College football fans always act like whatever is happening is the wildest thing ever. A game has an exciting ending! It’s the wildest thing ever! A coach tweets something weird? That’s the wildest thing ever! A coach’s girlfriend’s pet monkey reportedly attacks a trick-or-treater on Halloween? OK, I have to say—that’s the wildest thing ever. My point is, it’s hard to trust college football fans’ excitement levels. We’re The Boy Who Cried HOLY F’ING CRAP YOU’VE GOTTA PUT ON ESPNU RIGHT NOW. But you’re going to have to believe me on this one: The 2021 coaching carousel is the wildest in the history of the sport.
Two head coaches have left programs with reasonable national championship aspirations for other jobs, which doesn’t really happen … ever. (The only recent example I can think of is Jimbo Fisher leaving Florida State for Texas A&M in 2017.) On Sunday, news broke that former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is taking over as the new head coach at USC, potentially resparking a dormant dynasty and sending the Sooners into disarray. By Monday morning, Riley was already on a private plane to L.A. Later on Monday, news broke that longtime Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will become the new head coach at LSU, which is confusing because nobody can picture Kelly eating any food that has been made in Louisiana. By Tuesday morning, Kelly was breaking up with his Notre Dame players. (He sent them a text and then asked them to show up to a 7 a.m. meeting.)
In the first seven seasons of the College Football Playoff era, 28 bids have been given to 11 schools. Four of those schools have changed coaches in the past two days. Oklahoma, which has been to the playoff in four of seven years, lost its coach; LSU, one of four schools to actually win a title in the playoff system, hired away the coach of Notre Dame, which has made two playoff appearances. (Washington, which also made the playoff once, just hired a new coach as well, but we’re barely even mentioning that.)
Riley is the first Oklahoma head coach to leave for another college coaching job since 1947. That coach, Jim Tatum, left Oklahoma because Maryland paid him $12,000. Kelly is the first Notre Dame coach to leave for another college job since 1908, when Thomas Barry departed to become the football and baseball coach at Wisconsin. At that point, Knute Rockne had yet to begin his Notre Dame career, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was peacefully hanging out in a castle in Austria-Hungary. Kelly’s move marks only the second time in the past 30 years that a coach has led a power-conference team to 11 or more wins and then left for another program. The other instance also involved Brian Kelly, when he left Cincinnati for Notre Dame in 2009.
The dominoes are still falling, but it’s already clear that the moves made in this coaching carousel will impact the landscape of the sport for years. Let’s break down the ripple effects of the chaos.
Lincoln Riley had a grab-and-go get-out plan at Oklahoma. He left for Los Angeles with most of his top assistants—literally, they were on the private plane with him—and he’s poised to bring along several of his top recruits. Riley had devoted a chunk of his recruiting efforts at Oklahoma to courting five-star prospects from Southern California, including 2022 running back Raleek Brown and 2023 quarterback Malachi Nelson. Both of them could follow Riley to USC.
The thing about the University of Southern California is that it’s located in Southern California, home to some of the best high school football players in the United States. This season’s Heisman Trophy favorite, quarterback Bryce Young, grew up in L.A. and played at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. He initially committed to the Trojans, but later flipped and signed with Alabama. And the front-runner to be the top pick in the 2022 NFL draft also could’ve played for USC. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is from L.A., but chose to play for Oregon despite being chased by the Trojans. The top three QB recruits in the class of 2020 were all from Southern California: Young, D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson), and C.J. Stroud (Ohio State).
For years, though, USC maintained a stubborn insistence on hiring mediocre coaches with ties to the Pete Carroll era instead of the best football coaches available. This didn’t matter much to recruits, many of whom weren’t even born when USC last won a national championship. Nobody wanted to play for Clay Helton. Would you sign up to play for Clay Helton? Do you even know who Clay Helton is? Hell, do I know who Clay Helton is? I cover this sport professionally, and if I walked by Helton on the street I probably wouldn’t even do a double-take.
ESPN calculated that just 30 of the 143 California-based players listed in its top-300 recruiting rankings over the past five years went to USC. Do you realize how awful that is? The USC dynasty of the early 2000s was built almost entirely with in-state talent: Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Troy Polamalu. NFL Hall of Famers Marcus Allen, Anthony Munoz, Lynn Swann, and Junior Seau were all from Southern California and went to USC. You can build a champion there without having to board a plane. And the Trojans were just letting these top talents get away.
The funny thing is, USC didn’t fare that badly with Helton at the helm. Thanks to the downtrodden nature of the Pac-12, the Trojans won a conference championship in 2017 and made Pac-12 championship game appearances in 2015 and 2020. If the USC program is even moderately competent, it should coast to conference championships. The Pac-12 hasn’t sent a representative to the College Football Playoff since the 2016 season. A strong USC should be able to change that.
