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Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly, and the Shifting Paradigm of Coaching Power

What do two seismic college football coaching hires say about the overall football landscape? 

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Here’s an exercise: Explain college football to someone who has no concept of it. Just give it a shot. Explain the basics, sure, but then explain why you know the names of high schools in Broward County, Florida, even though you don’t live anywhere near there. Why a former U.S. defense secretary used to post on a Texas A&M message board under the name “Ranger65.” Why, after a pastor called in to eulogize the late Alabama sportswriter Cecil Hurt with a touching prayer, Paul Finebaum threw it to a caller named “Squirrel” on his radio show and it all seemed normal and sort of beautiful. Explain Lane Kiffin’s career. Explain the University of Tennessee. Explain Lane Kiffin’s career at the University of Tennessee. The person you’re talking to will most likely not understand, and there’s a good chance that you’ll confuse even yourself until you don’t understand. If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back and wants to know why “Horns Down” is a penalty.

College football is one of one. A universe unto itself. All politics are local, and the same goes for college football. The sport makes no sense unless you’re deep inside of it, reading message boards that resemble college football QAnon—even then, it’s touch-and-go. The only way to understand college football is to stuff your brain with so much useless clutter—Noel Devine high school highlights; every school’s fan base that has claimed Bill Cowher was looking to buy real estate in the area—until you can no longer speak to a person who does not know these things. I say this to tell you that college football is unique, and drawing any lessons from a college football coaching move can be misguided.

There's an old story about an athletic director approaching then–Oklahoma State head coach Jimmy Johnson at a convention and asking him if he knew of any good candidates for the Miami vacancy. "To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind leaving for the beach myself,” Johnson said. The beach is where Johnson helped set up one of the greatest runs in college football history. This type of story is important to remember this time of year. On weeks like this, when a coach like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley leaves one of the biggest jobs in the sport for another massive job, it is easy to overthink things and make bold proclamations about the status of certain programs and the competitive balance of the sport. Sometimes you learn only that people like the beach.

So that is my caveat before exploring how this week’s coaching moves—Riley to USC and Brian Kelly to LSU—will change the profession at every level of football. This week may mean everything. It may eventually mean nothing. But it’s weird because it’s college football. It feels like a moment: The last Notre Dame coach to leave for another college job was Thomas Barry, who did so in 1908 to go coach football and baseball at Wisconsin. The last Oklahoma coach to do so was in 1947, when Jim Tatum bailed for Maryland. Kelly and Riley accomplished a similar feat in a matter of days earlier this week.

This week we had to relearn some lessons about football. We learned, once again, that coaches at all levels care about access to great players and money. There are factors that can make jobs that combine those two things less appealing (see: Texas boosters), but money and access to great players is, more or less, what motivates all coaches, college or pro. The past few days have been the extreme version of that desire. College football is becoming more college football. In the same way Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is just David playing a heightened, exaggerated version of himself, college football is just distilling itself into its inevitable form.

I’ve talked to Riley once; it was three years ago, for a piece in which he said he’d thought the NFL was borrowing heavily from Big 12 offenses, part of a larger trend in which the NFL embraced the college-based spread offense. One thing that stood out to me was Riley’s deep understanding of NFL schemes and an even deeper appreciation of the guys who brought the spread offense to the NFL en masse. Guys, he mentioned, like Chip Kelly and Josh McDaniels. I wrote that story in part because I felt like something in football was changing, and I assumed that successful college coaches like Riley would eventually take big NFL jobs. The Eagles were trendsetters in their 2013 search when they interviewed three college coaches in Chip Kelly, Brian Kelly, and Kevin Sumlin. Even though they hired Chip Kelly, it was still seen as outside-the-box move for NFL teams to go the college route in 2018. Riley gave a nonanswer when I asked him if he would ever jump to the pros. After the interview ended, I remember thinking he’d be in the pros in a few years. I was wrong. The future for top college coaches like Riley and Kelly isn’t the NFL—it’s megacontracts and increasing power at the collegiate level.

