The college football coaching carousel is spinning with centrifugal force, scattering high-profile coaches and job openings across the landscape and leaving fans to pick up jaws that dropped like a roller coaster.
Coaching staples at the two of the sport’s patriciate programs departed for greener pastures and ostensibly a clearer path to hoisting an elusive College Football Playoff National Championship trophy.
Offense innovator Lincoln Riley channeled the Dust Bowl migration and left Oklahoma for the University of Southern California. Massachusetts native Brian Kelly departed Notre Dame after a dozen seasons and more wins than any coach in its gilded history, trading South Bend for the bayou to land at Louisiana State.
More than money and perks fit for Middle Eastern monarchies drove these seismic shifts. At the center of this high-stakes, costly game of musical chairs is the College Football Playoff.
Instead of supplying more parity to the sport, the CFP has crystallized and magnified the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Since its inception in 2015, four schools have won it all — Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, and LSU — and six have played in the final. The college football caste system is real, and it’s being reinforced.
This might seem like an odd supposition in the season that the Cincinnati Bearcats became the first non-Power 5 conference team to land a spot in the CFP, facing off against top-seeded Alabama and joining traditional heavyweights Michigan and Georgia behind the pearly playoff gates. That’s progress, but it belies the reality of the consolidation of power in college football where fewer and fewer programs can claim a realistic chance of winning it all.
By nature, many college football coaches are inveterate opportunists.
For anyone whining about the transfer portal and Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) payments destabilizing college football, putting too much volition and money in the hands of college players, it’s simply the players emulating their coaches. Coaches lure kids to campus with the promise of playing time, a paternal relationship, and loyalty, then leave on the next private plane to greener pastures.
It’s a misdirection play that college coaches have been calling for years, older than the triple-option.
What’s different this time is that Oklahoma and Notre Dame, two of the six winningest programs in college football history, suddenly find themselves on the wrong rung of social stratification. Their coaches realized that winning it all at those schools was an uphill battle they no longer wanted to fight.
Riley led Oklahoma to three straight College Football Playoff appearances from 2017 to 2019, but the Sooners never got past the semifinals. Oklahoma is tagging along with Texas to join the Almighty Southeastern Conference no later than 2025, creating a “Hunger Games”-like confederation of college football powers that is tougher than the AFC East.
Even with potential expansion of the college football playoff, Riley saw the writing on the wall. Instead of being the biggest fish in the small pond of the Big 12, his program was potential chum for Nick Saban and the NFL’s unofficial 33rd team in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
So, Riley, one of the most sought-after coaches in all of football (college and pro), heeded the words of Horace Greeley and headed West to restore the luster to USC, a sleeping giant that has fallen on hard times.
The 38-year-old now has a chance to build a Pete Carroll-era power at Troy with a built-in fertile recruiting base and a smoother path to an undefeated season in the Pac-12, arguably the weakest of the Power 5 conferences. USC can become the Clemson of the West Coast, a perennial national title contender that stands head and shoulders above the rest of its conference foes while capable of going toe-to-toe with the big boys of the Big Ten and the SEC.
He can do all of that while living it up in glamorous LA with a less rabid and more realistic fan base than he dealt with in Norman, Okla.
Of course, the reported $110 million USC, a private institution, shelled out for Riley didn’t hurt either. One wonders what other improvements USC could do on campus with $110 million?
Kelly’s move was even more shocking, as he was ensconced at Notre Dame and left a team that still had a shot at reaching the CFP when he absconded — Notre Dame ended up No. 5 with its nose pressed against the playoff glass.
Kelly had recently professed his allegiance to Touchdown Jesus and all things Notre Dame, saying it would take $250 million for him to leave. Instead, the Chelsea homeboy left for 10 years, $95 million, becoming the highest-paid coach at a public university. There are other plentiful perks, too.
The smooth-talking Kelly has a reputation for social climbing college football jobs, but it felt like if he left Notre Dame it was going to be for the NFL. So, other than the money, why did he leave old Notre Dame? It wasn’t the opportunity to feign a bad southern accent.
At LSU, he can recruit and get admitted a caliber of player he simply can’t at Notre Dame on a consistent basis. He doesn’t have to worry about academic integrity getting in the way of his team-building and pursuit of that elusive national championship, the one missing item on his coaching CV. A football factory like LSU, national champions in 2003, 2007, and 2019, dropped that conceit long ago.
This is hard for Notre Damers to swallow, but LSU is simply a better job if you want to chase championships. As an SEC power, the Tigers are better armed than quaint Notre Dame in today’s CFP-fueled college football arms race when it comes to investing in facilities, coaching salaries, and a win-at-all-costs mentality.
The CFP has created a sort of all-or-nothing mentality. You’re either in or you’re out. Even schools that were “in” like Oklahoma and Notre Dame now must realize there is another exclusive level to the club lined by a velvet rope their iconic ex-coaches didn’t think they could get past by staying put.
College football has always stood as a sport underpinned by subjective rankings, perceived pecking order, and, most of all, pedigree. The CFP has amplified that, not changed it, which is why elite coaches should be seen as mercenaries for hire more than molders of men.