It’s easy to imagine Riley’s USC program looking almost identical to his Oklahoma program. With the Sooners, Riley had a knack for turning his ultratalented quarterbacks into Heisman candidates and high draft picks. He can build another QB factory in L.A., and he can dominate the Pac-12 just like he dominated the Big 12. Riley’s hire is the real game-changer in this wild coaching carousel. If USC can be USC again, it alters the dynamic of the entire sport.
In July 2017, Bob Stoops made an out-of-nowhere announcement that he was retiring as Oklahoma’s head coach so he could, uh, sell guitar-shaped tequila bottles and occasionally coach in the XFL. It felt like a move that could shake up the college football world. The Sooners had just captured back-to-back Big 12 titles, and Stoops’s successor, the then-33-year-old Riley, was stepping into a head job for the first time. Would the league’s hierarchy suddenly change?
But the Sooners didn’t skip a beat. In Riley’s first season in charge, they won the Big 12. Baker Mayfield won the Heisman and went on to become the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft. In Riley’s second year, Oklahoma won the Big 12 again. Kyler Murray won the Heisman and went on to become the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft. With a blueprint for conference titles and a young, innovative head coach, Oklahoma felt like the most stable program in big-time college football outside of Alabama.
That stability was shattered when the school announced this summer that it would leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Life in the Big 12 was easy; Texas was mired in a decade-long drought, and the league lacked anyone that could consistently challenge Oklahoma. Over the past six seasons, the Sooners won six straight Big 12 titles, rolled to a 41-6 record in conference play, and secured four College Football Playoff berths. Yet Riley’s Sooners went 0-3 against SEC teams in the playoff. Riley didn’t sign up for a life of playing that kind of competition all the time.
For as good as Oklahoma has been, it’ll have to be better to win titles in the SEC. It’s certainly possible that the Sooners will improve. Texas A&M went to the SEC, started landing better recruits, and used its newfound riches to hire Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State. There’s no question that the Aggies have a better program now than they did a decade ago. But A&M hasn’t won a conference title or even made a championship game. Iron sharpens iron, but Alabama has the most iron. A whole bowl of it, actually.
So now Oklahoma fans are hanging banners calling Riley a TRAITOR, wondering whether Riley broke imaginary laws, and clinging to the notion that Riley must now pay more in taxes for comfort. A few months ago, everything seemed straightforward. By deciding to switch conferences, though, Oklahoma traded complete power in the Big 12 for larger payouts and tougher competition. We don’t know how Sooners fans will react when the team loses more games than usual—after all, they’ve never really needed patience.
The Tigers’ last head coach was Ed Orgeron, the most Louisiana person on the planet. Orgeron sounds like what you’d get if scientists implanted a chip in an alligator’s brain that allowed it to talk. If you cut Coach O, his blood is technically a roux. The Tigers’ new head coach is Brian Kelly, who probably has referred to a Subway sandwich as “very spicy” at some point in his life. Kelly grew up in Massachusetts, and has spent his career making stops in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. We have seen his face turn purple before, but I have no idea what he will look like while standing outside on a 95 degree day with 100 percent humidity … or every single day in September in Baton Rouge. Orgeron said “geaux Tigahs”; Kelly will say “go Tigers.”
Kelly has won everywhere he’s coached. He churned out Division II national titles at Grand Valley State, won a MAC championship in his three years at Central Michigan, and posted an undefeated season during his tenure at Cincinnati. Over the past few years, he’s helped Notre Dame emerge as a perennial playoff contender.
Only LSU hasn’t needed great coaches to win national titles. The Tigers have won it all behind both Les Miles and Orgeron, who have gone a combined 47-66 at their other jobs. At LSU, incredible football teams tend to coalesce out of nothing, and the school seems to realize this: It fired Orgeron just two years after he won the championship.
LSU is a magical place, but Kelly isn’t a particularly magical guy. He builds strong football programs in a steady and predictable way. LSU might be the one place in the world where that feels unnatural. I can see a future in which Kelly wins a national title at LSU, but if that happens I guarantee it won’t feel anything like LSU’s national championships of the past.
It’s easy to mock the once-dominant Irish for going 30 years without winning a national championship. Trust me, I do it frequently. But Kelly has made them into a consistent contender, with five double-digit-win seasons in a row. Under Kelly, Notre Dame has made the playoff twice, and it’s also played in a BCS national championship game.
The question is how much of that success is directly attributable to Kelly and how much is attributable to Notre Dame’s spot in the college football power order. None of the school’s other 21st-century coaches—Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis—had anywhere near this level of success. In fact, none could regularly keep the Irish above .500.
