Brian Kelly sought LSU football's demands, so hold him to Nick Saban standard | Toppmeyer
LSU spent big to hire an established football coach from a program where he experienced success, and the new hire’s arrival brought expectations of brighter days for the Tigers – sooner than later.
The year was 2000, and Nick Saban was preparing for his first season as LSU’s coach. The Tigers had plundered Saban by doubling his Michigan State salary. He joined Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer as coaches earning seven figures.
The first reporter to question Saban at SEC Media Days asked whether he was ready for his new job’s lofty expectations.
“I don't know where those expectations come from,” Saban said then, trying to tamp down Year 1 demands.
Sorry, but honeymoons end quickly at LSU.
Saban proved ready for the demands. A program that produced three victories in its final season under Gerry DiNardo won eight games in Saban’s debut.
More than two decades later, LSU finds itself in a comparable situation after the high-priced hire of Brian Kelly.
Like Saban, Kelly arrived devoid of SEC experience but armed with a proven résumé.
Unlike Saban, Kelly made no attempt to temper LSU’s expectations. He’s here to win the national championship that eluded him at Notre Dame.
“The greatest fans deserve an incredible football team,” Kelly said in some of his first remarks to LSU fans. “We will begin, starting right this minute, to put together the next national championship football team at Louisiana State University.
“That’s the standard. That’s the expectation. We knew that coming in. We don’t apologize for it.”
And no LSU fan should apologize for demanding Year 1 success. In fact, hold Kelly to the Saban standard.
Saban delivered an 8-4 record and a Top 25 finish in his first LSU season. Eight wins and a postseason ranking is a fair ask from Kelly, especially after he elevated the roster’s talent by stockpiling transfers with immediate eligibility – an avenue for quick roster improvement not available to Saban.
As far as LSU schedules go, this one presents an opportunity.
The Tigers will open against Florida State (1-0) on Sunday (6:30 p.m. CT, ABC) at the Superdome in New Orleans. The Seminoles are farther removed from their glory days than the Tigers, with four consecutive losing seasons. Coach Mike Norvell is on the hot seat.
Inside the SEC, rival Florida is in the midst of a rebuild and a crossover game against ascending Tennessee will be played at home.
In other words, an avenue exists to eight or more victories without even taking down the SEC West’s current stalwarts.
Those who keep close watch on LSU expect immediate improvement under Kelly. The Advocate/Times-Picayune polled 18 Louisiana media members who cover the program for their season predictions. Each projected the Tigers would win at least seven games. Fourteen voters predicted 8-4, including Koki Riley, The Advertiser’s beat writer.
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That’s a nod to LSU’s talent – think Florida’s first-year coach Billy Napier wouldn’t love to possess playmakers like wide receiver Kayshon Boutte or disruptive defensive linemen like BJ Ojulari and Ali Gaye? – but also to Kelly’s presence.
Among Kelly’s top tasks will be instilling more toughness in a program that struggled to protect the quarterback the past two seasons, didn’t establish much run game, and didn’t play to LSU's defensive standards.
The Saban playbook would call for a karate chop. Before Saban’s first LSU season, players' training included weekly martial arts lessons.
Kelly vows to instill an attention to detail.
“You want championships, you’ve got to win with habits,” Kelly said this summer. “So, our standards have to be raised on a day-to-day basis. I’m much more about traits over talent.”
Talent has rarely been LSU's issue.
Now, coaching shouldn’t be an issue, either – not with a highly paid coach who has been a consistent winner everywhere he’s been.
Before Saban’s first season at LSU, one veteran sports columnist dubbed LSU’s hiring of a Kent State alumnus and native West Virginian “an odd match,” but correctly noted that geographic fit wouldn’t matter if the wins mounted.
Kelly may still be getting his bearings in the Bayou, but he’s no stranger to expectations. No need to temper expectations in Year 1. This is Kelly’s chance to prove that, like Saban, he’s built for LSU’s high demands.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, considera digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Also, check out his podcast, SEC Football Unfiltered, or access exclusive columns via the SEC Unfiltered newsletter.