titles. And Kelly’s ability to again maximize the program will not come down to how he performs the Griddy dance, but rather how he handles the nitty gritty of recruiting.

“I think it’s been a home run so far,” said Nelson Stewart, the veteran coach of Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. He acknowledged the chatter about cultural differences and chuckled. “When Coach Saban came from Michigan State, you heard a lot of the same rumblings. That went away pretty quick.”

And for Kelly, reviving LSU into a national champion would give his Hall of Fame résumé, well, one final accent.


ON A RECENT sunny morning, Brian Kelly leads a visitor through LSU’s football office. He jokes that the biggest cultural adjustment of his move comes from the preponderance of grilled oysters and shows the converted storage closet that holds his Peloton, yoga mats and blocks to combat the inevitable indulgences.

Kelly has a personal trainer and rides the Peloton three days a week. “Now, I got no excuse,” he said with a laugh.

Whipping LSU’s depleted roster into shape looms as a bigger challenge than burning off the local delicacies. As Kelly walks through the staff room, there’s dueling images capturing the disconnect that helped fuel LSU’s spiral.

There’s more than 50 black chairs in the staff room, clustered around an oversized conference table and even perched above like a loge section for a staff meeting. The staff room is flanked on the walls by a pair of position-by-position recruiting boards — a Louisiana-only board and a national board.

To exploit all that talent, Kelly’s first task at LSU was creating an organizational system to best maximize how the 52 new staff members he’s hired at LSU go about their business. Upon arrival, he found “people chasing their tails” because of a lack of job definition. That led to administrators attempting to fill gaps, which led to more confusion.

Kelly quickly reached a conclusion: “There was no org chart.” That’s business speak for organizational chart, and he found a football program that operated with all the fluidity of a nose tackle on a balance beam.

Kelly’s immediate goal upon arrival became a simple one — develop a “clear, comprehensive and cohesive organizational structure.” He stresses that the old staff “had good people here, but they didn’t have well-defined roles.”

Kelly sums things up this way: “I had no idea what hat they were wearing on a particular day. I would go to a senior administrator and I would be talking to that person and one day they had financial aid, the next day they had admissions, they next day they had housing. They didn’t have clear roles and responsibilities here and made it difficult for that collaboration on the other side.”

The old structure included a general manager, Austin Thomas, who Kelly said “essentially had his hands on everything.” Kelly blew that up and empowered individual people over key areas — recruiting, personnel, operations, players’ services and player development. Kelly promoted longtime staff linchpin Beth Rex, who worked with him at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, as the chief of staff. She coordinates everything and all those areas report to her.

The result is what Kelly calls a “cohesive operational standard on a day-to-day basis,” which included basic things like installing the Teamworks software — which helps manage schedules and communication within a program. That’s been around since 2007 and is used by virtually every college football program in the country.

Simply put, every LSU staff member knows exactly what they are doing every day when they walk into the office. That leads to efficiencies that stretch from recruiting to the practice fields to game day.

“I think we’re going to win, and it’s not just going to be one time,” Rex said. “I think we’re putting something together that’s really sustainable.”


SOON AFTER KELLY accepted the LSU job, he headed to uptown New Orleans and sat down with Nelson Stewart. In his 24th year coaching at Isidore Newman, Stewart has seen Gerry Dinardo, Saban, Miles and Orgeron all come through and recruit.

Stewart has spent the past 17 years as the head coach, and he’s appreciated the personal touch from this LSU staff. Kelly didn’t just ask him about players or schemes. Instead, Kelly asked Stewart his favorite restaurant in town and joked that associate head coach Frank Wilson wanted to take him to Popeye’s.

Stewart recommended Clancy’s, a bustling Uptown neighborhood joint that Stewart jokes is a “pay day” restaurant, meaning he can only afford to take his daughter there on pay day.

“No coach has come through and made as strong of an impression as Brian Kelly,” Stewart said, comparing him to prior LSU coaches. “He has a humility and authenticity when you meet him. You feel like you’ve known him forever.”

Building these types of genuine relationships with high school coaches will ultimately determine whether Kelly can construct the type of roster that allows him to rebuild LSU into a national contender.

Stewart and other coaches around the state made it clear Kelly is putting in the work. He was quick to mention recruiting coordinator Brian Polian visited so soon after getting hired that he didn’t have any LSU gear yet. He stayed two hours to get to know Stewart. Quarterbacks coach Joe Sloan calls multiple times a week, mostly just to check in on Stewart.

The No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2023, Arch Manning, plays at Newman, which accounts for some of the attention. LSU offensive tackle commitment Bo Bordelon, who will enroll this summer, also plays there. (LSU was also first to offer Bo’s younger brother, Brett, who is in the Class of 2025. Their father, Ben, was an All-SEC lineman at LSU in the 1990s).

Stewart estimated that in his years at Newman, about 90% of the players offered by LSU ended up going there.