But Notre Dame will always have a seat at college football’s grown-ups table. Its athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, is arguably the biggest voice in the ongoing negotiations to restructure the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame has a broadcast deal with NBC, and gets to dictate its schedule via its status as a conference independent. These factors help with recruiting and playoff résumé building, respectively.
But it’s no sure thing that Notre Dame can find another coach who can translate that legacy into on-field victories. Maybe the school can find someone who can push the team over the top and actually win a playoff game instead of simply getting invited—or maybe it can’t.
The College Football Playoff
A strange thing about all this jostling: The college football season is still happening. NFL teams often fire their coaches the day after the regular season ends, but the teams that do so have always failed to qualify for the playoffs. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has a chance to win the national title. The Irish are 11-1, with their only loss coming to 12-0 Cincinnati. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which they qualify for the playoff. If any two out of Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan, and Oklahoma State lose on conference championship weekend, the Irish will probably make the field.
It’s the first time in the eight-year history of the playoff that the coach of a team under serious consideration has left to take a new job in between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoff. One of the driving forces why coaches leave one program for another is because they think their new home will give them a better chance to win a title. But, like, hello! Brian! You have a legitimate chance to win a national championship right now! Why couldn’t Kelly wait a few more days before accepting this deal?
The way everything has unfolded raises legitimate questions: Will the playoff selection committee consider Kelly’s departure while determining which teams make the field? The committee has been known to weigh various unusual circumstances while ranking teams, like downplaying the importance of a loss because it came while a team’s quarterback was injured. Would it give, say, Oklahoma State the nod over Notre Dame because the Irish would be playing without their head coach?
And if the Irish do get selected to the playoff, who would coach them? The only answer we have so far is Not Brian Kelly. Some departing coaches will stay on for bowl games, but it would be too big a risk to have someone who is splitting his attention stick around with a potential title on the line. It also feels like it’d be too risky to install an externally hired full-time head coach and ask him to win a championship in three weeks. And what if an interim coach wins a championship? Would that person get auto-promoted to permanent head coach, regardless of the other circumstances?
This isn’t even taking into account that Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell has been floated as a candidate to take over at Notre Dame. If he takes the job, Cincinnati could also make the playoff without a head coach. There’s a small but plausible chance that Cincinnati and Notre Dame could make the playoff without having head coaches. Here’s to an interim Cincinnati coach lifting the trophy while Notre Dame coach Luke Fickell tries to figure out how to feel about the whole thing in the opposing locker room.
In 2004, LSU made Nick Saban the first college head coach to make $2 million per year. In 2006, Saban left for the NFL, where the Miami Dolphins reportedly paid him $5 million annually. Saban had coached in the NFL before, and may have been drawn to the prestige of winning at the highest level. But it’s no small thing that a pro team could double his historic salary.
Things have changed. Riley will reportedly get $12 million per year at USC, while Kelly will make almost $10 million per year at LSU. NFL teams don’t have to report their coach’s salaries like public colleges do, but the average professional head coach salary is somewhere around $7 million. The only NFL head coach who makes more than Riley will is Bill Belichick, the most successful coach in NFL history.
Both Riley and Kelly have been linked to NFL openings in the past, but with the preposterous amounts of money being thrown around in the college ranks, it’s hard to see why top-tier coaches would leave campus for the pros. In fact, we should probably expect to see more reports that NFL coaches are considering college jobs—like the one linking Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury to Oklahoma. It’s amazing how much money there is to go around when the players don’t get paid.
As always, the biggest winners in all of this shuffling are the guys who get 10 percent. Agents seem to be doing remarkable agent-ing right now—in addition to the Riley and Kelly moves, coaches like Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker have signed massive contracts to simply stay where they are. More extensions are sure to follow as schools fear that their leaders will get poached. Every time you see a report that an established head coach is considering a new job, that’s the sound of an agent getting a new vacation house.
The Future of the Coaching Carousel
This year was unusual for the number of coaches fired during the regular season. Twelve teams fired their head coaches before the last game of the season, almost 10 percent of all programs in the FBS. That’s more than fired their coaches during the 2018 (six) and 2019 (four) campaigns.
Now we’re starting to understand why. The two biggest hires have been made by USC and LSU, both of which fired their coaches months ago and had time to explore possible candidates and round up millions of dollars from boosters. Schools that just fired their head coaches a few days ago are already behind—not to mention those who were caught off guard after their coaches got poached. The schools that started this process in October are way ahead of the pack.
This is going to be normal now. Expect coaches to be fired earlier and more often. Maybe someday I’ll be able to publish this post in October.