Mutual respect: Kelly, Saban relationship built on professional admiration

Published 10:30 am Thursday, November 3, 2022

Oh, to have been a bug planted in that phone line.

But when the prospect of the LSU job first caught Brian Kelly’s eye, he called up a coach with a fairly unique insight into it: fellow named Nick Saban.

Neither coach this week was willing to go into much detail about the conversation, which evidently didn’t deter Kelly from packing his bags at Notre Dame and relocating to what might as well have been a foreign land, one with a language and accent he bungled badly enough to become a punch line shortly thereafter.

Remember “Faaa-muuh-leee” when addressing that LSU basketball crowd?

He’s since been forgiven and seems to at least have the Tigers on the right track in advance of their annual showdown with Alabama and Saban, the Tigers’ former head coach and perennial nemesis.

“It was much more of a general conversation,” Kelly said this week of chatting up Saban before accepting LSU’s offer.

Saban also wasn’t much for recalling the details while on Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference teleconference.

Just that, he relayed, “It’s a really good football job in every way.

“Lots of good players in the state. You’ve got great support and great passion. They’ve done a really good job of creating the sort of intangibles that you need to have a really good team and program.

“I’ve always thought LSU is a special place because of the passion of the people and the commitment they have had to  their standard of excellence.”

Kelly’s Eastern and Midwestern roots aside, he didn’t need Saban to tell him about the elephant in the LSU football room.

A lot about his maiden cruise through the SEC may be new, but not the Crimson Tide. He knew all about tangling with Alabama from his Notre Dame days.

His Fighting Irish teams twice faced Saban on big stages. Neither went well for Kelly. Both turned into ugly routs.

There was the Bowl Championship Series national title game following the 2012 season — Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14.

Then the 2020 College Football Playoff semifinals in the Rose Bowl — Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14.

The Tide, who were heavily favored both times, won the national championship both years.

“Extremely talented teams,” Kelly said. “The 2012 team was as physical a football team as I’ve ever played against. Then if you look at the perimeter skill that they had (in 2020), it was just amazing. Two different teams, but just fabulous players on both sides of the ball.”

Those trying experiences, and the idea of playing games like this week’s, are a big part of why Kelly is at LSU now

“It’s not pressure, it’s a privilege to play in games like this,” he said. “It’s why I came down here.”

To borrow another Southern phrase that might mystify him, he also realized that to compete with college football’s elite, he might “need to get a bigger hammer” than LSU’s recruiting base could afford him.

He got Saban’s respect, if not a victory, in those other two meetings.

“They were always very well coached,” Saban said. “Utilized the personnel that they had very, very well. They’re always physical. This will be a physical game …

“It (current LSU) is typical of what a well-coached team usually does. They’ve gotten to the point where — and all of his teams have been this way — they don’t beat themselves. You’ve got to execute and beat them.”