Scooter Hobbs column: LSU ahead of schedule under Kelly

Published 9:32 am Wednesday, November 16, 2022

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It’s like it never happened, least ways that anybody can document.

But as I understand it, some of the now middle-aged old gang from UAB are planning a semi-reunion this week anyway.

It’s probably one of the Birmingham school’s all-time biggest victories. There’s likely an LSU skin mounted somewhere on its campus.

At the time the Blazers had been playing football for nine seasons, not that many years removed from Division III.

And yet they strode into Tiger Stadium that night of Sept. 24, 2000, got a little fortunate when Josh Booty served up a gimme interception on a silk pillow with a breath mint, and kicked a field goal at the end to beat LSU 13-10.

Actually, the Tigers were four games into the Nick Saban era that night — and suddenly having serious buyers’ remorse for spending $1.2 million per year to lure a Midwestern Yankee down South. Not a good fit, some decided that moment.

It comes to mind now because UAB, which since then has disbanded and later revived its program, is making a return to Tiger Stadium Saturday night.

The Blazers returned in 2013 for a proper 56-17 payback drubbing. So maybe any hard feelings on LSU’s end were soothed then.

I bring it up only to point out that if Saban himself could lose to a UAB before his “process” could kick in, maybe what LSU is doing this year isn’t as easy as Brian Kelly is making it look.

By comparison, Kelly’s ugly 24-23 debut loss to Florida State looked downright encouraging.

Yet here Kelly is, barely 10 months removed from inheriting a 6-7 team with 38 scholarship players, having cobbled together an SEC West champion that, regardless of what UAB may have up its sleeve, is heading to Atlanta for the conference championship game.

May have beaten Saban and Alabama, too, as I recall.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming — dead-last worst to first in the division in one season.

There was a lot more to it than needing some time to get the proper pieces in the right places.

“They jumped in the deep end and really didn’t know how to swim,” Kelly said of the loss to Florida State. “But they were not going to drown, they were going to find a way to stay above water and kicking, doing whatever is necessary.”

He liked them even then, thought he had something.

“They haven’t been perfect. And certainly we’re not there yet. But when we first met we said, ‘Look, we finished last … you can continue to be bad, you can be average, you can be good, which everybody in this room is good. Or you can choose to be elite.’ They’ve made great choices along the way.”

I think what he’s saying is that the Tigers bought into Kelly’s confidence in his own plan, his own — if you will — “process.”

Gradually a locker room culture developed, one that goes beyond work ethic into how they prepare, with a purpose to go with the effort, how they react when, for instance, they don’t have their “A” game for Arkansas like they did for Alabama.

“They’ve learned how to win,” Kelly said. “Our guys have done a lot of things to create winning habits that contribute to finding a way to win.”

That culture — team morale, chemistry, whatever you want to call it — has been as big of a key as, say, Harold Perkins Jr.

“It’s huge,” Kelly said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good football team that didn’t like each other. Generally speaking they like each other. I think it starts because everybody’s held accountable to the same level. The best player doesn’t get special treatment. Everybody gets treated the same way … gradually, they start to get closer and closer as a group.

“They enjoy being around each other. They enjoy the road trips, they enjoy being on the plane, enjoy hanging around the hotel. You can sense that, feel it, and it’s a fun group to be around.”

As a result, even the most optimistic of Tigers would agree that Kelly is way ahead of schedule if you can go to Atlanta in the first year of a rebuild.

“I didn’t put any wins and losses (on the expectations),” he said. “I wanted to be better in November. I wanted to teach them how to win. I think we’ve hit all those markers, and that’s kind of where I want this program to be.

“So I think we’re where we should be at this time.”

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at