New LSU coach Brian Kelly explains decision to leave Notre Dame: 'I wanted to be with the best'

Erick Smith
USA TODAY
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Saying he was looking for an opportunity to compete on the biggest stage, Brian Kelly addressed the media for the first time since his surprising decision to leave Notre Dame for LSU.

Kelly had the longest tenure of any Fighting Irish coach and the lure of winning a national championship at a school that had won three since Notre Dame's last one in 1988. 

Kelly stressed the relationship with LSU school president William F. Tate IV and athletic director Scott Woodward and the resources available to win at the school.

"This is so much about alignment," Kelly said. "This university, the goals and what is in store for LSU athletics and the university. That is what the draw is to me."

However, choosing to leave a program with the prestige of Notre Dame is extraordinarily rare. The last coach to do it for another job was 114 years ago. Typically burnout or failure to reach expectations have led to other departures. Kelly is walking away with the program as healthy as it has been in 30 years.

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Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly runs onto the field with the team before the 2018 Citrus Bowl.

"I can't say enough about my 12 years at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "The incredible people I worked with. The incredible players that I had the honor to coach there."

The timing is another matter. The Fighting Irish were ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday, one day after his departure was announced. It's possible Notre Dame could make the field and not have their coach leading them. 

"It's never easy," Kelly said. "Those young men, I love dearly. It made for a difficult decision. But when I was able to look at it and with the opportunity here was one that I got a chance to talk to (LSU athletic director Scott Woodward) about the resources and the opportunity here to really make a significant change. I believe that I can make a significant difference here."

Kelly said the opportunity was not expected. LSU's search seemed focused on Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher and former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who was hired Sunday by Southern California.

"There was no plan in place as I entered the 2021 season that I was looking for another opportunity," Kelly said. "As I spoke with more people about this opportunity, I felt it was something I had to take on."

Kelly spent 12 seasons that saw him become the school's all-time wins leader and reach the College Football Playoff twice. He also led the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game in 2012. However, his failure to break through and win any of those three games on the sport's biggest stage - they lost by a combined score of 103-31 - gave an appearance that he had taken the program as far as he could go even as they went 54-9 in his final five seasons.

The challenge will be very different at LSU. The Tigers play in the toughest conference in college football and the competition each week will be more difficult. Kelly also has coached exclusively in the Midwest and Northeast during his career. Recruiting in the South will be an adjustment. 

"I came down here because I wanted to be with the best," Kelly said. "The standard of expectation. You're looked at in terms of championships here and I want that. I want to be under the bright lights. ... That's part of the draw."

Doubters should note Kelly has won at every stop in his coaching career. His two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State led him to Central Michigan. After three seasons, he was on to Cincinnati. Kelly won 33 games in his three seasons with the Bearcats before taking the Notre Dame job. 

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