Inside the remaking of LSU athletics -- and why Brian Kelly is on deck

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brian Kelly was already keenly aware that he and his LSU football team were on deck.

LSU's baseball team, led by coach Jay Johnson, had captured the national championship in June, a little more than two months after Kim Mulkey and her women's basketball team won the NCAA tournament in April. A pattern clearly had been set.

But on a recent scorching summer day in Baton Rouge, Kelly could only chuckle when told of a playful but confident comment made by longtime football staffer Ya'el Lofton while showing a visitor into Kelly's office. Lofton is in her 32nd year at LSU with her seventh head coach. Kelly is the fourth for whom she's served as executive assistant. The other three -- Ed Orgeron, Les Miles and Nick Saban -- all won national championships.

"Coach Kelly will win my fourth this year, and then I can retire," Lofton said before Kelly was within earshot.

Informed of Lofton's prediction as he took a seat, Kelly shook his head with amusement.

"So she's already putting me on the clock," he said. "But, hey, welcome to LSU. That's why I'm here."

Kelly has had a front-row seat to a recurring national championship parade on LSU's campus, which can be traced back to a seven-month stretch in 2021 when athletic director Scott Woodward made three coaching hires that have resonated on the Bayou.

• April 25, 2021: Woodward hired Mulkey, who in her second season with LSU women's basketball led the Tigers to the program's first national championship.

• June 25, 2021: Woodward hired Johnson, who in his second season led the Tigers' baseball team to their seventh national title and first since 2009.

• Nov. 29, 2021: Woodward hired Kelly, who in his first season led LSU to a 10-4 record, an SEC championship game appearance and a Citrus Bowl victory.

With a lofty precedent set by his coaching colleagues, Kelly enters his second season at LSU with his team ranked No. 5 in the country as it opens the 2023 campaign against No. 8 Florida State on Sunday night (7:30 ET, ABC) in Orlando, Florida.

"Hey, I get it," Kelly said. "People may talk about pressure to win a national title when you look at what Kim did and what Jay did in their second seasons. But I look at it as more of that's what you're supposed to do at LSU. We're all in this together, and the standard has been set."

Much of the work to continue that standard was done by Woodward, who was born and raised in Baton Rouge and is an LSU graduate.

"When I talk to Scott, you feel like you're sitting down at the dinner table having a conversation with a family member," Mulkey said. "There's nothing pretentious about him. He doesn't make anyone uncomfortable because he's your boss. This is his school, he went here. He's the athletic director at the flagship university of our state, and he wants everybody here to be successful."

Woodward got involved in athletic administration at LSU in 2000 and initially worked on the university side as director of external affairs. He worked closely with Saban after Saban was hired at LSU in 2000. Later, Woodward became AD at Washington, where he hired football coach Chris Petersen away from Boise State. Then at Texas A&M, Woodward lured Jimbo Fisher from Florida State in football and Buzz Williams from Virginia Tech in men's basketball.

He returned to LSU in 2019 and has gone 3-for-3 in hiring Mulkey, who won three NCAA titles coaching at Baylor; Johnson, who led Arizona to a Pac-12 title and CWS appearance in 2021; and Kelly, who won 10 or more games in six of his last seven seasons at Notre Dame.

Clearly Woodward has never been shy about swinging for the fences when hiring coaches.

"Sometimes, you hit it just right, and the timing is just right. There is no algorithm to it," Woodward said. "I've always been, 'Why not take a shot?' And when you're at LSU, that takes on even more meaning when you look at everything that's in place here to win championships."

WOODWARD SAID COMMON denominators for Kelly, Mulkey and Johnson included their intelligence and organizational skills but pointed out all three are from different parts of the country and have their own coaching styles.

Mulkey is from tiny Tickfaw, Louisiana, about 50 miles east of Baton Rouge. After playing and coaching at Louisiana Tech, she spent 21 years at Baylor, winning national championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach along the way. Her son, Kramer, played baseball at LSU.

Johnson is from Oroville, California, 70 miles north of Sacramento, and one of his inspirations was Skip Bertman, the legendary LSU baseball coach who won five NCAA titles before becoming the school's AD.

