Brian Kelly starts building where predecessors reached the mountaintop
Brian Kelly has never coached in a game in the Superdome.
He nearly did at the end of the 2009 season, when his Cincinnati Bearcats played Florida in the Sugar Bowl. But that team’s success earned Kelly the head coaching job at Notre Dame, and he left before the bowl game.
He did attend a game in the Superdome just 8 months ago, but he was a spectator, showing up to watch Ian Book, one of his former Fighting Irish quarterbacks, make his first NFL start for the New Orleans Saints against the Miami Dolphins.
Neither of those games went well for Kelly’s guys. The Bearcats lost, 51-24, to Tim Tebow in his last college game, and Book threw a pick-6 as the Saints lost to the Dolphins, 20-3.
But on Sunday night, Kelly won’t be watching on TV or from a suite. He’ll be on the home sideline as he makes his debut as LSU head coach, leading the Tigers against Florida State.
The transplanted northerner is looking forward to not only his first experience coaching in the Superdome but also doing the same thing 6 days later against crosstown rival Southern in Tiger Stadium.
“I’ve played at Penn State in a white out,” Kelly said. “I played at Michigan in their first game when they went to 104,000. I’ve played in a sellout at USC. I’ve played in a lot of great venues.”
He’s about to add two more to the list.
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Even though the Allstate Louisiana Kickoff features 2 unranked teams, its status as the only college football game that day is significant but –- more importantly –- its location in LSU’s home away from home is symbolic.
Each of Kelly’s 3 most immediate predecessors won a national championship inside the building where Kelly’s first team will take the field for the first time.
Nick Saban’s 4th LSU team defeated Oklahoma for the 2003 national championship.
Les Miles’ 3rd LSU team defeated Ohio State for the 2007 national championship.
Ed Orgeron’s 3rd LSU team defeated Clemson for the 2019 national championship.
No one expects Kelly’s team to contend for a national championship this season, and there aren’t any national championship games scheduled for the Superdome at least through the 2026 season.
But Kelly’s expectation and that of those who hired him and those who support his team and university is that he’ll have a Tigers team playing for a national championship sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Kelly’s situation compared to those national championship coaches is most analogous to Saban’s first season.
The last time LSU was unranked in the preseason poll was 2000, when Saban left Michigan State to take over in the wake of Gerry DiNardo’s tenure. That team went 8-4 as Saban started laying the foundation for the most successful 20-year run in Tigers history, an era that lasted well beyond Saban’s departure after the 2004 season.
Miles came from Oklahoma State to succeed Saban, inheriting one of the best programs in the SEC, and won his championship with a team that featured a bunch of players from Saban’s tenure, though Miles’ fingerprints certainly were all over that title.
Orgeron was named interim head coach after Miles was fired in the wake of a 2-2 start in 2016. But Miles’ dismissal wasn’t an indication that the program Orgeron was taking over had collapsed but rather that it wasn’t living up to the still-high expectations that were considered reasonable.
Orgeron gradually brought the won-lost record back in line with the expectations and talent level for 2 seasons before catching lightning in a bottle in 2019.
But Orgeron followed as good a season as any college football team has had with the most dramatic collapse any championship program has had, as LSU went 5-5 in 2020 and 6-7 in 2021.
DiNardo’s last 2 teams went 4-7 and 3-8.
Now Kelly knows how Saban felt 22 years ago.