Brian Kelly: From Softball Coach to Golden Dome
CINCINNATI -- Long before Brian Kelly became the latest coach to try and resurrect Notre Dame's football program ...
Long before Kelly was winning consecutive Big East titles at Cincinnati, a school that hadn't won consecutive conference titles in nearly 60 years ...
Long before Kelly guided Central Michigan to its first winning record in seven years or before Kelly spent 13 years coaching Division II Grand Valley State to five conference titles and two national championships ...
Yes, long before all that Brian Kelly -- offensive genius/Notre Dame's savior -- was a softball coach.
After graduating from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., in 1983, he remained at his alma mater, serving as the school's defensive coordinator, linebacker coach -- and softball coach. College football's hottest coach has a .542 winning percentage as a softball coach.
Kelly was 64-54 as Assumption's softball coach from 1984-87 and never finished higher than fourth in the Northeast Conference, so he's pretty fortunate this football thing worked out for him.
Has it ever.
On Wednesday, Kelly was named the Big East's Coach of the Year for a third consecutive season. In three years with the Bearcats, Kelly has a record of 34-6, despite going through quarterbacks like Tiger Woods goes through, uh, golf balls.
Because of multiple injuries at quarterback, Kelly has had to use six starting quarterbacks in three years -- and has exactly as many losses (six) to show. Oklahoma and South Florida are just two schools that lost their starting quarterbacks and each school finished with five losses this season. Kelly lost six games -- in three years.
The names may have changed under center at Cincinnati, but the 48-year-old Irish Catholic wearing the headsets doesn't change.
"It don't matter who is under center with our offense," said Cincinnati senior wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, explaining the Bearcats' offensive firepower. "We're not worried who's under center. Who's running the show (is what matters). Coach Kelly's running the show."
A big reason for Kelly's success -- the climb from Division II to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame in seven years -- is largely due to his attention to detail.
On Nov. 7 against UConn, the Bearcats led 27-10 and had second-and-goal at the 8 with less than 10 seconds remaining. Kelly sent the field goal unit on, but, noticing the time remaining, told holder Zach Collaros if there was a bad snap, to throw the ball away and they would attempt the field goal on third down.
And that's exactly what happened. Collaros couldn't handle the snap, grabbed the ball and flung it out-of-bounds. Cincinnati was penalized nine yards for intentional grounding and Jake Rogers then kicked a 34-yard field goal to end the half.
"That's 19 years of being a head coach," Kelly said. "You've seen all those (situations). My special teams coach at Grand Valley State taught me all that, or at least he'll tell you that.
"It was something we had experienced before. This is Zach's first year holding, he has not been flawless in that area. Just before the half, I told him if you have any problems with [the snap], just throw it away. It will be a penalty, we'll back up and we'll get another shot at the field goal. We took the penalty and Jake was able to convert."
Coincidentally, a botched PAT by Pittsburgh enabled Cincinnati to defeat the Panthers, 45-44, with a last-minute drive that locked up the Big East Championship and BCS bowl berth.
It's all in the details. Earlier this season when the Bearcats visited Corvallis, Ore., to play Oregon State, the Bearcats spent all week practicing with footballs that had been soaked in water in case it rained.
Kelly's rainy days at Cincinnati have been few and far between. A former college linebacker and former Democratic Party worker in the 1980s for presidential candidate Gary Hart, Kelly has built UC's program so quickly that the Bearcats can make a legitimate claim as the state's best program, even better than that other Ohio university located in Columbus.
Kelly instituted a "next man in" philosophy at Cincinnati and it has worked wonders. Entering this season, the Bearcats had to replace 10 defensive starters and a defensive coordinator. No big deal. The Bearcats crushed Rutgers in the season opener and cruised along to a second consecutive Big East title.
Kelly has won with -- at best -- so-called mediocre players. Since 2005, Cincinnati's last five recruiting classes have been ranked at the bottom of the BCS barrel, according to Scout.com's national rankings -- 70th (2005), 70th (2006), 80th (2007), 57th (2008) and 53rd (2009). Yet, Kelly's heroes have somehow managed to win their last 18 regular season contests.
Kelly's contributions to Cincinnati have not been limited to the field, athletic director Mike Thomas told FanHouse in a recent interview.
"With Brian, it's not just what's happened on the football field, it's what he's done in the community and the external person that he's been that's very important to us, being the face of the program," Thomas said. " When you look at the football piece, not just the Xs and Os, but who he really is ... that he takes good care of these kids and develops them off the field and it's going to mean more to them once they leave the university.
"Brian, he's really been the total package and meant a lot to this university in a lot of ways."
One such example is Kelly's unwavering support of cancer research. His wife, Paqui, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, but is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
Yet, Kelly still made it a point to include a clause in his 2007 contract for a $50,000 gift to Cincinnati's Barrett Cancer Center to research breast cancer. Kelly and his staff also conduct an annual coaching clinic "Football 101 for Women," where he teaches women the basics of football -- there's probably a few fellow Big East coaches that could pick up a pointer or two from it -- to raise money for cancer research. Last year's event raised about $8,000.
Kelly has said in the past that cancer research is important to him.
"It's a cause that is dear to me and my family," Kelly told UC Magazine. "Believing that each one of us can make a difference in the lives of others is important."
Notre Dame is banking on Kelly to be a difference maker in South Bend, as well.
Contact FanHouse reporter Brett McMurphy at email@example.com