Perhaps the most surprising hire, though, was Kelly, a Boston-area native who had just built his dream home in South Bend, almost literally in the shadow of Notre Dame's Golden Dome, when Woodward came calling.

As the season wound down, three marquee jobs already were open -- LSU, USC and Florida. Competition for filling them would be fierce and rumors were flying. Because of his friendship with Woodward and a previous stint at LSU as Saban's offensive coordinator, Fisher was the hot name initially at LSU and he was a serious target. But with a new contract extension at Texas A&M, Fisher wasn't going anywhere.

Woodward had another idea anyway. Staying true to his "why not take a shot?" approach, he zeroed in on Kelly.

The thought of Kelly down on the Bayou may have seemed far-fetched at first, including to Kelly himself.

"Uhmm, not interested," Kelly told his agent, Trace Armstrong, when the subject was first broached.

Armstrong had helped Woodward with one of his contracts at LSU, so the 15-year NFL veteran-turned-agent was close to both Kelly and Woodward. Armstrong approached Kelly a second time and asked if he would at least talk to LSU as a favor to him.

At that point, Kelly hadn't even told his wife about LSU's overtures. But he agreed to talk with Woodward the final week of the regular season.

"I guess I thought I was doing Trace a favor, but when we were finished, I said, 'I have to call my wife,'" Kelly recalled. "I told her, 'Honey, we have something to talk about.'"

Woodward and Kelly had a deal, although they never met in person.

"I knew what I was getting," said Woodward, who had interviewed Kelly for the Washington job when he was at Cincinnati. "There was no need for us to meet."

Kelly said he could have been involved with the USC and Florida jobs, and while at Notre Dame, he passed on opportunities at both Tennessee and Texas, among others. Prior to Kelly's hiring at LSU, there were reports that Lincoln Riley was also seriously in play. But sources told ESPN that Woodward never considered Riley for the job.

As Kelly listened to Woodward's pitch, he knew that the time was right for him to make a move and that LSU was the right fit for him. He signed a 10-year, $95 million deal and became the first sitting head coach at Notre Dame to leave for a different job on his own volition in more than 100 years.

"I loved my time at Notre Dame. I have nothing but great memories there," Kelly said. "But the whole landscape there is different than it is here. It just is. There are priorities at Notre Dame. The architectural building needed to get built first. They ain't building the architectural building here first. We're building the athletic training facility first, [and] we're in the midst of a $22 million addition to our athletic training facility.

"It's something I said we needed, and we went and immediately raised the money."

MULKEY KNEW OF Woodward -- who graduated from high school in 1981, a year after Mulkey -- but had not met him until she was set to take the LSU job. Nikki Fargas -- LSU's women's basketball coach from 2011 to 2021 -- had left to become president of the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces. Mulkey had great success at Baylor, but because it was LSU calling, she felt the time was right for one last big career move.

"I had a 10-minute -- if that long -- conversation with Scott when I was hired," Mulkey said. "He introduced himself, and he said, 'I feel like we should know each other, we know so many mutual friends.'

"We didn't have to talk long. I didn't need to come in and look around. All I said was, 'Pay me what I'm making at Baylor, take care of my assistant coaches and I'm ready to come back home.'"

Home for Johnson had always been out West with coaching stops at Nevada, San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene (his alma mater) before landing at Arizona in 2016. Johnson, whose first head-coaching job at NAIA Point Loma Nazarene came when he was just 27, played three sports in high school. His father, Jerry, was a highly successful high school track and field coach whose teams went unbeaten for five straight years in varsity dual meets. Johnson got the coaching genes naturally, although he thought at one point he was destined for stardom as a football player.

"I thought I was going to win the Heisman Trophy as a good high school running back, but then I realized 5-7 guys weren't running around in the SEC," Johnson joked. "Being a major league baseball player would have been like going to the moon for a kid growing up where I did. But I always loved college baseball, and with Coach Bertman doing what he was doing, the College World Series seemed like a realistic goal."

So, as a seventh-grader, Johnson would occasionally sport an LSU baseball shirt.

