Blueblood on Blueblood Crime
On a Monday morning in November under darkness at Oklahoma City airport, several sleek black Tahoe’s rolled up to the airport entrance. Following the news from the night before that University of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley was to become the head coach of USC, out of the cars bound several of Riley’s former assistant coaches. They were sneaking out of town to join their old boss in LA, just as Sooner Nation was waking up to the bombshell that their young coach was bolting West, in a scene reminiscent of the clandestine way the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
Later that day, a stream of star high school players who were scheduled to join Oklahoma decommitted. Five prospects from the recruiting class of 2022 have decommitted since Riley’s departure. Even more brazenly on that Monday night, Notre Dame head coach, Brian Kelly, stepped out of a meeting with a Notre Dame recruit to confirm on a phone call with LSU that he would be their next head coach.
A phenomenally successful and consistent college blueblood program was hit by a tornado, and an existential crisis enveloped Norman, Oklahoma. Stable and sacred Notre Dame was left reeling by Kelly’s move. While the new entrants in the 2021 College Football Playoff are a welcome change, I’ll explore further why Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly decided their best shot at a national championship was to join a supremely well resourced top five school.
The Killer Instinct
Sports Illustrated senior writer Pat Forde described the week with the crazy coaching carousel twists as the wildest in the history of college football because of ‘blueblood on blueblood crime’; coaches moving from one powerhouse to the next. In addition to Riley and Kelly, Miami poached former player Mario Christobal from Oregon to be their new head coach. There was blood on the carpet before Miami made the hire. Outgoing coach Manny Diaz expressed disappointment about the manner of his exit. Miami had the gall to publicly state that if they were unable to prise Christobel from Oregon, they would settle for Diaz remaining in charge. What a grubby way to conduct affairs. Diaz has retained his dignity throughout the saga. Similarly, at Notre Dame, the young Black new head coach, Marcus Freeman, had been sincere and upstanding in the face of Brian Kelly’s departure. His hire is a welcome departure from the norm of middle-aged, conservative white men in charge.
The outgoing coaches are said to have spent two minutes addressing their players and staff before walking out of the room. In the case of one of the coaches, his running backs coach told him to “stop crying and get on with it”, prompting the coach to flee the scene.
Brian Kelly sent a message to his players on a private plane back from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then insisted they come in at 7am the next morning to hear him mumble a few words and leave to never be seen in South Bend again. It takes a brass neck to do that.
College head coach salaries are now in orbit. Packages include $10 million a year deals, massive contract buyouts, and 24/7 access to the private plane. Not bad work if you can get it. The New York Times recently interviewed a sage who got to the heart of the industry and the soaring deals. “If you equate it to college education, it’s insane,” Jackie Sherrill, the retired Texas A&M University football coach and athletic director, said. “If you equate it to business, it makes sense.”
The levers of wealth have turbo-charged the game, helping endow the SEC and made Texas A&M the richest college of all. Several other top SEC schools feature in the Forbes college football top ten.
We’ve witnessed an incredible season of twists and upsets in college football, perhaps only rivalled by the 2007 season, with Cincinnati and Michigan springing surprises to reach the College Playoff. But under the surface a brand of consolidation is taking place, centered on the old establishment order of the same 5 teams: USC, LSU, Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia.
Power Five Football
After his Dear John letter to Notre Dame’s players, Brian Kelly went on to distinguish himself further at his welcome rally in LSU. His new found Southern drawl lit up the evening - rather conspicuous for someone from Massachusetts to have developed so quickly. His coup de grace came at a home visit to a Notre Dame recruit minutes before the news of his departure to LSU broke. Eating bbq with the recruit and his family at the recruits home, Kelly excused himself to take a 15 minute phone call. We know this call was with LSU. When he returned, he ate seconds before departing. The parents wisely chose to tip off the media about the details of his visit after the shock of learning where he was next headed.
Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly behaved in different manners, yet ultimately wanted the same thing: a program that would give each a better chance to win a national title. Both have made the college playoff numerous times in the last five years and suffered some severe stuffings. Neither has one victory to show for their efforts. Moving to USC and LSU respectively affords them each the chance to recruit in the best locations to bring five-star prospects into their programs. Kelly was lured by the trappings of a big time SEC program; Riley the ability to dominate the Pac-12 each season and have a clear path to the playoffs without the complication of doing it through the SEC.
One manic week of the coaching carousel exposed the fault lines between the student athletes committed to their programs and the top coaches vying for the best jobs and salaries. Loyalty, up to a point, and the ability to be utterly ruthless to attain power win were on show. Even if that means brown-nosing a recruits’ parents and depleting the brisket before you sneak off like a thief in the night.