Former NFL All-Pro Says Brian Kelly, Lincoln Riley Gave Players ‘a Dose of Reality’: ‘It’s Business, Man’

Last week, the college football world flipped entirely upside down when everyone learned that Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley was leaving for USC, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was taking the LSU job.

Sure, coaches leave schools for other opportunities all the time, but Riley and Kelly left their programs before their seasons were technically over. That not only made things difficult for the universities they were leaving behind, but, as former NFL All-Pro Shawne Merriman recently put it, it gave the student-athletes a strong dose of reality.

Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly left for USC and LSU, respectively

The day after his Oklahoma Sooners played in their final regular-season game of the year, Lincoln Riley left the program to take the USC job.

Riley led Oklahoma to three College Football Playoff appearances in five seasons, and while the Sooners weren’t going to make a fourth CFP run under Riley this year thanks to their two losses, the team still has its upcoming bowl game to play in at the end of the month. OU will take on the Oregon Ducks in the Alamo Bowl.

But even with that game still on its schedule, Riley left early and accepted the USC job.

Brian Kelly’s situation, though, was slightly worse.

Notre Dame has made two CFPs and a BCS National Championship Game with Kelly. And following its final regular-season contest, it only had one loss this year, which helped it rank sixth in the CFP rankings. If a couple of games had gone the team’s way this past weekend, they were probably going to make the playoff.

However, despite still having a chance at playing in the CFP, Kelly left his team for LSU last week. According to Sports Illustrated, he met with his players for just a few minutes and went on his way.

So, why did these two men leave their programs in this sort of fashion? Well, it’s likely because of money. Riley’s new deal is unclear because USC is a private institution. But Kelly became the first public-school head coach to sign a $100-plus million contract, as it’s worth $100 million over 10 years, according to USA Today. He will also receive $500,000 for every bowl game LSU makes.

Shawne Merriman says players, unfortunately, got ‘a dose of reality’

LSU and former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly; USC and former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley.
(L-R) Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley. | Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images; Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Shawne Merriman is known for his play with the San Diego Chargers, as he earned three Pro Bowl selections and was a first-team All-Pro in 2006. He also earned the 2005 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award and led the NFL in sacks in 2006 with 17 in only 12 games.

However, before his NFL stardom, Merriman played college ball at Maryland, so he understands how important coaches are to student-athletes.

“It’s business, man; it really is,” he said to Sportscasting while talking about his MMA company, Lights Out XF, and the recent Bengals-Chargers game. “It’s unfortunate, too, because when you pick your college and your school that you want to attend, you mainly go there because of the coach. For me, I was a hometown guy … but it was the coaches who really got me to go there and stuff like that. So, it sucks for the (players).”

Merriman, though, also thinks the situations taught the athletes about the business of college football. They just, unfortunately, learned the hard way.

“They’re getting a dose of reality of how things work,” Merriman said. “He had more money, more opportunity. He took it, and he apologized to the team and stood there for a couple minutes, and that was it.”

Given that Kelly only spoke to Notre Dame’s players for a few minutes, it’s reasonable to assume that Merriman was referring to him, but it’s not 100% clear.

Whether you agree with Riley and Kelly’s decisions or not, Merriman did make a decent point. College football — and the entire sport of football in general — is a massive business; the players just, unfortunately, learned all about it the hard way.

Notre Dame and Oklahoma must now move forward without Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley

Luckily for Notre Dame, the program will still have some sort of normalcy going forward.

The Fighting Irish promoted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach on Dec. 3 and kept most of its staff in place.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, hired Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables as the school’s next head coach.

Obviously, both universities likely wanted their former coaches to stay, but they did what was best for their kids and their programs by quickly finding the right leaders to take over. Hopefully, their futures remain bright.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

(Note: Mario Cristobal also recently left Oregon for Miami, but that move came after our conversation with Merriman.)

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