"And now, to be coaching here at LSU, alongside coaches the caliber of Brian Kelly and Kim Mulkey, is humbling," Johnson said. "I always viewed Arizona as the best job in the country for me personally, with it being a West Coast job. I would only leave for the best job in the country, and I viewed LSU as the best job in the country."

Mulkey mentioned another Woodward hire in late 2021. Former LSU volleyball player Tonya Johnson took over that program after being a top assistant/recruiting coordinator for national powerhouse Texas. As a player, Johnson led LSU to the 1990 volleyball Final Four. Last year in her first season as coach, she led the Tigers to their first NCAA tournament victory since 2014.

"So Scott has put together quite an athletic program with the people he's hired," Mulkey said, adding that when it comes to luring top coaches away from established programs, "obviously, there's no secret -- you've got to start by talking about money. But there's also the SEC; particularly in football, the SEC sells itself."

That was a major selling point for Kelly -- the opportunity to prove he could win in the SEC, which has produced 13 of the last 17 national champions in football. And over the last 20 years, only Alabama (six) has won more national championships than LSU (three).

"When you grow up in Boston, which was a pro town, you're always measured by how you play at the highest level," Kelly said. "And to me, the SEC was always the preeminent league, so that had a lot to do with it for me."

Kelly's Notre Dame teams twice lost to Alabama in the postseason, once in the 2013 BCS national championship game (a 42-14 beatdown) and again in the 2020 College Football Playoff semifinal (a 31-14 loss). Kelly dismisses the notion that he left Notre Dame because of those two losses.

"That second time, we played an outstanding Alabama team as well as anybody played them that year," Kelly said. "My take after the game was, 'Yeah, we lost again, but let's keep it in perspective. That team killed everybody.'

"But it had zero bearing on me leaving Notre Dame. What it did is it motivated me to want more for our student-athletes, to say, 'This is what we need, and if we get these things, we can do this.' That's where it motivated me, and from a timing standpoint, we couldn't deliver at the same time. Then this LSU opportunity opened up that had the things I was looking for, and I didn't have to wait for them."

Everyone knows football drives the financial engine, but there is a sense of camaraderie in the LSU athletic department that Mulkey said makes for an atmosphere she enjoys. She appreciates that Woodward always answers calls or texts.

Once she called him, not realizing he was meeting with Kelly. Woodward gave his phone to Kelly to answer, and he jokingly greeted Mulkey with, "Hey, why are you bothering our boss?"

"That's relationships, that's fun, that's how it should be," Mulkey said. "I just like that kind of leadership."

One of Kelly's biggest moments in his first season at LSU was the 32-31 overtime upset of No. 6 Alabama on Nov. 5. Asked if she was at Tiger Stadium for the game, Mulkey said, "Heck, yeah, I was -- going crazy," and added it was a perfect day for her hoops recruits to be visiting.

Johnson added: "There's nothing like Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night, and I loved being there and feeling the energy of that crowd and seeing us beat Alabama. The more success we all have here, the more it's going to help us individually, and that support is genuine."

Mulkey was already a longtime fan of LSU baseball, visiting often to watch her son Kramer play there. After celebrating with her team at the women's Final Four in Dallas in April, Mulkey was in Omaha, Nebraska, in June to watch the LSU baseball team triumph at the College World Series.

She also has taken a few swings against Johnson's pitching; the two did an LSU promotional video where she went into the batting cage. Mulkey, who was a Little League baseball standout before her hoops stardom, also has been a guest coach during the baseball team's Purple and Gold game in the fall.

"She literally hit five line drives in a row, a couple right back at me at the screen," Johnson said with a laugh.

With all the hardware LSU has collected over the last few months, Kelly and his football team are not about to get sidetracked. They understand the importance of getting off to a better start than they did a year ago, when the Tigers lost their season opener to Florida State and were blown out at home five weeks later by Tennessee. Kelly has preached the importance of consistency all offseason as the next step in his program's development.

"We want to follow up and win a national championship of our own," LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels said. "But you can't do it by talking about it. You've got to go out there and do it every week."

As they say in these parts, it's Geaux time.