Hayes: Brian Kelly KOs Nick Saban in their first SEC heavyweight fight
This is why you leave the most storied program in college football history.
This is why you jump into the meatgrinder that is the SEC, staring down Goliath with 39 scholarship players the day you walk into the football building.
Here we are 11 months later, and that was first-year LSU coach Brian Kelly — after all that mocking and all that second-guessing — fighting back tears after the Tigers vanquished Darth Vader and moved one step closer to playing for SEC Championship and a spot in the Playoff.
On a gutsy 2-point conversion call in overtime, of all things.
“To come here and restore the pride and tradition of this program,” Kelly said in the postgame ESPN interview, tailing off at the thought of it and holding back tears.
And then coach mode kicked in: “We have to make sure this doesn’t affect our preparation for Arkansas.”
You wanted a ball coach, LSU. You got him.
And everything that goes with it.
Nearly every coach — especially with a Playoff spot in the balance — kicks the extra point in a home game against a bitter rival and plays for another overtime period. It’s the prudent move.
Not a coach who walked into a cratered program, whose first team meeting included 39 scholarship players — nearly 50 under the NCAA maximum of 85.
Not a coach who left a job coaching the most storied program in college sports (Notre Dame), for an opportunity to take a big swing at the greatest coach in college sports (Nick Saban) in the greatest conference in college sports (SEC football).
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Not a coach who watched Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, a breathtaking, soul-sucking magician on the field, prevent LSU from winning the game in regulation with a handful of remarkable plays.
A certainly not a coach who worked the transfer portal and found key starters, including a quarterback (Jayden Daniels) who he patiently prodded over the first 5 weeks of the season — before staring at him during a quarterbacks meeting last month and demanding he take more chances when throwing the football.
It was the perfect motivational move from a guy who has been doing it for more than 3 decades. And 3 weeks later, all he needed was 3 yards to win the game — with a quarterback who has thrown the ball nearly flawlessly since he was told it’s time to start taking more chances and hitting bigger throws.
How about this for a big throw: a 2-point conversion pass to freshman tight end Mason Taylor, an under out route so perfectly placed, only Taylor could catch the throw. He did, and LSU had its first signature win under Kelly.
In SEC games, it’s Brian Kelly 1, Nick Saban 0 — for those of you scoring at home.
For those who mocked Kelly because he walked on the court at Maravich Arena a week after he was hired and used a fake southern accent to try to fit in.
For those who mocked Kelly because he did his best Vincent Vega while trying to woo a recruit to sign with LSU (the recruit signed with, you guessed it, Alabama).
For those Notre Dame officials who whispered to anyone who would listen that maybe, just maybe, Kelly had maxed out. He wasn’t completely invested, despite double-digit wins in his last 5 seasons.
They were better off with young, vibrant defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Marcus Freeman. Look at that Notre Dame recruiting class under Freeman, those who bought it all screamed and proclaimed.
Even his hand-picked offensive coordinator, his former quarterback Tommy Rees, didn’t want to follow him to LSU. This had failure written all over it.
Then Brian Kelly did what he does best: coach ball.
The metamorphosis of a team that lost to Florida State in the season-opener on a botched extra point (how about that for irony?), to a team that was embarrassed at home in a 27-point loss to Tennessee, to a team that’s 3 wins (at Arkansas, UAB, at Texas A&M) from the SEC Championship Game.
And 1 more win after that (likely against Georgia) from advancing to the Playoff.
So yeah, he shed a few tears after a big win over Alabama — only the second for LSU over the Tide in the past 11 years. You better believe the hard-charging, no-nonsense coach would take a moment to soak it all in as fans rushed the field at Death Valley.
“Our guys played so hard,” Kelly said. “I just loved the way our guys competed all game. It just felt like the right time.”
The right time, the right coach.
He’s barely a year into this ride, and already has this ragtag bunch a few wins from playing for it all. Think about that ridiculous statement.
Then again, is it really more improbable than a coach taking a castoff quarterback from Arizona State — whose teammates cheered his departure on social media — and completely reshaping his game while reinventing a gutted SEC power?
Daniels was lost at ASU, his last 2 seasons not remotely resembling his breakout freshman season. It took some time at LSU — he had to first win the job in fall camp, and then transition as a starter for 6 weeks while winning the locker room — but he’s in a groove now.
In the past 3 games, Daniels has completed 73 percent of his passes and accounted for 14 TDs (7 rush, including 1 in OT vs. Alabama) and no turnovers in wins over Florida, No. 7 Ole Miss and No. 6 Alabama.
You think Kelly wasn’t going to put the ball in Daniels’ hands with the game on the line — with his reclamation project finally finding itself?
“Game on the line, he knows I’m ready,” Daniels said.
You wanted a ball coach, LSU. You got him.