It has come to pass that two major college football programs, joined at the hip by a century-long rivalry, have just undergone major replacement surgery. It happened in a flash, so fast that the stench has not quite settled in upon the faithful of the two universities left behind and left to wonder what that locomotive was that just hit them.
Young Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma to come to USC and a place where the only cowboys are on movie sets. Old Brian Kelly left the snow and cold of South Bend, Ind., and Notre Dame, to come to Louisiana State, where the hurricanes aren’t a football team from Miami. Both coaches left major programs that are flush with success. Both come to programs that often are flush with success, but currently are not.
We are stunned, but we shouldn’t be. We should have, long ago, dismissed the notion that college football and its leaders are somehow educators; that they take chalk to a chalkboard and walk the halls of ivy-covered institutions of higher learning alongside men and women in horn-rimmed glasses who inspire newcomers to chemistry and sociology. The long-range mandate is the same, isn’t it? Instruct by word and example to those of a prime learning age so they can carry on in life with knowledge of fair play, perspective and leadership.
What a joke. Riley and Kelly just told us so.
Be clear about one thing. This was take-the-money-and-run. You will hear all about new challenges and a chance to build something and how Los Angeles and Baton Rouge are the places each needs to be. When Kelly says that, you will need to turn your face away and stuff your fist in your mouth.
Riley had a multi-million-dollar contract in Oklahoma and two homes. USC is rumored to be prepared to take care of all that, plus obligations left in his Sooners contract, and pay him handsomely. Rumors have Kelly’s future paydays, perhaps as long as 10 years, adding up to $100 million. That means the world of college football, a so-called amateur sport, has two more people who hang out in locker rooms and yell at referees once a week for a couple of months likely being reimbursed for these services in nine-figure sums. That’s not a typo. As the late, great Keith Jackson would say, “Whoa, Nellie.”
Both Riley and Kelly will repeat, over and over, what a hard decision this was. Both will wax eloquently on the wonderfulness of their former school. And both will hurry to set up direct deposit at their new local banks. Remember the movie “Jerry Maguire?” Remember “show me the money?” USC and LSU just did, and Riley and Kelly smiled and opened their wallets.
Riley’s departure is a bit less odorous. He is 38, his nationally ranked team had just lost to Oklahoma State and his chances of getting into the College Football Playoff was nil. He was jilting a bunch of 19-year-old kids to whom he promised the moon — all coaches do that — but the bright lights of L.A. and the lure of being something big in Hollywood, where being something big is the ultimate dream, is explainable. Not forgivable, just explainable.
Kelly’s departure is a dead skunk on your living room floor. He is 60, at a place where legacy and history far outweigh crummy weather and small-town limitations. He had a spot all reserved for his statue outside Notre Dame Stadium, maybe even alongside Knute Rockne. Then he cut and ran. Worse, his 11-1, No. 6-ranked team still has a chance to make the playoff semifinals. A couple of upsets elsewhere in the next few weeks and the Fighting Irish still could be fighting. But now, with no coach and a stunned program, voters who have the final say on the final four teams are likely to frown and pass.
Notre Dame will, if not in the playoffs, certainly play in a major bowl game. They will do so without the coach who got them there. But then, once again, we should have learned. When Kelly left to come to Notre Dame 12 years ago, he left his unbeaten and Sugar-Bowl Bound team standing at the altar. An assistant took the reins and Tim Tebow's and Urban Meyer’s Florida team dumped all over Cincinnati 51-24.
Notre Dame cherishes its legendary Four Horsemen, who rode long ago against a blue-gray November sky. They were known, from the 1921 movie “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. Notre Dame now has a fifth horseman named “Turncoat.”
Or maybe “Hypocrite” would be better.
In a blanket text to his team Monday night, at 10:08 p.m., Kelly said, among other things, “My love for you is limitless.” Maybe that text was meant for his banker.
College football has turned the corner and isn’t coming back. Not just with this Oklahoma-USC/Notre Dame-LSU one-day earth-shaker. It has been gone for a long time. These last 24 hours just slapped us in the face, just in case we had gotten soft. Writer Dan Wetzel summed up things nicely with a column on the Yahoo website. He called college football “a playground of the desperate and depraved.”
The jilted players at Oklahoma and Notre Dame will recover. They are kids. The rest of us who watch and are entertained by this stuff are adults. We will shrug and try not to forget that college football is what it is, even if we need to hold our nose just thinking about it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.