Irish Stewed: Intro to Brian Kelly 101

In the early 1980s, Brian Kelly was a political science major and starting linebacker at Assumption College, a Worcester-based Catholic liberal arts school with an enrollment of just over 2,000 students. He also moonlighted as a budding politico, mingling with Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor John Kerry, working on the staff of Senator Gary Hart as a legislative assistant, and even serving as a delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. (If that isn’t a lesson in humility, what is?)

According to reports on Thursday, Brian Kelly will be the next head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. (Photo - Icon SMI)

The gradual progression of Brian Kelly from politician to coach was marked by several invaluable mentors and, to the relief of his future Notre Dame peers, less Democrats. There was Fred Glaz, the high school coach who built a national power at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., a team often featured in USA Today’s Top 25 high school football rankings. Glaz called Kelly a “tough nut” who played guard and linebacker, not one of the team’s stars but a dependable, hard-working player. “He was a good-looking kid with a great smile,” Glaz said. “He wasn’t very big, not much over 5-9, 160 if that. But he had size where it counted, in his heart and in his mind.”

There was Assumption’s coach Bernie Gaughan, who “brought the element of enjoyment to the game for me,” Kelly said. “Fred was disciplined, hard-nosed, old-school from the Marine Corps. Bernie brought the fun into it, he brought the balance.” Kelly lettered four years at linebacker, graduating in 1983, and spent the next three years as an assistant coach at Assumption before coming to Grand Valley State first as a graduate assistant, then as the Lakers’ defensive coordinator under head coach Tom Beck.

A College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Beck compiled a 50-18 record in six seasons at GVSU. He hired Kelly out of Assumption as a graduate assistant in 1987, and then promoted Kelly to defensive coordinator in 1989. “He was young, enthusiastic, intelligent, and he came inexpensively,” Beck said. “We hit it off right from the start. He’s a very sharp guy who speaks his mind, there was no double-talk.”

Tom Beck’s most lasting influence on Kelly was his offensive acumen. A West Coast Offense pioneer whose vertical passing game allegedly preceded even Bill Walsh, Beck noticed a curious tendency of his overachieving five-foot nothin’, a hundred-and-nothin’ defensive coordinator: Kelly was always asking questions and learning about the offense. “You could see he was analytical, always filing away things,” Beck said, “whether it was in his head or on paper.”

When Beck left Grand Valley after the 1990 season to become an assistant under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame—curiously, one of the ND blogosphere’s more underreported six-degrees-of-Knute Rockne factoids—Kelly got his chance to be the head man. He hired Dennis Fitzgerald, a former head coach at Kent State during the tumultuous times at the school in the 1970s, as an assistant.

Both were tremendous influences on him.

“From (Beck) I learned detailed organization on offense, defense, special teams, all the Xs and Os,” Kelly said. “(Dennis) had been in the NFL, and was kind of retired and in the area, and I got him back into coaching. He gave me the head coaching perspective … he got me to think about the big picture and vision.”

Kelly put those things together at Grand Valley and the football program grew. Kelly went 65-24-2 (.725) at GVSU. In his eight seasons Kelly won nine games or more six times, five conference championships and two Division-II national championships. In the 21-year history of the GVSU program prior to Kelly’s arrival, the school went 122-76-1 (.611), registered only four seasons of nine wins or more, won four conference championships, and not only never won a NAIA or Div-II national championship, actually failed to qualify for the post-season in 19 of 21 seasons. In the six seasons following Kelly’s departure, GVSU has qualified for the post-season all six seasons, won two additional national championships, and averaged a 12-2 record.

Kelly met his wife, Paqui (pronounced POCK-ee, a Spanish nickname given to her by her family, meaning “happy”), at Grand Valley when she worked in the admissions office. They have three children, Patrick; Grace, and Kenzel. Paqui was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2003, went through six weeks of chemotherapy and has been cancer-free ever since. Paqui’s battle with cancer no doubt gave her a nice dose of perspective as her husband began his meteoric rise through the Div-I collegiate coaching ranks.

When Central Michigan University coach Mike DeBord resigned after the 2003 season, athletic director Herb Deromedi didn’t have to look too far to find someone with a proven record. “I liked (Coach Kelly’s) experience, I liked his record, and I certainly liked his demeanor,” Deromedi said. “I think (his political background) played a part in the way he deals with people. To work in the political arena and see what it takes to do that at a very young age, probably gave him a leg up on a lot of people.”

A full three months before Kelly would even coach his first game at CMU, he was introduced to the harsh spotlight of Div-I scrutiny. In June 2004, at least four of his CMU players were involved in a bar fight near campus that resulted in the death of a 26-year-old man. In attempting to explain to reporters why his players perjured themselves in court, Kelly responded matter-of-factly, “A number of them were African-Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they’re taught to look away. You don’t want anything to do with it. Get out of there. You don’t say anything to anybody. That is a culture that they are immersed in. When they come here, their first reaction is to react the way they’ve been taught to react in their culture and in their environment. That’s difficult.”

