The obligatory happy to be here/thank the host opening statement has barely passed through Brian Kelly’s lips when the pin was pulled.
NFL! Incoming!“There’s been speculation about the NFL showing interest in you. Can you confirm that some people from the NFL have contacted your agent and inquired?”
Standing nearby, BCS executive director Bill Hancock simply shook his head.
“Really?” Hancock said. “I guess that’s the power of the NFL brand.”
So much so that the first two questions addressed to the head coach of Notre Dame, a university that for generations stood for college football, were about the next level.
The subject didn’t lead off the queries for Alabama’s Nick Saban on Saturday at Sun Life Stadium, where the Crimson Tide and Irish meet Monday in the BCS National Championship Game. But Saban’s thoughts on his past and projected future NFL experience were pervasive topics.
It’s a compliment, really, and speaks to a combination of factors.
First, Hancock is right. College football’s biggest stage always competes for attention with NFL playoffs and coaching changes in the first week of the new year, and this season the college and pro games seemed linked as never before.
Three playoff teams — Washington, Seattle and Indianapolis — are led by quarterbacks one year out of college. And some NFL teams in the coaching market have cast a flirtatious eye on the college ranks with Oregon’s Chip Kelly as a primary target.
Brian Kelly and Saban remain popular names in the NFL speculation swirl.
“It’s flattering if there’s interest,” Kelly said.
Saban adamantly declared for his future on campus.
“I don’t have any unfinished business in the NFL,” Saban said, a reference to his two seasons as the Miami Dolphins’ coach that ended with a 15-17 record.
“It’s not something I’m concerned about. It’s not even anything I want to do. I’m not looking for a new challenge.”
Alabama is bidding for its third national championship in four years, all under Saban, who won an additional title with LSU before his Dolphins days.
This season, Saban is the game’s highest-paid coach at $5.3 million, and to defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who also served in Saban’s NFL staff, he’s worth every penny.
“There is no question he’s driven to be the greatest coach in the game,” Smart said. “He’s very detailed-oriented, down to the minute of practice. I mean he wants every second of practice organized, every walk-through, every rep, it doesn’t matter.”
With the money and success, why wouldn’t Saban be content in his current office?
“Sometimes I see coaches on TV and I say to myself, ‘I wonder if that guy’s happy in his life?’ ” Saban said. “Sometimes when you get in this business, everything is about the game. If it’s all about the game and it’s not about trying to be a good person, a good father, a good role model for the young men that you’re trying to affect in a positive way…
“When it’s just about the game, I’m not sure you can be happy as a person. You try to give to the game much, but when you’re concerned about the game giving your ego everything it needs for you to survive, I don’t think that’s a good thing. If that ever happens, maybe I’ll start doing something else.
“I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think I’m qualified for much.”
Notre Dame’s Kelly doesn’t think that will be an issue for Saban.
“Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model,” Kelly said. “I concede to that. It’s where we want to be.”
The Irish have started down that road with a coach who labored in obscurity outside of his college towns. In his first job as an assistant for Assumption, a Division II school in Massachusetts and his alma mater, Kelly would drive his car to the edge of the field on Friday nights and line the field illuminated with his headlights.
He also coached women at Assumption, the softball team.
“They weren’t going to the next level; they played the game because they loved it,” Kelly said. “I want guys who love to play the game.”
From Assumption, he spent 17 seasons at another Division II program, Grand Valley State. In 13 years as a head coach, Kelly won two NCAA championships. That got him the Central Michigan job, which got him the Cincinnati job.
After a 12-0 record in his third season with the Bearcats, Kelly was hired at South Bend. Along the way, nothing changed about his core philosophies.
“Belief is crucial,” Kelly said. “If you don’t believe you can do it, you probably can’t.”
Kelly has made a nice career getting college athletes to buy into that idea. Would it work on in the NFL? Back to the original question, Kelly beat it back the best he could. There’s a protocol for such matters, he said.
“But that is such a secondary topic for me right now,” Kelly said.
That won’t stop the speculation, for Kelly and Saban.