Irish AD: Kelly exit no surprise, ND in fine shape

NCAAF

Brian Kelly informed Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick on Monday night that he would be leaving to become LSU’s coach, but Swarbrick had been sensing that Kelly was ready to make a move.

Swarbrick, on Tuesday, said he was “not surprised” by Kelly’s decision to depart Notre Dame after 12 seasons as coach. Kelly, who briefly met with the Notre Dame team Tuesday morning, did not attempt to get a counteroffer from Swarbrick before resigning his post. LSU announced Tuesday that Kelly had agreed to a 10-year, $95 million contract with the school.

“There’s just a sense you get when you work closely with somebody for 12 years that there’s a certain restlessness, and I could sense that,” Swarbrick said. “There was a Freudian slip or two along the way that sort of grabbed my attention. Whether that was intentional or not, you just felt like, it was a little bit like somebody who might be open to a different opportunity.”

Swarbrick likened Kelly’s departure to Lincoln Riley’s from Oklahoma to USC, saying both coaches were ready for new challenges. The Notre Dame athletic director said the upcoming coaching search won’t resemble the one from 12 years ago, when he landed Kelly to “fix a very broken program.”

Swarbrick said that Notre Dame’s program is the strongest it has been in his 14-year tenure as AD and that Kelly’s departure doesn’t signal that he felt Notre Dame had reached its ceiling. Kelly, the winningest coach in Notre Dame history at 113-40 (including 21 victories from the 2012 and 2013 seasons that were vacated by the NCAA), often said national championships are the only goal that matters for the Fighting Irish. He led Notre Dame to the BCS title game in 2012 and playoff appearances in 2018 and 2020, but the Irish suffered lopsided losses each time.

“When I look at the team that played the last half of the season, I don’t see a gap [from national title contenders],” Swarbrick said. “I think this team is really well-positioned. I believe we’re one of the top four teams in the country. The cumulative results of our last four or five games, I think, are compelling. I think we can play with anybody in the country right now. Can we get better? Always. Every team can. But a lot of the things that we chased for a while, we put ourselves in a much different position. Youth, depth, development have all put us in a really strong place.”

Notre Dame is ranked No. 6 heading into Tuesday night’s penultimate CFP rankings, and it won its final seven games. Swarbrick has not named an interim head coach and might not do so for the postseason, including a potential playoff appearance. Kelly will not be involved in coaching Notre Dame this postseason, and any coach elevated to the interim role will not be considered for the permanent position, Swarbrick said. Notre Dame will designate an assistant to handle head-coaching decisions on game day for the postseason.

Swarbrick will not use a search firm and will start the search process later Tuesday, saying there has been “a lot of outreach” from potential candidates. He put no timetable on the search, noting that Notre Dame might even be willing to wait until after the postseason to make the hire.

Sources said Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, who has his team positioned for a potential playoff spot, would be a primary candidate for the Notre Dame job. Other likely candidates include Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

“It’s about the right candidate,” Swarbrick said. “When we find the person we think is the right one to lead this program and have the right conversations with him, that’s all that matters. If that happens tomorrow, or weeks from now, that’s fine.”

Swarbrick said he’s primarily looking for coaches who understand and embrace the “unique” environment at Notre Dame, can manage staff, and can develop players at a high level. He noted Notre Dame’s commitment to facilities, including an indoor practice field and a plan “in the not-too-distant future” to upgrade the program’s main operations building.

While the timing for Kelly’s departure isn’t ideal, Swarbrick said coaching changes typically happen after the regular season, especially with more schools firing their coaches earlier.

“That’s a little bit of the dynamic now,” he said. “Look, 12 years is a really long time at Notre Dame. We were incredibly well-served to have Brian here for that period of time, but it’s a long time. And I have contemplated for some period of time that there had to be an endpoint coming. We hadn’t talked specifically about when that was. So in both the long-term perspective and the near term, it’s not a surprise.

“I think this place is perfectly prepared to move forward.”

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