Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley, or Billy Napier – Who Fails? Who Succeeds?
The college football coaching carousel is almost but over. Granted there are still some universities looking for coaches; however, the major schools that had vacancies have been filled. From LSU with Brian Kelly to USC with Lincoln Riley and to Billy Napier to Florida, all of these coaches bring different things that make them special; however, the chances that all of them are successful are low. So with that being said, I wanted to ask the question of which coach will fail and which coach will succeed? We will look at each coach and break down the pros and the cons and hopefully come up with an answer to which coach will fail and which coach will be the most successful.
Billy Napier & The University of Florida
Strengths of Billy Napier at Florida
1. Recruitment Strength of Napier
Let us begin with the pros! When you think of Billy Napier three things come to mind. The first is that he is a great recruiter. From his time at Clemson to Alabama and finally UL he has recruited great players. Former UL defensive analyst Keith Barefield told Blake Alderman of 247 Sports that:
"One of the things that Napier said consistently through my time there, and when he says things over and over again you know it's important, but he knows if you want to move up in the business you have to be a great recruiter. That to me tells me that he knows the value of being a great recruiter and that you have to be a great recruiter to be successful. One of his pillars is that it's not putting a roster together, it's putting a team together. It's getting the people there and then it's a relationship building thing after that. He does a great job at that and he's always put the highest priority on that, and that is what you have to do to be successful in college football to make it.".
That quote, in particular, shows exactly how much value Coach Napier places in recruiting. You combine that attitude with pipelines in Alabama, the Carolinas, and now Louisiana, which allows for Coach Napier to have three of the infinity stones for his infinity gauntlet. And if you didn't get that Marvel reference, it basically means that Coach Napier has enough bullets in his recruiting gun.
2. Napier's Attention to Detail
Secondly, he pays a lot of attention to the details. I know that phrase is overused in sports media; however, with Coach Napier, it's the ultimate truth. He continuously stressed to his team, coaches, media, and fans that it's about the little things. And that those things add up and it's the little things that will make us successful. One has to think this has to be one of the things that Coach Napier picked up during his time in Tuscaloosa with ole Nicky Saban. Wherever it happened, just know it happened and it was the best thing for Coach Napier.
3. Napier's History of Success at Louisiana
And the final pro is that Coach Napier knows how to build a winning program. In his first year with UL, he went 7-7 with another coach's players. Over the next three seasons, he won 10+ games each season. In 2019 he won 11 games, 2020 he won 10 games, in 2021 he won 12 games, won the Sun Belt championship, and finished in the top 25 for the year. He brought UL from obscurity to relevancy. The Cajuns became a must-watch team during Billy's tenure and he established a cULture of winning.
Challenges for Billy Napier
1. Moving Up Competition Levels
This is Coach Napier's first time as the head coach for a Power 5 conference school and specifically the toughest of the five the SEC. Granted Florida is in the SEC East; however, he will still have to face Georgia, a blossoming Kentucky program, LSU, a rotating group of Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and the rest of the SEC West. This will be a difficult road for Coach Napier and an upgrade in talent and coaching from what he's used to facing.
2. Recruitment Competition Much Stronger
Napier will be recruiting against the best of the best. To be a great recruiter in the Sun Belt is different from recruiting against Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, and even Jimbo Fisher. Those guys have had a stranglehold on the south and can Coach Napier break into that hold is a question yet to be answered. However, that will be a major obstacle for him to overcome.
3. Run Scheme in Pass Happy Conference
Is Napier's offensive scheme good enough for the SEC? Napier is used to running a run-heavy scheme for his offense and in a pass-happy SEC will that work? Coach Napier will have to adjust his style because if not he will not score enough points to compete with these other teams. Will the success offensively that he saw with Louisiana transfer to Florida. Will Florida give him enough time to build the program the way he wants for long sustainable success? These are the obstacles that Billy Napier faces that may cause him to fail.
Lincoln Riley and USC
Strengths of Lincoln Riley at USC
1. Impressive Winning History
When you look at Lincoln Riley's resume you just see a firecracker. The guy blew up fast. He started his head coaching career in 2017 and since then minus 2019 he has won 10+ games. In 2017 he won 12 games and finished 3rd in the polls, in 2018 & 2019 he won 12 games, in 2020 he won 9 games, and in 2021 he won 10 games. Coach Riley took OU to three straight College Football Playoff semifinals and four straight BIG 12 titles. When you look at the winningest coaches by percentage he's behind Urban Meyer but still is among Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Dabo Swinney. If anything USC has gotten themselves a winner.
2. Strong QB Coach
Lincoln Riley knows how to coach a good quarterback. He coached two Heisman winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. He revitalized Jalen Hurts and honestly made him ready for the NFL. This guy just knows how to coach a quarterback and for USC that used to be the quarterback heaven, this is a great hire.
3. Recruitment Strength on the West Coast
Lincoln knows how to recruit California. During his time at OU, he lured many prospects to Norman. Four of the top recruits for the next two classes from California were already committed to Oklahoma. Coach Riley just gets how these California guys tick and work. All of these factors bode well for USC.