Kelly drew the requisite sanctimonious persecution from the media and his CMU academic peers. His crime? Making the not-so-revelatory comment that these kids were taught you don’t snitch. (In related news, the sky is blue and grass is green.) Coach Kelly got his hand-slapped by the CMU administration, as if he even deserved that. Lesson learned. And an episode quickly forgotten beneath the rising tide of W’s.

The CMU program wasn’t just mired in mediocrity—it was a perennial MAC cellar-dweller, a loser of the highest order. In the 12 years prior to Kelly accepting the job, the Chippewas had registered one winning season. From 1992 through 2003, CMU’s average record was a stunningly putrid 4-7.

In Kelly’s second year at CMU he coached the team to a 6-5 record, the first winning season in seven years for the Chippewas. In 2006 CMU posted a 9-4 record under Kelly en route to winning the MAC Championship and qualifying for the Motor City Bowl. At the end of the 2006 season, Coach Kelly left to accept the University of Cincinnati coaching vacancy three days after CMU won the 2006 MAC Championship. Coach Kelly’s record at Central Michigan in three seasons was 19-16. In the three seasons since his departure, the former MAC cellar-dweller has gone 27-13 and won two more MAC Championships.

Kelly’s three-year record at Cincinnati has been documented ad nauseam by the media, but it bears repeating. Prior to Kelly’s arrival, the University of Cincinnati notched one season of 10 wins or more in its 121-year history. Kelly has accomplished that feat in three consecutive seasons. His record at Cincy is now at a staggering 34-6. The 2009 season came on the heels of an offseason in which Kelly lost 10 of his 11 starters on defense. The Bearcats were not only unranked, they were picked to finish as low as sixth in the eight-team Big East. The result? 12-0. A #3 national ranking. A National Coach of the Year Award. A second consecutive BCS bid. A second consecutive Big East Championship. A third consecutive Big East Coach of the Year Award. And Brian Kelly’s 18th winning season in 19 years as a college head coach.

He builds programs from nothing. When he leaves programs, they have sustained levels of greatness because of his foundation. He brings to the table more than 230 games as a college head coach. And when all is said and done, he just wins. What the hell is not to like about Brian Kelly? From the little hamlet of Chelsea, Massachusetts to South Bend, Indiana. From Gary Hart to God’s country. Only in America!

Welcome to Notre Dame, Coach Kelly. Enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts.


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  2. Hurls , ND ’89:

    Good comment and true.
    Weis was always good at this but could not motivate.
    That was obvious from the demeanor.
    He is gone ( to Browns country I am assuming as I don’t watch
    NFL Wussball–not enough tradition tied to anything of importance)
    That said, I think Kelly will be great—
    AND I believe in the possibility of success.
    BTW, nice screen name.

  3. Dudes…You all are aproaching analysis of MR.Kelly the wrong way. The dude is from Boston-area, like me. We here in Boston are big on tradition. Yes, today is tomorrow’s yesterday. But the focus should ALWAYS be on tomorrow. That’s how you make a proud past. Chuckles-Charlie (Weis) was and still is a brilliant x’s-and-o’s coach. But in college wussball you need to identify with the kids. And realize that they are kids. Charlie has qualifications up-the-kazoo. But any college-coach must identify with college-kids. Golden liked Charlie and commended him on his availability after practices. I have a feeling Jimmy was similarly impressed. But GOLDEN AND JIMMY ARE GONE. Remember, today is tomorrow’s yesterday. MR.Kelly is a young Turk. Get out of his way and watch a kid make success.

  4. I am a Cincy fan. I am bitter. And I will be bitter. Unless, of course, we can sustain a winning program without Kelly. A winning program. At Cincinnati. Shit.

    /declares there is no God
    /pops 2 percoset, chugs half bottle of vodka

  5. 3 Things

    1. McSweeney, AWESOME article. Pure Awesome and win.

    2. So… we just hired the NCAA Coach of the Year. Guy picked as the best coach in all of College football. You critics are right, we’re irrelevant, not coach of any magnitude wants to come here. Nevermind he seems to be the guy we wanted. Not Me, or the media, or other fans, but rather the guy Swarbrick had in mind (as well as some astute fans who will remain nameless [McSweeney {I lied}]).

    3. For all the negatives I’ve brought up, make no mistake, I’m really happy about this hire. I might not be the biggest fan of his offensive style, but results are results. I’m going to tow the line and give my full support. That said: I have absolutely no hopes for the staff, as far as I’m concerned we hired him to do his thing (so long as kids keep out of jail and in class) which is win. How he does it is his deal. I’m just going to sit back and get myself juiced up for the show. (Though I will be paying special attention to what he does with the Defense out of pure curiousity)

    Go Irish

  6. If he can get to 3rd nationally with Cincinnati’s talent – just think what he can do with ND’s talent pool. Too bad Coach Weiss couldn’t ever put it together – he was a great recruiter, but wasted the talent he had on the team with weird calls at bizzare times and an inept defensive scheme. Hopefully, these problems will be things of the past – Welcome, Coach Kelly!