“An LSU offer is the prestigious offer,” Stewart said. “When kids get that offer, it’s very, very special. LSU has the tradition, facilities and recruiting the camaraderie. It’s a very special place. It does sell itself. When LSU football is rolling, I don’t think there’s anything as exciting in state of Louisiana.”

Kelly quickly discovered that love for LSU is charbroiled into the state’s soul, something quite different than his time at Notre Dame.

When he walked into New Orleans power St. Augustine High School — a proud LSU feeder of stars like Tyrann Mathieu and Leonard Fournette — his arrival at the school was greeted with a school-wide announcement.

“I used to go to California, and I gotta beat USC, UCLA,” he said. “I gotta beat the hometown school on these kids. Here, I go into these schools, and I’m up on the video board.”

At public school powerhouse Edna Karr, veteran coach Brice Brown estimates that 70% of his players with LSU offers have gone there in his 17 seasons. Brown complimented Kelly for coming to visit for multiple hours soon after he got hired. Brown also pointed out that Wilson’s hire brought instant credibility.

“He’s so well respected in the state,” Brown said of Wilson, who was a successful high school coach in New Orleans and is in his second stint at LSU. “The relationships he has are going to carry him a very long way [like they did] in the early part of 2010, 2011 and 2012 when LSU was dominant in recruiting.”

Kelly said he quickly learned that coaches in northern Louisiana didn’t feel like they were getting enough attention.

A good test of that northern Louisiana area will be Zalance Heard, the No. 73 player in the ESPN 300 for 2023. He’s a 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive tackle with offers from schools such as Texas and Michigan. Neville High School coach Jeff Tannehill said that Kelly and offensive line coach Brad Davis are doing an “outstanding job” in their communication and outreach.

On Kelly’s visit there, he also made clear to Tannehill something he realized since taking over. With retaining players becoming a more important part of college football, he’s prioritizing players who won’t bring off-field issues.

“He’s really going after the good kids,” Tannehill said. “He’s going to make sure they’re going to make the grades and have good rapport with their teachers. He’s doing a really good job of recruiting high character kids. That’s what he’s going after.”


WHAT WILL LSU look like in 2022? LSU’s spring game is Saturday (1 p.m. ET, SEC Network+ and ESPN App), which will feature the 12 transfers Kelly brought in to replenish the roster.

Perhaps no player epitomizes the juxtaposition of untapped talent and unlimited potential like fourth-year tailback John Emery Jr., who missed last season with academic issues. Kelly’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the flashes of talent he’s seen from Emery this spring, as he’s been clocked over 20 MPH on the GPS system at LSU practices. (Emery has a minor ankle issue, which means he may miss the spring game.)

Kelly says that Emery is on track to be eligible this season, which would be a huge boost to LSU’s run game. Emery was ESPN’s No. 1 rated tailback and the Louisiana’s top player in the 2019 class. He rushed for 566 yards and seven touchdowns his first two seasons.

LSU ranked last in the SEC in the latest APR data released by the NCAA. Part of the infrastructure and accountability Kelly is instilling will be to ensure that players like Emery aren’t in a position where they miss seasons for academic reasons.

“The kid’s had a lost career, which has been a shame,” Kelly said. “He’s extremely talented.”

Another player whose career has been spiraling toward becoming lost is former Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels. He’s found himself amid a talented four-man quarterback race after transferring to Baton Rouge earlier this spring.

Daniels, who is listed at 6-foot-3, weighed just 185 pounds playing at ASU. With that program amid rollicking dysfunction, both Daniels’ physical maturation and development were stunted after a freshman season where he threw 17 touchdowns and two interceptions. Kelly said there’s a focus on getting Daniels ready for the rigors of SEC play if he wins the job. “He needs a coat of armor on him that he doesn’t have, and we’ve gotta build one,” Kelly said.

It’s unlikely Kelly’s first LSU team is going to be built for immediate contention in the SEC West. Athletic director Woodward told ESPN he’s hoping to see the results of the infrastructure improvements and energy of the new staff manifest themselves on the field.

“What I want to see is what’s been typical of Brian’s teams,” Woodward said. “Winning in the fourth quarter and winning in November. Those are going to be tell-tale signs. That shows buy-in and getting them trained and focused right. Building a solid foundation is so key early in the tenure of a coach.”

If the right foundation is built at LSU, the results have historically shown they can follow. For Kelly, he’s taking over a program last seen taking the field with 39 scholarship players in a bowl loss to Kansas State.

With nowhere to go but up, Kelly said he has different goals here than when he took over at Notre Dame. That rebuild aimed more at inserting the Irish back in the sport’s mainstream, which he accomplished. There’s a different goal here, and he’s embraced it just the same.

“So without winning a national championship here, I think the legacy is different,” he said of how he’ll ultimately be remembered at LSU. “Look, it’s transparent. I want to get this program in a position where it’s consistently playing for championships.”

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