When Brian Kelly and the LSU football team dropped their first game against Florida State, there was instant criticism of the decision to hire Kelly this offseason, and understandably so.
Kelly was a coach who emphasized preparation, who was known for his game management. He was supposed to be a stabilizing force in stark contrast to the sometimes erratic Ed Orgeron.
So, when LSU’s first loss was characterized by failure to execute the fundamentals–special teams, third down defense, consistent tackling, pass protection–Kelly’s suitability for a job at a school like LSU came into question.
Three weeks later, things look a lot sunnier.
Still, while it remains to be seen what this LSU season will end up looking like, it would never have been reasonable to expect Brian Kelly’s first LSU team to be an instant championship contender. A new coach with a new roster should always be expected to start slowly as they build their program and implement their ideas, though there can always be surprises and there are varying degrees of success found.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that not all coaching jobs are made the same. Obviously, some programs have the ability to recruit better talent than others. In addition, when a new head coach walks into a program, it could be in many different states of competitiveness.
Most often, a program with a new coach is in bad condition–that’s why there’s a new coach. Sometimes, though, the coach is replacing a coach who has retired or moved on to a better position, meaning it might be an easier job, relatively speaking–there’s already some recent tradition of winning.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Kelly has fared in his first year at his previous coaching jobs, so we can have a point of comparison for the Tigers and get an idea of what to expect from LSU the rest of this year.
When Brian Kelly was hired as the head coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas in 2004, he had won back-to-back national championships at the Division II level with Grand Valley State. Central Michigan provided a challenge: their last head coach had resigned following a 12-34 record across four years.
Kelly’s first two games were against Indiana and Michigan State, games a team like Central Michigan had no business in winning. While the team lost both games by a collective margin of 48, it did hold its own against Michigan State in a 24-7 game.
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Central Michigan then picked up a win against an FCS opponent in Southeast Missouri State before winning its first conference game against Kent State in an exciting 27-24 result.
The team had a disappointing early season, then a tune-up game, followed by an impressive victory to open conference play.
That’s about where the comparison to this year’s LSU team stops. Central Michigan went 2-5 the rest of the way, with its only wins against some of the worst teams in the conference. Still, Kelly’s eventual conference record of 3-5 was Central Michigan’s best since 1999.
The Chippewas did come within five points of eventual conference champion Toledo, but it was clear that Central Michigan just wasn’t working with the same resources and talent as the best teams in the Mid-American Conference. It would take another year or two for Kelly to get the program to a competitive place.
Kelly walked into a much different situation at Cincinnati in 2007. The previous coach, Mark Dantonio, had led the Bearcats to a 7-5 regular season the year before and was given the job at Michigan State, where he coached until his retirement in 2019.
Perhaps because he had so much more to work with, Kelly got off to a much quicker start in Cincinnati, and the program did not miss a beat. Cincinnati opened the season 5-0 in its out-of-conference play, including a comfortable win over an Oregon State team that would eventually finish 9-4.
In Big East play, Cincinnati won games against No. 21 Rutgers, No. 20 South Florida and No. 16 UConn. They did lose to No. 5 West Virginia, but the Mountaineers were formidable, and would narrowly miss being selected for the BCS National Championship. For the most part, Kelly’s team was able to win the big games, the ranked matchups, which may be a testament to his level of preparation.
Conference play was very successful for Cincinnati, apart from a two-game stretch where it lost to Louisville and Pittsburgh, who would finish 6-6 and 5-7, respectively. Cincinnati had seven turnovers across the two games and the defense had severe miscues in both. Louisville threw for 350 yards on a 73.6% completion rate, and the Bearcats allowed Pittsburgh to run for 260 yards.
Kelly was not immune to mistakes in his first year at Cincinnati, but it was all-in-all a good debut, and probably the best start he’s had to date at a new program. The Bearcats finished 10-3 and were ranked No. 17 by season’s end.
At Notre Dame, Kelly entered a program that was somewhat in decline. Former head coach Charlie Weis earned a record of 19-6 in his first two years, but the magic had faded–he’d gone 16-21 since.
Still, Kelly was working for a legendary college football program, and he did have ample access to talent.
Notre Dame faced an onslaught of a schedule in that 2010 season, with 11 of its 12 regular season opponents finishing the season bowl-eligible with six or more wins. Despite that, the team finished with an impressive record of 8-5.
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The Fighting Irish started Kelly’s debut season with a rough first few weeks, as the team made mistakes that you would expect from one with a new head coach. Against Michigan, Notre Dame allowed quarterback Denard Robinson to rush for 258 yards, including the game-winning touchdown with 28 seconds remaining.
In the next week vs. Michigan State–who would finish the season 11-2–Notre Dame pushed the Spartans to overtime but settled for a field goal on its opening possession of the extra frame, after which Michigan State took the win on a touchdown.
Against Stanford, who would later receive a final AP Poll ranking of No. 4, Notre Dame failed to capitalize on a bad day for the Andrew Luck-led Stanford offense. The Cardinal had three turnovers and settled for four field goals in the red zone; despite that, Notre Dame lost, 37-14.
Notre Dame could not stop Navy’s triple option in a 35-17 loss where the Midshipmen piled up 367 rushing yards. Kelly’s team lost the next week, too, allowing a punt return touchdown and missing an extra point in a one-point loss to Tulsa.
Still, Notre Dame hit its stride at the end of the season, with four straight wins, including an upset of No. 15 Utah and a victory in the Sun Bowl against Miami.
Teams under any new coach typically start slowly, and the same is true for Brian Kelly, just as it seems it may be for LSU this year. His teams may take a while to get going in his debut season or even over the following seasons. The difference with Kelly is he has a proven track record of correcting that as time passes. His past teams have of course had a learning curve, but they’ve all risen to success at the conference and national level.
It’s true that the SEC slate presents a different challenge than anything Kelly has faced at any of his previous stops, but he’s also working with some of the best resources college football can offer. Maybe it won’t be this year, maybe it won’t be the next, but success seems likely–with time.