Challenges for Lincoln Riley at USC
1. Starting off on the Wrong Foot
To me, it's an issue that Lincoln publicly made it seem like he was all in on Oklahoma and then switched to USC at the last minute. I also know that I wrote at least he didn't lie in a previous article, which is true but I was saying that in jest. In actuality, it is a negative factor because now the players won't know the real from the fake when it comes to Coach Riley. So much so that an Oklahoma player called him out (see below) for what he told the USC team and said he told us the exact same thing a week ago. I understand that this was a life move for Riley and he couldn't turn it down; however, it is still a bad look for him from the perspective of incoming recruits.
He tried to put a band-aid on the wound by doing an interview with Rich Eisen where he stated:
“I understand they’re disappointed that we left, I have a lot of love for that place. Me and my family poured our heart and soul into that place for seven years. Loved every second of it. Had a tremendous run of championships, success on and off the field. We’ve got nothing but love. These things, when you leave a university, they either fire you or you leave on your own accord and neither one of them are easy and we understand it. Our love for that place will never go away, we certainly hope as time goes on, the time over there will be remembered fondly and everybody will remember all the great success we had together.”.
It was a nice attempt, but only time will tell how recruits view this move. I believe that from now on his loyalty will be in question. Especially if USC for the first two years starts off as a loser, the idea will pop into the minds of fans "will he leave"?
2. Inability to Develop Own QB
Another negative is the fact that when it was time for Lincoln to recruit his own quarterback and make him into the man he failed. Spencer Rattler came into college as a highly-touted prospect and ended up getting benched for freshman quarterback Caleb Williams. Now I know some of you are thinking well that is Rattler's fault. Rattler had all the talent in the world, it was up to his coach to put him in the best situations and Lincoln just didn't.
3. Defensive Development
He is retaining his defensive coordinator from Oklahoma Alex Grinch. And the product that Riley and Grinch put out on the field for Oklahoma was abysmal. Oklahoma is a top program in the BIG 12 with the ability to get some of the best recruits for its conference and they could never get a good defense. This year alone they ranked 5th in their conference for sacks with 28, and 4th for INTs with 10. Mind you that is just in their respective conference and when you expand out to the entire country they rank even lower.
4. Never 'Built His Own Program' from the Ground Up
Unlike Billy Napier who transformed UL, Riley received an already built program from Bob Stoops. Stoops had already established a culture of winning at Oklahoma. Riley basically received a used Audi R8 and ran up the mileage.
So for USC fans expecting him to build something from the ground up, I would be concerned because he has never done that!
Brian Kelly and LSU
Finally, it's time for the most polarizing and shocking hire of the three, the new LSU head football coach Brian Kelly! As with Napier and Riley let's begin with Brian Kelly's positives.
Strengths of Brian Kelly at LSU
1. History of Success and Ability to Adjust
Brian Kelly began coaching in 1983 and has been coaching for 38 years. He became a head football coach in 1991 and has been a college football head coach ever since. Brian Kelly's record at Notre Dame is 92-39; however, two seasons do include two vacated seasons where the records were 0-0 & 0-4. He is the most winningest coach in Notre Dame history. One major positive is just that. LSU got a proven winner. I specifically want to zoom in on 2016 onward. In 2016 he went 4-8 and had a downright horrible year. He went in and looked at what he was doing, how he was doing it, and made the necessary adjustments to correct the issues that plagued his football team. Those adjustments resulted in Brian Kelly going 10-3 in 2017, 12-1 in 2018, 11-2 in 2019, 10-2 in 2020, and 11-1 in 2021. During that span, he made the College Football Playoffs twice once in the 2018-2019 season and once in the 2020-2021 season. Like I stated before Brian Kelly just knows how to win.
2. Choices of Coaching Staff
Another positive for Coach Kelly is the addition of former LSU running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. Coach Kelly went out and got the LSU legend to return. This shows Coach Kelly's commitment to winning and getting LSU to a consistent national championship contender. Frank Wilson was responsible for recruiting a lot of the great talent LSU saw during the Les Miles regime. Former LSU players were ecstatic at the hire and confirmed how much this means for Brian Kelly retaining Louisiana recruits inside the state.
Getting Frank Wilson really tips the scales of success in Brian Kelly's favor.
