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Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick not surprised at coach Brian Kelly’s departure as search for replacement opens

Kelly bolted the Irish for LSU, where he’s getting a reported $95 million over the next 10 years.

Brian Kelly
New LSU football coach Brian Kelly gestures to fans after his arrival at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. Kelly, formerly of Notre Dame, is said to have agreed to a 10-year contract with LSU worth $95 million plus incentives.
Matthew Hinton/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the last 12 years, coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick worked in concert to return a tattered Notre Dame football brand to national prominence.

As coach-administrator relationships go, theirs appeared to be as solid and productive as any in modern college sports. When Kelly surpassed legendary Knute Rockne in September to become the winningest coach in Irish history, he made a point of crediting Swarbrick for his unwavering support throughout that unlikely climb.

So it couldn’t have been easy for either man when Kelly called Swarbrick on Monday to confirm the breaking news that was sweeping the internet: He was resigning to become the next coach at LSU.

Emotional, yes, but not as surprising as you might assume.

‘‘There’s just a sense you get when you work closely with somebody for 12 years that there’s a certain restlessness, and I could sense that,’’ Swarbrick said in a news conference Tuesday at Notre Dame Stadium. ‘‘There was a Freudian slip or two along the way that sort of grabbed my attention. And whether that was intentional or not, it feels a little bit like somebody who might be open to a different opportunity.’’

Kelly, 60, will get that at LSU, along with a reported contract that will guarantee him $95 million over the next 10 years. According to Swarbrick, Kelly made no attempt to secure a counteroffer from Notre Dame, which last fall gave him a three-year extension through 2024.

Kelly, who also was linked to the USC opening that went to former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, will be introduced at a news conference Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He flew back to South Bend for an early-morning meeting with Irish players Tuesday.

The last three LSU coaches — Ed Orgeron (2019), Les Miles (2007) and Nick Saban (2003) — won their first national titles while at the Southeastern Conference school. Despite three perfect regular-seasons (2012, 2018 and 2020) and a 54-9 mark in his last five seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly still is looking to check that box.

Swarbrick declined to name an interim coach but made it clear Kelly had worked his last day for the Irish. Depending on the outcome of the conference championship games Saturday, No. 6 Notre Dame could qualify for its third College Football Playoff in the last four years.

More likely, however, is a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Any interim coach wouldn’t be a candidate for the full-time role, Swarbrick said.

Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, 35, is considered the leading candidate among current Notre Dame assistants to replace Kelly. Those assistants remain on the road, trying to hold together a top-five recruiting class in 2022.

Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, associate head coach Brian Polian and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees also could factor in. Among that four-man group, only Polian, who went 23-27 in four seasons at Nevada, has head-coaching experience.

Clark Lea, who is coming off a 2-10 debut at Vanderbilt, spent four seasons as an Irish assistant — including three as their defensive coordinator — before leaving for his alma mater.

Luke Fickell, whose undefeated Cincinnati team ended Notre Dame’s 26-game home winning streak in early October, is another potential fit. Freeman’s former boss has the Bearcats poised to become the first Group of Five participant in the playoff.

Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, who has spurned previous NFL overtures, is another hot name.

Less likely would be a homecoming for former Irish assistant Urban Meyer, who now coaches the Jaguars in the NFL. He won three national titles as a college coach — two at Florida and one at Ohio State — but he has a history of embarrassing episodes.