Brian Kelly will be the first coach to take the podium Monday at SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
Talk about something impossible to predict at the start of last year’s media days. For those of us who follow LSU football, and certainly for Kelly himself.
Having gotten to know Brian a bit since he arrived at LSU in December, I wouldn’t be surprised if he mixed a little dry humor into his opening remarks. Including something self-deprecating about his now infamous midcourt video from halftime of the LSU-Ohio basketball game when he addressed a rabid crowd the day of his introductory news conference.
It’s important what Kelly has to say – about the issues facing his first LSU football team and college football at large. It’s perhaps almost as important how he says it. While a little humor is fine, it will be meaningful for Kelly to establish a new public image for the program and the man in charge of it.
Let’s be frank: For a lot of folks, for the past 18 years, the post-Nick Saban years, the LSU football coach has equated to an easy punch line. There was Les Miles and all his goofy, high-hat wearing, grass chewing ways. His alleged creepy actions around female students during his tenure only added to the negative image in retrospect. Then there was Orgeron, who with his gravelly Cajun accent and reputation for tearing off shirts and punching himself in the jaw in pregame rants made a lot of people treat him as though he was a character who stepped off the screen in “The Waterboy.”
The fact that both coaches led LSU to national championships and a combined three Southeastern Conference titles is almost an afterthought. LSU football, by dent of the men who has led it most of the past two decades, hasn’t been taken as seriously as many of its rivals.
For LSU to be the program it wants to be — a consistent national player, not just one that pulls it all together every few years then slips back into the pack — that needs to change.
Based on that audio and video of Kelly from Day One at LSU, he didn’t get off to the best start. It sounded like the man from Massachusetts was trying to go all Colonel Sanders on Tiger fans to win them over with a fake Southern accent.
As I’ve written before, I was there that night and I didn’t hear that. I heard a guy trying to project his words over a jacked-up crowd. But audio from a hand-held microphone can sound a lot different, and can open up the speaker to a broad spectrum of interpretations. Just ask Howard Dean, another New Englander like Kelly (who himself once worked in politics). Dean’s 2004 presidential candidacy was scuttled by an unhinged-sounding scream over a boisterous ballroom once the audio from his mic was separated out from the background din.
Kelly can make a quip or two, but overall he needs to project solid statesmanship. He certainly has the credentials. Hands down, he is the most accomplished football coach LSU has ever hired. That includes Saban, who wasn’t Saban but just a guy with a lot of potential when he came to Baton Rouge in late 1999.
Depending on whether or not SEC Media Days returns to Atlanta during Kelly’s tenure, the next time he appears at the College Football Hall of Fame it may be after his all-but-certain future enshrinement.
Kelly is arguably the best active college coach without a national championship — a CFP/BCS national championship, anyway (he won a pair of NCAA Division II national titles at Grand Valley State). His reputation so far at LSU has been for establishing accountability and improving the way the program works, strengthening the unseen sinews of a team that are almost as important as talent when it comes to winning.
It’s a new era at LSU. What appears to be a more serious era. What should be a more respectful era. With every game Kelly can paste in the win column, the jokes and punch lines will fade. Ultimately the goal for Kelly and LSU should be simply that the joke is on everyone else, not the other way around.