3. Well, He's Just a Great Coach
He produced 9 first-round draft picks from Notre Dame since 2011 and that is three times as much as Tyrone Willingham, Bob Davie, and Charlie Weis combined. And I know you may be reading this like "what cmon Lynden" does this low number make him a good coach? Well, when you look at Notre Dame as a whole it is a school where you have to meet a certain GPA to go there. He was limited in the kind of guys he could recruit, so with that academic limitation, that specific number of 9 first-round draft picks is great. Brian Kelly has been known as a guy who puts forth a great offensive line. He understands that football games are won in the trenches and as someone who has tasted what the best conferences had to offer he knew at Notre Dame the only way we have a shot is by building a great offensive line. And that is something that LSU has since lost since the 2019-2020 championship. Not only does Brian Kelly understand that the trenches win football games he is an amazing offensive coach. Let's look at the 4-8 season of 2016. That year the team accumulated 3,051 passing yards, 1,960 rushing yards, 27 passing touchdowns, and 18 rushing touchdowns. Now, let us compare those totals to the next 5 years of success. In 2017 his team accumulated 2,326 passing yards, 3,501 rushing yards, 20 passing touchdowns, and 35 rushing touchdowns. In 2018 the team accumulated 3,347passing yards, 2,374 rushing yards, 23 passing touchdowns, and 27 rushing touchdowns. In 2019 his team accumulated 3,278 passing yards, 2,327 rushing yards, 37 passing touchdowns, and 20 rushing touchdowns. In 2020 his team accumulated 2,849 passing yards, 2,533 rushing yards, 15 passing touchdowns, and 33 rushing touchdowns. And finally, in 2021, the team accumulated 3,163 passing yards, 1,826 rushing yards, 25 passing touchdowns, and 23 rushing touchdowns. These stats show the change in system and adjustments that Brian Kelly made after the abysmal season that is 2016. He became more balanced on offense and made sure to always recruit a solid running back. Each of those seasons after his quarterbacks' passing completion percentages were better and their interceptions were lower. By finding the right balance in his offensive scheme, Coach Kelly's adjustments directly resulted in more wins and more success for not only the team as a whole but his quarterback as well. And with the performance of LSU's running game and quarterback play the Tigers desperately need a shot of Brian Kelly juice.
Challenges for Brian Kelly at LSU
1. Welcome to the South
First off I personally didn't like the insincerity of Brian Kelly's first speech at the PMAC during the LSU/Ohio basketball game. He faked a southern accent during his speech and it was very noticeable. That kind of facade or disingenuous behavior will not go over well with the LSU fans. It has to be a negative on top of the fact that LSU just got rid of one of the school's most genuine coaches in Ed Orgeron. Will the fan base buy into Brian Kelly? I feel that is a question that we must ask.
2. Recruitment Ability in the South
This con is less of a con today because of the acquisition of Frank Wilson; however, it still is a con because Coach Kelly personally has never fully recruited in the south. And will the parents of these southern kids connect with northerner Brian Kelly? This region has a deeply embedded history of not liking people from the north coming down and trying to "educate" or "make" their lives better. So that is another real concern.
3. Similar to Lincoln Riley, Loyalty is Questionable
The final con is one that is similar to Lincoln Riley and that is loyalty. Will his recruits believe he is loyal to LSU and them? It was not a good look that Brian Kelly texted his team at 7 am to tell them about a meeting that was about him leaving. It also isn't a good look that the majority of his coaches stayed behind. This brings in the question of is Brian Kelly loyal and a good person. Both things are in question and both are issues that Coach Brian Kelly and LSU face.
Who Will Fail? Who Will Succeed?
All the evidence has been laid out and it is time to come up with an answer to the question of who will fall and who will succeed? My mother always said save the good news for last because it's best to get the bad stuff over with first.
Now many of you may think I will say Brian Kelly or Billy Napier; however, I believe the coach that will fail will be Lincoln Riley. Both Brian Kelly and Billy Napier have built programs from the bottom up. Coach Riley has not done that and to make matters worse, the further we got from Coach Bob Stoops the worst OU did. Yes, Lincoln knows how to recruit California; however, that state's players aren't as loyal as what Lincoln is used to with Oklahoma. These kids have seen too much success at Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, and even Oregon. I do think he can win back recruits from Oregon but as for the SEC, I don't see it. And funny enough I do believe LSU will be an issue for them going forward when it comes to recruiting. Brian Kelly did have success recruiting the kids from the West Coast.
Also Lincoln has shown when the going gets tough he gets going and not in a good way. The final reason is that this program needs total upheaval whereas the other schools have solid players and recruits. Riley and USC do not. I also believe that if Riley were to have any success he will need the most time and I don't know if that is what he promised USC and its fans. They expect some kind of success in 3 years or less and I don't see that happening.
Finally, let's dive into who will be the most successful. I wish I could say Billy Napier; however, the answer is Brian Kelly. I do believe that Napier will have success, but it will take longer than Kelly and here's why.
Existing Tools and Team
I believe that Brian Kelly has all the tools necessary to be a championship contender year in and year out. Even in a losing season, LSU had the 5th most blue-chip players by percentage with 66%. You add Frank Wilson to that mix plus what Brian Kelly can do on the west coast that makes for great recruiting.
During the Nick Saban, Alabama era LSU has been the only SEC team and team in general that when good can legitimately challenge and beat them. Brian Kelly faced Alabama in the playoffs he knows the type of players it takes to beat them and LSU is one of the few schools that can obtain those players.
Finally, Brian Kelly will be the best coach LSU has had since Saban. You add his knowledge with Frank Wilson and the LSU boosters checkbooks this team will win a national championship in 3 years. Brian Kelly is the best coach of the three.
Time will tell if I'm right or if I'm horribly wrong. I'm super excited to see all three coaches with their new teams because win, lose, or draw, this upcoming college football season will be entertaining!
Venomous Snakes in Louisiana