SOUTH BEND, Ind. — We’re even — or at least, they are — so end it.
Busy putting his new players through football practice, LSU coach Brian Kelly found enough time within a saturated spring schedule last week to run a select few national writers through Baton Rouge for a peek into his program.
First tour stop — and seemingly mentioned up high in any subsequent story — was LSU’s swanky dining digs (OK, performance nutrition center), something that Kelly quickly reminded writers that Notre Dame lacked. Imagine the championships he would’ve/could’ve/should’ve won, if only Notre Dame had been more serious about supper.
The way Kelly has framed it, he somehow had to make it all work the past five seasons of double-digit wins and big-time bowl appearances while his guys were eating baloney sandwiches out of (sad-) sack lunches. Did they get chips with that? An apple? Carton of milk?
What Kelly doesn’t mention was that those grab-and-go meals at Notre Dame weren’t served on home game days when his teams lost to Duke and Northwestern, South Florida and Tulsa. They weren’t a factor when he decided to abandon the run game in Hurricane-like conditions during a 2016 loss at North Carolina State.
Meals really didn’t matter before Notre Dame was boat-raced in two College Football Playoff semifinal appearances by an average of 22 points. Or when it was out of its league nearly from the opening kickoff of the 42-14 manhandling by Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship game.
When Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016, Kelly realized that HE had to change, not the team meal plan.
Cough, cough, coaching anyone?
To mention that would ruin the narrative that seemingly screamed last week that Kelly would’ve won more, maybe even delivered Notre Dame its first national championship since 1988, if only if the school would’ve crawled out of the nutritional dark ages.
So, those stories were written by anybody with a sympathetic ear to Kelly’s “struggle” up here. All carry a constant theme — if only Notre Dame could’ve/would’ve/should’ve done for Kelly after all he gave them, he wouldn’t be down on the Bayou working on that faux Southern accent. He’d still be up in the Bend winning 10, 11, 12 regular-season games and maybe winning a postseason game that actually mattered.
Kelly did the best — and honestly, did more — with what he had to work with during his 12 seasons at Notre Dame. That was the job and he knew the deal. He knew how that place worked. He knew. He still won. That means something.
Now, it’s about the food that his LSU players have access to 24/7. It’s about all that recruiting potential within a day’s drive, which Kelly now can do behind the wheel of his Tesla. (No word on if the color of his car is LSU purple and/or gold). It’s about the endless number of hours he won’t spend hopscotching across the country on private planes to recruit players to Northern Indiana.
With all that open to him, only now will everyone see the kind of magic Kelly can make as a head coach.
Notre Dame’s response was barely a shrug. No statement of how everything really runs from first-year coach Marcus Freeman. No salty university-issued release from athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who offered an indication to the Tribune in February of his cut-and-paste response when the topic turns to Kelly.
“No one will ever hear me say a negative word about Brian, both because of the impact that he had and my relationship with him. I value that relationship,” Swarbrick told the Tribune in mid-February.
Guess that relationship wasn’t a two-way street.
Rather than refute Kelly’s comments, Notre Dame went a different direction. It was PR 101. Don’t throw sticks and stones at someone who threw some sticks and hurled some stones. Instead, subtly paint a picture of how life around the Guglielmino Center, short of everyone holding hands and singing kumbaya, is different without Kelly.
Maybe even, gasp, better.
That response came Saturday, when Notre Dame made available Freeman and coordinators Al Golden (defense) and Tommy Rees (offense) each in 15-minute (or more) windows following the team’s scrimmage. Each talked of how well the staff works together. How it’s different. Individually. Collectively.
It was a way to respond to Kelly without responding to Kelly — a jab instead of a roundhouse.
Freeman mentioned it.
“We meet as a staff every day; that’s something that we haven’t done in the past,” Freeman said. “It’s very intentional — to make sure we are becoming a unit. Our coaching staff has to be a unit that trusts each other and lean on each other and realize we have each other’s backs.”
Golden mentioned it.
“We’ll put our strength staff against anybody in the country.”
Rees mentioned it.
“Coach Free does a great job of bringing everyone together. He’s a natural leader.”
Later that day, the Notre Dame Football account tweeted a set of four action photos from that day’s scrimmage. It included this tag line — no excuses here.
Everything new — a job, a car, a pair of shoes — always looks and feels better than the old at first. That’s why it’s new. Then that newness wears off. The newness of Kelly and all he has at his disposal at LSU will wear off. Then what?
The individuals involved could go back and forth with this for months. Look what Kelly has now at LSU; look at what he doesn’t have at Notre Dame. We get it. But Brian Kelly’s not the head coach at Notre Dame this fall for the first time since 2009 not because his guys didn’t dine daily on steak and lobster.
He’s not the head coach at Notre Dame because he racked up too many frequent flyer miles — albeit likely on a private aircraft. Yeah, rough life.
Brian Kelly’s not the head coach at Notre Dame because LSU gave him something that Notre Dame never would — a contract with a lot of years on it and a whole lot of dollars in it. Years and dollars that Kelly never was going to get from Notre Dame, no matter how many more games he won with his guys eating at South Dining Hall.
That’s why he’s down there and no longer up here.
In the end, it’s best for all involved. It’s also best that everyone moves on.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI