The world of college football was rocked by two massive changes in the coaching ranks this week, as Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC, and Brian Kelly departed Notre Dame for LSU. Both Riley and Kelly are among the top 10 coaches in the nation, and their moves for new programs (and bigger contracts) will have a significant impact on the national landscape, playoff races, and recruiting battles in future seasons.
With two elite coaches on the move, Athlon Sports wondered which program made the better hire this week. Athlon's editors and college football contributors debated this topic:
LSU or USC: Which Program Made the Better Head Coach Hire?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
There is not a wrong answer here, as I could make a strong case for either coach. Both are A+ hires and are going to win a ton of games and hardware at their new jobs. Since we have to pick one though, I'll go with Brian Kelly at LSU. While the cultural fit is a little weird for a coach who spent his career in the Midwest, Kelly has won at every stop and at several different levels of competition. Also, for those with concerns about the fit, let's also not forget there was another coach (Nick Saban) who came to the SEC with no experience in the league after working in the Midwest. Kelly guided Notre Dame to two playoff appearances and has won at least 10 games in each of the last five years. He can recruit at a higher level at LSU than he did in South Bend and has the big-picture/CEO vision needed to build (and maintain) the program into a consistent playoff contender. Kelly will also have all of the resources needed at his disposal in terms of facilities and budget to hire a top-notch staff. While Kelly isn't a SEC lifer, his track record suggests he will win (and win big) in Baton Rouge - adding another juggernaut in the bloodbath known as the SEC.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
How about which was the more surprising? This coaching carousel certainly hasn't gotten anything like anyone was expecting with two of the most high-profile programs in the country making big moves. Very intrigued by Brian Kelly going to LSU since it seems like an odd fit in more ways than one, but you can't dispute that he's won wherever he's been and now he'll try to do it again in the country's toughest conference. But I give USC the nod here because the Trojans HAD to do something seismic to change the direction they were headed, and boy did athletic director Mike Bohn and the administration deliver. Lincoln Riley may be a native Texan who made a name for himself in the Big 12 but he just oozes SoCal cool and in some ways seems typecast for this job. More importantly, if the same success follows him from Norman to Los Angeles, USC fans (and Pac-12 supporters) are going to be very, very, very happy. If anything, the Trojans are back on everyone's radar for the right reasons, and that's not a bad thing for college football as a whole.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
While LSU should be thrilled with its new head coach, it’s hard to pick a better match than Lincoln Riley and USC. Given Riley’s recruiting track record and offensive prowess, there’s a clear path to the Trojans reclaiming the Pac-12. If Riley can bring five-star after five-star to Norman, things should get even easier in Los Angeles — this is one of the few schools that has more resources than Oklahoma. Defenses under Riley remain a question, although bringing along coordinator Alex Grinch is a big get.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
There is no doubt that LSU made a terrific hire with Brian Kelly, who has as steady a track record with building a winning foundation for a sustained period of time. But it’s hard for me not to think USC will make out better in the big picture here. Lincoln Riley has coached multiple Heisman Trophy winners at the QB position, and he shouldn’t have much trouble attracting future Heisman-worthy quarterbacks at USC. Riley should revive USC to being the top program in the Pac-12, and I think there is a very good chance Riley has USC in the national picture similar to the Pete Carroll days more often than Brian Kelly will at LSU.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Many people can question the character of Brian Kelly, but they cannot argue with the results he has had while in South Bend.
Kelly was 113-40 at Notre Dame, where it isn't easy to win due to academic standards. Also, his 263 career wins are the third-most among active FBS head coaches behind only Alabama's Nick Saban and North Carolina's Mack Brown.
While Lincoln Riley could be an excellent hire for USC, Kelly is a home run for the Tigers. When Bob Stoops retired at Oklahoma, Riley was handed the keys to a Porsche. When Kelly took over at Notre Dame, he was given a 1980s Buick that was expected to compete with today's technology, and he did.
During his time at Notre Dame, Kelly played for a national championship and coached in six major bowl games, including two appearances in the College Football Playoff. At a school like LSU with seemingly no restrictions (or lack of resources), just imagine what Kelly will be able to do.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Lincoln Riley seems better positioned for success at USC. Riley already had been recruiting west coast players to fill skill positions at Oklahoma. Additionally, he ran the air raid with the Sooners, which means offensive continuity with the talent already in the USC program. Brian Kelly to LSU is more of a puzzling move. Kelly was clearly swayed by the astronomically high contract offered by the Tigers. Kelly's been wildly successful at every stop, but can he keep up with Alabama and Georgia and deliver the championships LSU expects? Color me skeptical.
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
USC hired a young, aggressive coach that has strong recruiting ties in the Los Angeles area. As a person, Lincoln Riley seems like a guy that would culturally fit in Los Angeles as well. Brian Kelly in the bayou doesn't have that same feel. Kelly is a very good coach that accomplished a lot at Notre Dame. But he is also considerably older than Riley and therefore does not have as much upside. Plus, being a northeast/midwest guy, he will have to develop contacts in a new area. So in my opinion, Riley to USC is the better of the two recent hires.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
While both schools made tremendous hires, I feel like I've seen more people say that Brian Kelly seems like an odd fit for LSU whereas Lincoln Riley seems like he fits in perfectly with the Sean McVay's and Brandon Staley's of the world in Los Angeles. Riley has made a living recruiting in Southern California and that's one of the reasons USC hired him. Kelly and Riley have somewhat similar resumes, even if Lincoln's might be slightly better. It's certainly not enough to say one guy or the next has "done a better job." So, if it's not about doing a better job and it's not about which job is better — keep in mind, both jobs made sports history in their own way — then it has to be about fit and potential. It would seem to me that Baton Rouge would likely get more tired of Brian Kelly than Los Angeles would get tired of Lincoln Riley. I think both coaches enjoy fairly long and successful tenures, but right now, with all things being relatively equal, I would give the edge to Los Angeles if only because Riley seems like he's a better overall fit with the region & expectations. Oh, and Riley also flipped a number of extremely high-profile recruits on his way out of Oklahoma, including 2022 stud Raleek Brown. On the coaching side, Riley is bringing with him Dennis Simmons, who recruited and coached wide receivers at Oklahoma, Bill Bedenbaugh, widely regarded as the best offensive line coach in the entire game, and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who previously coached and recruited in the Pac-12. Taking the package as a whole, it becomes even harder to argue with Riley over Kelly.
Podcast: Huge Coaching News (Lincoln Riley to USC) and Breaking Down a Great Rivalry Weekend