  7. What a GREAT hire. Don’t expect a 12-0 season the first year though. He’s got a lot of challenges, but Kelly can do the job if he’s allowed to do it his way. I think 2010 at ND may be similar to Saban’s first at Alabama, probably 6-6, but watch out after that. The future will finally be bright -Kelly’s the second coming of Leahy. GO IRISH!!! GO KELLY!!!

  8. I love the hire, now lets get to work and keep the good recruiting class and fix the defense. Lets see what this guy can do.

  9. The Alumni association write-up was pretty good. Interesting that they announced he takes over on Monday. He will not coach the Bearcats against Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

    Here’s a good part of it.

    The University has named Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s new head football coach. Please see the press release below. A press conference is scheduled for Friday, December 11, at 1:30 pm EST, and can be viewed live at

    For Notre Dame,

    Chuck Lennon ’61, ’62 M.A.
    Executive Director, Notre Dame Alumni Association
    Associate Vice President, University Relations

    December 10, 2009

    Brian Kelly Named 29th Head Football Coach at Notre Dame

    Brian Kelly, a veteran of 19 seasons as a collegiate head coach — and most recently the architect of two consecutive Bowl Championship Series appearances at the University of Cincinnati, including a perfect 12-0 regular season in 2009 that earned him national-coach-of-the-year honors – tonight has been named the 29th head football coach at the University of Notre Dame.

    Currently the ninth-winningest active coach in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of victories, Kelly has signed a five-year contract to coach the Irish. He will be introduced at a 1:30 p.m. EST Friday press conference at the Guglielmino Athletics Center. Kelly officially takes over at Notre Dame on Monday; he will not coach the Bearcats in their Sugar Bowl date against Florida.

    Kelly’s head coaching resume includes:

    Three seasons at Cincinnati from 2007-09, including a 34-6 record (.850) and two straight outright BIG EAST Conference title teams that earned BCS appearances in 2008 (Orange Bowl) and ’09 (Sugar Bowl).
    Three seasons at Central Michigan University from 2004-06, including a 19-16 overall record (.542) that featured a 9-4 mark and Mid-American Conference title in 2006.
    Thirteen seasons at Grand Valley State University from 1991-2003, including a 118-35-2 record (.767) that was highlighted by NCAA Division II national championships in 2002 (14-0) and 2003 (14-1).
    An overall record of 171-57-2 (.747) in those 19 seasons as a head coach.
    “I am very pleased that a thorough and extensive search has led us to a new head coach in Brian Kelly, who I am confident will help us accomplish our goal of competing for national championships,” said Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick.

    “I am absolutely delighted to welcome Brian and his family to the Notre Dame family,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president. “He brings to us a long and successful career as a head coach, and I am confident that he will have even greater success here. I’m also very pleased that he has put considerable emphasis on excellence in the classroom and that his student-athletes graduate at a rate well above the norm.”

    Kelly earned the Home Depot National Coach of the Year Award in 2009, was the BIG EAST Conference Coach of the Year in 2007, 2008 and 2009 (the first time a BIG EAST football coach has won the award three straight years) — and was the American Football Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year in both 2002 and 2003. Kelly currently ranks ninth among active FBS head coaches in victories with 171. He is the winningest active BIG EAST football coach and the only league coach with more than 150 wins.


    Kelly’s ’09 team at Cincinnati finished third in the final BCS standings and fourth in both the final regular-season Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls. His ’08 team ended up 11-3 and 17th in both polls – and his ‘07 Bearcat squad finished 10-3 and 17th (AP) and 20th (USA Today/ESPN) in the final polls.

    Kelly has served on the AFCA Ethics Committee – and he’s currently one of 59 FBS head coaches who vote in the USA Today poll.

    Kelly and his wife Paqui are parents of three children – Patrick, Grace and Kenzel.

  10. Great hire. ND had this guy pegged from the start. Gonna be a good one! Finally have a head coach, not a defensive coordinator (Davie), offensive coordinator (Weis) and a bum (Willingham).

  11. Hey it’s Brian, I need you to do me a huge favor. Can you please take your name off your phone? Cincinnati went through my phone and may be calling you. So if you can, please take your name off that. Just have it as a number on the voicemail. You got to do this for me. Huge. Quickly. Bye.

  12. Good article. And Mr Kelly will do fine in South Bend. I hope he has all the backing of the admin and the fans. We need to float this boat up river, starting now.

  13. I wonder how many years they will give Kelly before they decide to get rid of him? And I’m sure they paid a fortune for him. Does this mean ticket prices are going up? How is he going to fix the defense? I hope we dont regret this.

    1. I hope all of you are happy like me. Lets just let the Man do his job and not pick on him. No excuses hes a winner. There are only good things to come.

  14. With all that writeup one can surely see why this guy has been the front-runner all along! Many things were not widely known, but this guy holds a LOT of promise!
    Only the official announcement is missing, and we trust it will come soon!

    1. From what I read (take it for what it is worth) both sides are waiting until after the Cincinnati Banquet tonight until it is official

  15. Great write up McSweeney! Looking forward to getting Kelly in there asap and start laying down the foundation of a winning culture. God knows ND hasn’t seen it since Lou was grabbing face masks.

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