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?)
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.