As 'it' coach, Kelly had no choice but to leave for Notre Dame
When Brian Kelly left 12-0 Cincinnati for Notre Dame, it was messy
The college football calendar makes the timing of job switches tricky
One solution to make breakups less messy: an early signing period
Hopefully, Mardy Gilyard will forgive Brian Kelly someday. The Cincinnati receiver and the former Cincinnati coach did a lot for one another, and their relationship shouldn't end with Gilyard seething over Kelly's decision to take the Notre Dame job.
Gilyard has every right to be angry. Kelly wasn't entirely honest with the Bearcats. If he had been, he would have told them all along that Notre Dame was his dream job and that he probably would take the job if granted the opportunity. But no coach would say that, just as some of the guys playing for Cincinnati probably would be loath to admit that they always dreamed of playing for Ohio State.
Despite his anger, Gilyard seems to understand what happened here. "At the end of the day, I know he's a businessman," Gilyard told WLWT-TV after Kelly told the Bearcats he was leaving. "He's always been a businessman."
Most coaching changes are strictly business, but the college football calendar makes them a messy business. After Kelly left, Sporting News college basketball guru Mike DeCourcy tweeted that no college basketball coach would leave his team on the eve of the NCAA tournament. That's true, but coaches would leave in droves if the sport took a month off between the conference and NCAA tournaments and that month just so happened to be the most crucial recruiting period in the sport.
Kelly had little choice but to handle the job change the way he did. He dreamed of coaching at Notre Dame, and the job came open at the precise moment Kelly was the hottest coach in America. This wasn't a junior analyst position at Merrill Lynch. Had Kelly passed this time, he probably never would have gotten another chance. Notre Dame would have moved on to the next candidate. So the Fighting Irish would have hired, say, Connecticut's Randy Edsall, who would have coached in South Bend for three to five years and possibly longer. By the time the Irish needed another coach, college football would have burned through an awful lot of "it" coaches, and Kelly's star might not be as bright.
That's the problem when the calendar forces schools to hire multimillion-dollar CEOs in a matter of days. Notre Dame didn't dismiss Charlie Weis until Nov. 30, but it didn't make sense to do it any sooner. Kelly, the top candidate for the job and Florida's Urban Meyer, the ultimate pipe dream candidate, each had games on Dec. 5, so Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick couldn't speak to either directly.
Swarbrick had to land a coach by last weekend. If he hadn't, coaches at other schools would have begun picking apart Notre Dame's recruiting class, and the surest way to doom a coach to failure is to bring him in without at least a tiny recruiting base from which to start. So, to get a head start, Swarbrick hired a search firm.
On the surface, this sounds silly. Why hire Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search when a simple Google search will turn up the name of every coach qualified to prowl the sidelines at Notre Dame? Swarbrick didn't hire Parker Executive Search to suggest candidates; he hired the firm to provide privacy and plausible deniability.
The privacy is important because it looks bad for Notre Dame to get turned down publicly, as it was in 2004 when Meyer chose Florida after Notre Dame made a very public show of interviewing the Utah coach. So if -- and this is purely hypothetical -- Swarbrick decided to shoot for the moon and approach Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the shame wouldn't last longer than it took for Belichick's agent to chuckle into the phone when a Parker employee made the suggestion.
Plausible deniability is even more important. The search firm allows the school and the candidate to communicate without actually making direct contact. That way, an AD isn't lying when he says he hasn't contacted anyone, and the coach isn't lying when he says he hasn't been contacted. Swarbrick and Kelly may not have spoken directly until last week, but the groundwork had been laid by the search firm.
Once the parties reach the interview stage, the pressure increases tenfold. In a high-profile hire such as this, the AD essentially identifies his top candidate, and he uses the interview to ensure he isn't making a huge mistake. Kelly said he met with Swarbrick and Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins last Wednesday. As we learned last year, the average coaching interview includes less face time than an interview for a high school sports reporter making $35,000 a year.
Then, the coach is put in an even more awkward situation when he must decide whether to coach his team in a bowl game. As noted earlier, this never happens to college basketball coaches. The previous coach gets fired, usually in early March because his team didn't make the tournament, and the new coach is hired shortly after his team finishes its tourney run. Recruiting isn't as much of a concern because players for the next year's signing class were locked into letters-of-intent the previous November.
In Kelly's case, Notre Dame obviously wanted him completely focused on the Irish. The situation might have been different had Texas lost to Nebraska in the Big 12 title game, which would have placed Cincinnati in the BCS Championship Game. Kelly has said he might not have taken the Notre Dame job under that circumstance, but I bet he would have. Having its new coach leading his old team into the BCS title game would have been the ultimate recruiting chip for Notre Dame. In the past two years, coordinators-turned-head-coaches Bo Peilini (LSU to Nebraska) and Dan Mullen (Florida to Mississippi State) used their roles in the BCS title game to entice recruits to their new schools.
So would a playoff discourage such heartbreaking breakups? Maybe. Since half the teams get knocked out of a playoff in the first week, a tournament probably would just push the calendar another week, but at least the coach would get to finish the season with his current team before shoving off to greener pastures for more green.
A better deterrent would be an early signing period, which would allow schools some measure of security that their recruiting classes might remain intact if they fire their coach. That way, they might even be able to wait until after the bowl games to hire their next coach, or they could at least offer the new coach the freedom to coach the bowl. Kelly made this suggestion during an interview Tuesday on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning, and it's a good one. But Kelly's idea -- a signing day in early December -- probably wouldn't make the circumstances any less awkward. The best plan would be a signing day in August, which would exactly mirror the system basketball uses. Unfortunately, most coaches would prefer a December date, and most athletic directors despise the idea of an early signing day, because having a great recruiting class in hand makes it difficult to fire a coach who underperforms on the field.
For now, we'll just have to accept that coaching breakups are going to get ugly. Feelings will get hurt. An upwardly mobile coach has no other option. Consider what Swarbrick said of Kelly when he introduced him last Friday.
"He was the right man at the right time for Notre Dame," Swarbrick said. Kelly, who always dreamed of coaching the Irish, knew that at any other time, he probably wouldn't be the right man.
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