SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly appears to be the coach with all the right answers.
Nearly every decision he’s made this season has seemed to work out, from picking Everett Golson as starting quarterback to having Tommy Rees replace him at key times. Kelly has led Notre Dame from unranked to the brink of what could be one of the best chapters in the storied program’s history as the top-ranked Irish (11-0) prepare to face Southern California (7-4) on Saturday.
Those who know Kelly say that all he has been through during his coaching career has led him to this moment. Kelly took an unusual path to Notre Dame.
He played football at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., when it was a club sport, and planned a life in politics. But his love of football was too great.
So he took a steep pay cut to become a graduate assistant. That set him on the road to becoming the head coach who may be on the verge of proving himself a worthy successor to Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.
“I’m not surprised at all by what he’s done,” said Curt Anes, who played quarterback for Kelly when Grand Valley State won the Division II national championship in 2002. “It’s the nature of who he is. He’s such a leader. He’s tenacious in what he does. He’s just really doggone good at it.”
Kelly always dreamed big. He remembers applying for a graduate assistant job at Southern Connecticut State and being asked during the interview where he saw himself in five years. He said he wanted to be a head coach.
“They obviously thought, ‘This kid just doesn’t get it,’” Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Kelly started coaching on a part-time basis a few years earlier. He was the defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Assumption while working as an aide to a Massachusetts state senator and for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1984. He was earning more than $25,000 a year, but missed football.
Former teammate Dave Conroy describes Kelly as “Assumption’s Manti Te’o,” saying as a player Kelly was the vocal leader who pushed those around him to be better. He remembers Kelly, a two-time captain, exhorting his teammates not to give up in the second half of the final game of the season in a 43-2 loss to Worcester State.
“He’s in the huddle. He had eye black on. He has tears streaming down his face, and he’s screaming at us, ‘Play with pride! Play with pride! Don’t stop!’” Conroy said.
Kelly, who set a then school record with 314 career tackles, loved football so much he worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift on campus security so his job wouldn’t interfere with practice. It was that passion that led him to quit his job in politics and accept the graduate assistant’s job at Grand Valley State, where he was paid $460 every two weeks.
Kelly got some breaks along the way. After two years as a Grand Valley graduate assistant, the defensive coordinator left and he was offered the job. Kelly became head coach in 1991 after Tom Beck was hired by Holtz as an assistant at Notre Dame.
“If there’s a chapter to the start of my career, it’s when I was presented with an opportunity, I took advantage of it,” Kelly said.
Kelly was doing well at Grand Valley State, regularly winning eight or nine games, but thought he needed something to push the Lakers to the national level. He heard about the spread offense Louisiana Tech was running and went down there to learn it.
“I stole some of their spread ideas and then I implemented within our system and communication. That got me to start to spread the field. Then it just became addition, deletion. This works, this doesn’t work,” he said.
In 2001, the Lakers advanced to the Division II title game, leading the nation in scoring and total offense. Grand Valley State won the next two national championships. It was that offense the propelled Kelly to success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well.
Kelly said people used to ask him why he stayed at Grand Valley State so long.
“I was trying to figure it out. I didn’t have all the answers,” he said. “Even as the head coach I was taking the lowest-paying jobs at camps just to learn more about the game.”
Working at a small school forced Kelly to learn every aspect of the program, right down to overseeing the team’s laundry program.
“So I had to learn how to organize special teams. I had to understand how to take on a blitz patterns. I had to draw the cards that graduate assistants show,” he said.
Michigan Tech coach Tom Kearly knows him from the days when Kelly was at Grand Valley State and Kearly was offensive coordinator at Central Michigan and they’d trade ideas. Kearly believes what makes Kelly a good coach is he is always asking questions.
“He was always the guy to ask the question to provoke himself to get to the next step, to keep going to not ever get stagnant,” Kearly said.
When Kelly got to Notre Dame, he thought he needed to focus more on the defensive side.
“Having lived in that world of trying to outscore opponents, I felt that the best blueprint that we could put together for a national championship was through our defense,” he said.
The Irish are sixth in the nation in total defense, giving up 288 yards a game, and first in scoring defense at 10.09 as they seek to win their first national championship since 1988.
Kelly is confident the Irish are ready for prolonged excellence.
“I think the one word I’ve used is consistency in approach,” he said. “If there’s a consistency every single day where you come and have the same expectations, then you can build it for a long period of time.”