College football coaches changing jobs is the perfect sports story because there are so many reasons to be mad—both legitimate and not. This is what it will be like from now on. There will be more coaches leaving on random Sunday mornings. The Athletic reported that Oklahoma staffers were in shock as they drove away from the team facility. “As one put it, ‘I kept waiting for him to say, “Just kidding.” But he never did.’” Kelly, meanwhile, told his team via group message (one step up from telling them by updating his LinkedIn). Then he made them assemble at 7 a.m. and spoke to them, according to The Athletic’s Pete Sampson, for less than two minutes. There is no perfect way to leave a program, especially for another job, and as Chris Long perfectly joked, the only classy way to do it would be to rip open doors to all the players’ classrooms and wake them up from various naps. But Kelly’s method could have used some work.

Because it is nearly impossible to handle a college football exit with grace, this will always be the cycle: A coach looks like a jerk to the nation for a few weeks (and for a decade or so in the college town he left) and the coach gets over it and makes a bunch of money at his new, better job. There are no lasting consequences as far as the coach is concerned. Nick Saban is one of the most hated figures in South Florida sports for leaving the Dolphins after saying he wouldn’t. He still manages to pluck recruits from the shadow of the Dolphins facility almost yearly. Jerry Jeudy, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper. He left LSU and still landed DeVonta Smith and Landon Collins. They didn’t seem to mind. Tommy Tuberville once left a dinner with Texas Tech recruits mid-meal to take a job at Cincinnati; he’s now a U.S. senator. Coaches rely on the built-in excuse that many others in their profession have bailed on a team in unflattering circumstances. That such behavior is commonplace is not the defense coaches think it is—but still, almost every coach has bailed on a team in a shady way.

Here’s what will happen next: Riley will flip—if he hasn’t already—every single Southern California prospect who previously committed to play for him at Oklahoma. Then he will find more Southern California studs until he has one of the best rosters in football within 18 months or so. Malachi Nelson, a five-star quarterback in the class of 2023 and former Oklahoma commit, has already switched to USC. In September, Yahoo Sports! reporter Pete Thamel wondered whether anything could stop “California’s QB exodus.” That group includes Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, and Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, all of whom played high school football in Southern California. The answer is yes and it’s Lincoln Riley. The California quarterback exodus just stopped.

The concept of a good college football coaching job is a complicated one—it involves a sliding scale of money, facilities, power, geography, and lifestyle. My definition is simple: How easy is the path to the national title? In short, what is the school’s great advantage? What can they be the best in the country at? Finding that edge and exploiting it is how you win national titles. At USC, Riley can take one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, with literally dozens of pro-level quarterbacks in the region at any given time, and develop these players into NFL prospects and win titles while doing it. Pretty easy elevator pitch. I feel the same way about Miami, my alma mater, which has some of the same advantages as USC except Manny Diaz currently has zero commitments from the three counties that make up South Florida. It’s not an advantage if you don’t use it.

Riley’s move makes sense the more you think about it. There’s been some speculation that Riley was not happy with Oklahoma’s imminent move to the SEC. Riley denied it, but it’s fairly sound logic. It’s not about being scared of increased competition; it’s about having the best chance at a national title. Going 12-1 in the Pac-12 is an easier path, even with an expanded playoff format expected in the coming years, than navigating a schedule that will regularly include teams like Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. Riley gets to stop trying to convince California prospects to leave the state and gets to turn homegrown passers into Heisman candidates at USC. Pretty good deal.

Kelly’s move is, in pure football terms, equally understandable. He left Notre Dame for the hardest conference in the country, but to a school with an easier path to getting top talent. In modern football, LSU will almost always have a more talented roster than Notre Dame because of a mixture of geography and academics. If there is a thread between Kelly and Riley it’s this: There is clearly a difference, in the eyes of top coaches, between making the playoff and winning it. The gulf between those things appears to be massive. Kelly and Riley both made moves to slightly raise their ceiling for what they can accomplish.

