SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday he won’t be rushed into finding a replacement for coach Brian Kelly even if the Fighting Irish manage to secure a College Football Playoff berth this weekend.
“Every search process has its own rhythm,” Swarbrick said a few hours after he and Kelly addressed players during a hurriedly called 7 a.m. meeting. “You want to do the best job you can, not the fastest job you can. We’re going to do the best job we can to find the right person to lead Notre Dame.”
For the second time in as many days, a storied college football program was essentially blindsided by the departure of a highly successful coach. On Monday, it was Oklahoma, which watched Lincoln Riley head to Southern California out of the blue.
This time, it was Notre Dame.
Kelly stunned the Irish by agreeing to a 10-year, $95 million contract offer from LSU, athletic director Scott Woodward said late Monday, setting him up to succeed Ed Orgeron as the Tigers coach. Reporters were not allowed to talk with players after the meeting, but some took to social media.
“Chase the bag, business first I get it,” senior wide receiver Braden Lenzy tweeted. “Best of luck.”
“Notre Dame is still Notre Dame,” junior defensive tackle Howard Cross III tweeted. “Nothing has changed. We’re still on a mission for the National Championship.”
Both LSU and USC apparently reached out to Kelly to see if he had interest in filling their vacant positions. There was no bidding war with the Irish and Swarbrick, whose relationship with Kelly has always been professional, if not particularly warm.
“Brian did not come to me, which frankly I appreciated, with some opportunity to match the offer,” Swarbrick said. “When we talked, he indicated that he was resigning to take another position. He thanked me for the opportunity the university had provided to him.”
As for being caught unaware, Swarbrick noted that 12 years at one place is a “long time” and said: “There had been enough in the weeks leading up that gave me a pretty strong sense that there might be other things that were attracting Brian, and then of course social media got very active during the day yesterday. Between the two things, I was not surprised.”
“I have contemplated for some period of time that there had to be an end point coming,” Swarbrick added. “We hadn’t talked specifically about when that was, but -- in both a long-term perspective and the near term — this wasn’t a surprise, and I think this place is perfectly prepared to move forward.”
The Fighting Irish (11-1) will find out their postseason fate Sunday following a weekend of conference championships. Even if Notre Dame manages to finish among the top four teams to earn its third CFP berth in the last four seasons, Swarbrick said Kelly would not coach the team.
“Brian will not be a part of that for us,” Swarbrick said. “We’ve got great coordinators, and so I have every confidence that we will be fully prepared for what I hope is a CFP game, but if not, I’m certain there will be a great New Year’s Six game.”
Swarbrick said if he does name an interim coach for the postseason, that person would “not be a candidate for the job.”
Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who joined Notre Dame for the 2021 season from Cincinnati, is expected to be among the candidates for the job as will current Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and possibly Clark Lea, who was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator before leaving to become head coach at Vanderbilt.
Swarbrick, who will lead the search, said he hadn’t reached out to anyone yet. “No, although I’ve had a lot of outreach,” he said. “I’m going to spend the day starting to reply to that outreach.”
Swarbrick hired Kelly away from Cincinnati following the 2009 regular season after the Bearcats had gone 12-0 and accepted a bid to the Sugar Bowl. Kelly earlier this season surpassed Knute Rockne as the winningest football coach in school history, leaving with a 113-40 record in 12 seasons that included playing for the 2012 national championship and two College Football Playoff appearances in 2018 and 2020.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the difference I see today as I embark on another search,” Swarbrick said. “In my 14 years, this program has never been in better shape. We have never been in a better position to take the next step in building this program into a consistent contender for national championships ... We are in that position in significant part thanks to Coach Kelly, who did a marvelous job of helping to restore the program at the University of Notre Dame.”