Could The Brian Kelly Coaching Change Lead To A Rule Change?
By: Anthony Studnicka
The NCAA football coaching carousel has begun and has already shown to shake things up a bit. News broke on Sunday that Lincoln Riley was departing Oklahoma and heading to USC. Also notably, Brian Kelly left Notre Dame and is on the move to Baton Rouge to become the next head coach for LSU. In addition, a variety of other programs have made announcements of new hires. However, there is one major issue looming. The 2020-2021 season is not entirely over yet.
While the college football playoff hope is all but decimated for Oklahoma after losing to Oklahoma State and not qualifying for the Big 12 title game, Notre Dame is not entirely out of the playoff picture. They are currently ranked 6th with all five teams ahead of them playing this upcoming weekend in their conference championship games. While only four teams will make the college football playoff, it is not outlandish to consider Notre Dame may potentially be amongst the top four teams remaining, contingent on some outcomes this coming weekend. In short, this is where the issue comes into play. Notre Dame has a chance to be a college football playoff team, yet their head coach just left the program. But this should not matter, right? Wrong. This does in fact matter.
And the worst part about it for Notre Dame players is this fact clearly matters to the college football playoff selection committee. Committee Chair Gary Barta stated, that "once the championship games wrap up .... our protocol does include the ability for the committee to consider a player or coach not being available."
Pause right there.
Do you understand the implication this statement has?
To put it plain and simple, whether it ultimately impacts this decision, and whether Notre Dame even qualifies as a potential top-four team is irrelevant. The fact alone that a coach, here Brian Kelly, departing a program can impact a team’s final ranking is incredibly significant. So significant, that Athletic Directors everywhere will likely need to reconsider this implication in future coaching contract negotiations. It is simply not good for NCAA Football, programs, or its players that a coach departing can have this strong of an impact on a team’s ranking after a full regular season of play. Whether or not it is fair for the committee to consider this, is beside the point. The point is that Athletic Directors everywhere will now likely need to amply protect their programs by reconsidering this point of leverage in their coaching contracts liquidated damages provisions. If a coach harms a team like this, the coach should have to pay.
Alternatively, there is another solution. A rule change.
While the NCAA may not have the direct authority to limit coaches to a window of when they are permitted to seek other employment, institutions have the discretion to make hiring decisions when they are inclined. Whether a formal agreement is reached at the conference level, or this elevates to the NCAA, an initiative driven by Athletic Directions and institutions seems reasonable to restrict coaches’ mobility during the final weeks of the season. This may even be construed as a reasonable, short-term non-compete.
It is undoubtedly not in the best interest of NCAA Football to have a team play an entire regular season of games just to have their coach leave, and then the team ultimately be the party punished out of the chance to compete in the postseason. If schools, conferences, or even the entire NCAA can agree to withhold from hiring new head coaches until after the National Championship, this issue would become moot.
However, this is easier said than done. The reason that schools want a leg up and rush to hire a new coach as soon as possible is that coaches have an obvious impact on recruiting. This was further evidenced this week when Five-star QB Malachi Nelson flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to USC to follow Lincoln Riley. The sooner (no pun intended) a coach is announced somewhere, the sooner their impact can be felt on the program’s recruitment. Realistically, what is the solution then?
A solution may be to extend the recruitment dead period through November and December and perhaps even the beginning of January. The NCAA can implement such a rule change, which may serve as a partial deterrent from coaches changing schools so quickly.
However, for such a rule change to be effective the NCAA may need to reevaluate the current dead period contact rules and give them more teeth. The current dead period rules permit athletes and coaches to communicate via phone, email, and other forms of digital communication during this period. The dead period limitation is mainly targeted at limiting in-person recruiting. For such a rule change to be effective, the dead period restriction may need to deter all levels of communication. Surely, this change may prove difficult to enforce. Further, a counterargument may even reasonably be made asserting that this limitation may ultimately hinder student-athletes ability to be recruited. This concern may be even more detrimental than the issues caused from coaching changes.
Ultimately, it seems clear that the proposed solutions may not be the perfect answer or the final recommendations to combat the coaching carousel issue. However, the fact remains that Athletic Directors, schools, conferences, and potentially the NCAA need to act. It is unjust for NCAA Football that a (likely financially motivated) coaching change can impact a postseason berth. For a sport that strives on competitive equity, this does not drive competition, and it is surely not equal. Perhaps, it is time for a change.
Anthony is a licensed attorney and holds a Masters degree in Sports Law & Business. He is the creator of Long Run Sports.
 Mark Schlabach, Lincoln Riley Leaving Oklahoma To Be USC Head Football Coach, ESPN (Nov. 28, 2021), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32737893/lincoln-riley-leaving-oklahoma-become-usc-head-football-coach-sources-say.  Michael Shapiro, LSU Officially Names Brian Kelly Next Head Coach, Sports Illustrated (Nov. 30, 2021), https://www.si.com/college/2021/11/30/lsu-officially-names-brian-kelly-next-head-coach.  College Football Playoff, College Football Playoff Rankings, (last visited: Dec. 1, 2021) https://collegefootballplayoff.com/rankings.aspx.  Bryan Driskell, Brian Kelly’s Departure Didn’t Impact Notre Dame’s Playoff Ranking …. Yet, Sports Illustrated (Dec. 1, 2021), https://www.si.com/college/notredame/football/notre-dame-football-playoff-ranking-impacted-by-brian-kelly-leaving.  Tom VanHaaren, Five-Star QB Malachi Nelson First Former Oklahoma Sooners Commit To Follow Lincoln Riley To USC Trojans, ESPN (Nov. 30, 2021), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32756531/five-star-qb-malachi-nelson-first-former-oklahoma-sooners-commit-follow-lincoln-riley-usc-trojans.  Next College Student Athlete, What Is The NCAA Dead Period?, NCSA (last visited: Dec. 1, 2021), https://www.ncsasports.org/ncaa-eligibility-center/recruiting-rules/dead-period.