I checked in with some NFL folks this week to see if the college game’s new, aggressive approach to hiring coaches will change anything about the pro game. The answers were all over the place. To the vast majority of pro coaches, a good NFL job will always be more appealing than a good college job. This much is obvious. Bill Belichick would not take a phone call from Alabama. Andy Reid is not interested in Georgia in any universe. This is evidenced by the fact that absolutely nobody believes that Kliff Kingsbury would go to Oklahoma, even if he refused to address it this week.

On the flip side, there’s probably not a ton of interest from Oklahoma’s side, since Kingsbury never finished .500 in Big 12 play in any of his six seasons at Texas Tech. But leverage is the lifeblood of the coaching profession, and we’re seeing how coaches will use it. A chaotic coaching carousel touches all levels of the sport. One source wondered when B-list pro coaching prospects who are offered only C-list pro jobs might take more of an interest in the college game. We’ve seen NFL coaches make those sorts of moves before (Mike Sherman and Bill Callahan were both Big 12 coaches this millennium) but there are two big differences in today’s landscape: The transfer portal has slightly deemphasized the importance of recruiting, and a coach with a good eye for talent can replenish his roster with experienced players more easily.

In one season at Michigan State, Mel Tucker, a former NFL defensive coordinator who switched to the college level in 2015, used the portal to become a conference contender this season and parlayed that success into a $95 million extension. The end of that sentence is the second thing that’s changed; the money has gotten really good. This does not mean every pro coach should consider the college game—some of them don’t have the personality to do it—but it’s a better option than it has been.

NFL coaches, I’ve always believed, stopped consuming pop culture the moment they rise to the position of coordinator—this is why so many are stuck on Bruce Springsteen, or why Bill Belichick is so into Bon Jovi. Kyle Shanahan’s son is reportedly named after Lil Wayne; Shanahan became a coordinator in 2008. None of these guys are exactly ready to start texting 16-year-olds and getting on TikTok. There are very few pro coaches who want to make this:

So, these recent moves don’t mean NFL coaches have some newfound leverage. After the Panthers gave former Baylor coach Matt Rhule seven years and $60 million to coach their team two years ago, The Washington Post’s Robert Klemko reported that owners were pissed. That deal is three years and more than $30 million short of Tucker’s deal at Michigan State. I do not know how this will change NFL coaching salaries. College boosters like throwing money around to show how important they are and NFL owners hate throwing money around so they can show how important they are.

Other sources pointed out that there’s no well-paid GM in college; the coach essentially serves that function so that money can effectively go to him. The other part of it, the big part is, uh, college teams don’t have to pay the players. So the bet is that there ends up being very little link between these two megahires and how much Sean McVay makes in 2024. NFL owners don’t spend unless they have to. And no one thinks—yet—this will change that.

I found that most people think NFL owners will, with very few exceptions, call coaches’ bluffs if they try to use college as a lifeline for a contract extension. Sure, maybe it’s plausible for a coach like Rhule to say he’s interested in Oklahoma, but you’d have to remember the Panthers might not want to improve their offer for Rhule these days. It is nowhere near Adrian Wojnarowksi’s hilarious point on how college basketball is not a viable option for NBA coaches: “No one is leaving a head coaching job in the NBA for college anymore. Not the Celtics. Not the Kings. Not anyone, anywhere. Nobody is returning to college unless they’re no longer welcome to stay in pros.” But it’s the same gist. Some coordinators or assistants might try to get on the college path. But this particular week’s tentacles will probably not touch the NFL.

So, where does college football go from here? Probably more of these kinds of hires. The thing that changed this week wasn't that a coach can go from one big job to the next—we’ve seen that as recently as four years ago with Jimbo Fisher going to Texas A&M. What’s changed is that anyone is in play at any time for any job. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward is notorious for taking big swings, calling all the top coaches and making them say no. That’s how he got Fisher to leave Florida State for Texas A&M. Now, every top school’s athletic director knows they can operate this way. That’s the difference. Everything else is just college football.