FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Eleven years ago, Brian Kelly was preparing for a national championship game.
It was slightly different from the current experience.
He and the Grand Valley State Lakers were staying at a Best Western in Florence, Ala., getting ready to play North Dakota in the Division II title game. Today, he and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are ensconced at The Diplomat Resort and Spa, a beachfront palace with every available amenity.
It's been a brisk rise through the coaching ranks for the 51-year-old Kelly from that first championship opportunity to this one – from Grand Valley to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to a title shot in his third year at Notre Dame.
Opposing him in SunLife Stadium on Monday night is Alabama and 61-year-old Nick Saban, now in his fourth BCS championship game. Saban has been a millionaire coaching heavyweight for quite a while now, but he was no silver-spoon guy, either. He told a story Sunday about working as a kid in his dad's filling station in West Virginia, pumping gas and washing cars to the painstaking specifications of "Big Nick."
From low-glamour roots, both coaches have arrived at a high-wattage moment. Notre Dame vs. Alabama could break records for TV ratings and ticket prices. It is as blue blood as the sport gets, a match-up that ranks among the most attractive and anticipated in recent college football history.
And this is where both coaches should stay. At or near the top of the college game, resisting the siren song of the National Football League.
Their names are out there, churning through the NFL rumor mill. Both did their best to dismiss the speculation Saturday.
"Leaving is not an option," Kelly said. "I don't even think about it."
"It's not something I'm concerned about," Saban said. "It's not even anything I want to do."
They might even mean it.
But when you've done time in the Florence Best Western or you've washed cars in West Virginia, the allure of the highest level of your profession is undeniable and understandable. Especially at a time when hiring college coaches seems to be very much in vogue with the NFL.
Chip Kelly of Oregon could leave, pulling a Pete Carroll and evacuating Eugene for the NFL ahead of the NCAA posse that has been chasing his program for a while now. Doug Marrone just signed on with the Buffalo Bills, a loss that should sting in Syracuse but will not significantly diminish the coaching talent pool in college ball. Last year it was Greg Schiano leaving Rutgers, and the year before that it was Jim Harbaugh departing Stanford.
Losing Brian Kelly or Saban would be a problematic brain drain. Losing Brian Kelly and Saban would be a major blow to the sport.
It also would be a mistake for either man. Only a fool voluntarily leaves a throne for a bed of nails.
[Related: BCS title game could be won in trenches]
Notre Dame has a rep as a burnout job, probably more so than any other college coaching position. Only four coaches have lasted longer than seven years: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz – all of whom won national titles. Rockne had the longest tenure in school history, just 13 seasons before he died in a plane crash. Of coaches who walked away on their own accord, the longest tenure is 11 seasons.
But it would be no more stressful than an NFL job, where coaches have less control and authority over who is on the roster and how much the players will listen to them. The Chicago Bears reportedly are one team reaching out to gauge Brian Kelly's interest; he might want to ask Mike Shanahan and Lovie Smith what coaching Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall did for their employment status.
Could Kelly make more money in that league? Sure, but Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Sunday that he's ready to meet with Kelly in the near future to "talk about securing that future." Translation: He'll get a raise and extension from his current $3 million salary. He also will be able to bargain for additional facility bells and whistles or other program upgrades from a university that is giddy to be back in the football forefront.
And truth be told, Kelly already has gotten more leeway and administrative support than his predecessors when it comes to things like a training table, a full-amenity football complex and even relaxed penalties for some campus rules violations. It's not an easy job by any means, but it's easier now off the field than it perhaps ever has been.
Perhaps most importantly, recruits are listening to the Notre Dame message as much or more now than at any time in the previous two decades. If anything, the Irish might be a year or two ahead of schedule in terms of national title contention – the thing is rolling in the right direction, at a high rate of speed. If losing truly is the soul-crushing event most coaches say it is, why leave a winner for the likelihood of torment and agony at the next level?
For Saban, the only possible answer to that question would be boredom. If the Crimson Tide wins Monday night as they are favored to do, that will be three national titles in four years. Saban might cry the way Alexander the Great allegedly did, at the thought of having nothing left to conquer in the college realm.
Saban already has literal larger-than-life status in Alabama – the statue of him outside Bryant-Denny Stadium is 9 feet tall. He has the school wired to his exact liking, with nobody capable of or interested in telling him no in any area he deems truly important. He is the emperor of recruiting.
Compare the 9-foot statue to the man who coached previously in the NFL, and he shrinks significantly. Saban was 15-17 in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins between national-championship runs at LSU and 'Bama. Perhaps the thought of proving he's not a pro-football failure would be sufficient motivation for a return, but he denied as much Saturday.
"I don't have any unfinished business in the NFL," he said.
The business Saban can finish at Alabama is making a legitimate run at being the greatest coach in college football history.
Like everything else about college football's ability to crown a champion, defining title winners is a messy endeavor rife with conflict and controversy. Too many polls, too many different methods. So it's a lot harder to pinpoint legitimate titles and have a precise pecking order the way we can with college basketball – John Wooden won 10 titles, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski four, and so forth, and nobody disagrees with that.
But a fourth national title for Saban would put him in truly select company. Among the greats who won three wire-service titles since they started awarding them in 1936: Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, Darrell Royal, Woody Hayes, Tom Osborne. But none of that group won four. The legendary coaches who can claim that distinction are USC's John McKay (four) and that other Alabama coach, Bear Bryant (six).
Some of Bryant's titles were split, and at least one was outright bogus (1973, which was awarded by UPI before 'Bama lost to none other than Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl). But Bear has a legendary aura that remains powerful three decades after his death.
So Saban can chase GOAT status without even leaving campus to understand his primary competition. He'd just have to live with the knowledge that it's unlikely he would ever dislodge Bryant as the most beloved and revered figure in Alabama football history.
But it's even less likely that some NFL team is going to build a statue in his honor outside its stadium. Like Brian Kelly, Nick Saban should have a thorough knowledge of how good he has it before even entertaining the thought of leaving that behind.
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