I mentioned Brian Kelly a couple of times in the last week, but never took him seriously as an Eagles coaching candidate. He just led Notre Dame to their best season in a long time and I just questioned him both wanting to leave and whether he fit the NFL. He comes across to me like a college coach. That’s not an insult, just a perception.
Naturally I was surprised on Wednesday night when it was announced that the Eagles had already met with him and were going to talk to him again. This is not casual interest. This is serious.
Before we get into Kelly’s background, let’s talk about him in the moment. Mike Florio swears this is just a ploy by Kelly to get a raise. I don’t buy that. Kelly just led ND to the title game. He was going to get a raise anyway. There is no upside for him in flirting with the NFL unless it is to get ND to relax some eligibility standards or give him some more power in some other area (no idea what that would even be). Kelly was going to get his money.
Is he interested in the NFL? Must be at least curious to have the meeting with the Eagles. When word of the meeting gets out, it can affect recruiting. You don’t meet with an NFL team unless you have a specific agenda. You either want money/power or you want the NFL job. In this case, I’m assuming Kelly has NFL interest. This could all turn out to be a ruse. We’ll just have to wait and see. The complicated part of this is that Kelly has no NFL experience or ties. He’s said that ND was his dream job. If true, why flirt with the NFL? Kelly is a guy that has climbed the coaching ladder, stop after stop, and might be ready to test himself at the highest level.
I have followed Brian Kelly’s career since he was at Central Michigan (CMU). I remember watching their team in 2005. They went 6-5 (first winning record since 1998) and the team was impressive. They played hard and were well-coached. I didn’t know who Kelly was, but remember hearing the announcers talk about his background.
Kelly was a legend at D2 school Grand Valley State. He was promoted from assistant to HC at the age of 28. He didn’t have a losing record in his first decade on the job. Most years he won 8 or 9 games. The problem was that GVSU lost in the playoffs. In 2001 they made it to the title game before losing. The next 2 years, GVSU won national titles. In that 3 year span, the team went 41-2.
What pushed GVSU over the top? Kelly did. He decided that he had to recruit at a higher level. He went after a kid named Curt Anes, a Michigan prep star. Anes had no intention of playing at the D2 level. He turned down offers. Kelly sold him on the idea of coming to GVSU. The team struggled initially even with the young talent. That’s when Kelly installed the spread offense. You could say it worked. Check out this blurb:
“The 2001 team ran a no-huddle offense that averaged more than 600 yards and 58.6 points. Nott (the SID) had to start keeping statistical averages by quarter, since most of the starters rarely played in the second half.”
Even more impressive, Kelly remained adaptable.
” In the first round of the playoffs, Anes tore every ligament in his knee, when his leg stuck in the field and twisted so far around that he said his hamstring hit the ground before his calf did; the calf muscle ripped off the bone. The following week, Kelly installed a wishbone offense, and the Lakers still advanced to the championship game, which they lost.”
The next year Anes stayed healthy and the Lakers (awesome nickname, huh?) were absolutely dominant and won the title. In 2003 Kelly had to mix in a lot of new faces. He had lost a great Senior class the year before. The offense wasn’t as consistently explosive, but the defense stepped up and played at a very high level. The new players and new focus led to old results…another title.
I know it is awkward to try and put D2 results into context. I think it is important to understand that Kelly was self-aware enough to see that winning and being good wasn’t good enough. He then made a direct effort to upgrade his talent. He changed his schemes. The team did have more success, but that wasn’t good enough. He pushed them to win a title and they did. Then he pushed them to win another title. They did. It was in this period that Kelly showed a great ability to lead and motivate. His teams dominated. They wanted to be great. There was a 20-game winning streak. 29-game in the conference. They won on the road at I-AA opponents. They dominated in the playoffs. One win was 44-7. Another game was 50-7 at the half. Kelly pushed and his team responded.
Kelly also learned a lot about running a program at GVSU. His background is defense, but he became an offensive guru because it needed to be done. You have limited resources in D2. If you want something done, you do it yourself. You have to truly love the game at that level. Kelly’s first assistant coach job at GSVU paid him $4000 a year. That was the 1980’s, but $4K still wasn’t much. Kelly loved football. He wanted to be a coach. He wanted to win.
After conquering D2, Kelly moved on to CMU. That program had been struggling for a while. Kelly went in with his systems, schemes, and ideas. He wanted to see if they would work at the next level. CMU went just 4-7 in his first season (Kelly’s only losing season…ever). That improved to 6-5 and then 9-4 with a bowl win. Not only did Kelly turn CMU into a winner, he left enough of an imprint that the program has been relevant ever since.
CMU had no one drafted from 1997-2004. The school never had a 1st round pick and only one 2nd rounder (1985). There were 2 players drafted after Kelly’s first season. There were 3 drafted after his third season, including a 1st and 2nd rounder. Joe Staley arrived at CMU as a TE. Kelly immediately moved him to OT. Staley became a star and the Niners took him in the 1st round of the 2007 draft. Kelly didn’t recruit these players, but he developed them. Kelly did recruit a 6-5, 240 TE named JJ Watt, but never did get to coach him.
Kelly showed here that he had the ability to identify where players fit and also to push them from being good to being great. In his first season under Kelly, DE Dan Bazuin led the nation in sacks with 16 and TFLs with 26.5. Bazuin had 9 sacks after his first 2 seasons. He had talent, but Kelly was able to drive him to become a star college player and 2nd round pick.
In 2007 Kelly moved to the University of Cincinnati. Mark D’Antonio had done a solid job with the program before heading to Michigan State. Cincy was 8-5 in 2006. In Kelly’s first year, the Bearcats went 10-3. Let’s again try to put the numbers into perspective. Cincy had not been an elite program since the days of Sid Gillman in the 1950’s. They went over 50 years between 10-win seasons. Kelly did it each season, going 10-3, 11-3, and 12-0.
Kelly’s spread offense delivered big numbers at a school that was known more for defense than offense. By 2009 Cincy was 11th in yards and 4th in points in the nation. Kelly was getting the most out of his players. Kelly developed Mardy Gilyard into a star WR. QB Tony Pike went from 5th on the depth chart to being an NFL draft pick. Kelly took TE Connor Barwin and shifted him to DE. In only one season at DE, Barwin had 11 sacks and finished 16th in the nation. He was drafted in the 2nd round. Jason Kelce was shifted from LB to OL and became an impact player and NFL starter. Kelly recruited players like DT Derek Wolfe, RB Isaiah Pead, DT John Hughes, TE Travis Kelce, and DE Walter Stewart.
Kelly told his Cincy players they would win a Big East title the very first time he spoke to them. Several snickered. Cincy went 17-4 in Big East games and won 2 league titles in his 3 years. Kelly set the bar high and drove his players toward that goal.
Notre Dame hired Kelly prior to the 2010 season. The Irish had gone 13-12 in Charlie Weis’s final 2 years. They went 8-5 in Kelly’s first year and with a couple of breaks could have won 10 games. Kelly’s reputation is on offense, but ND’s biggest jump with him came on defense. They were 86th in Weis’s final season. That went to 50, then 30, and all the way up to 5th in yards allowed in 2012.
Player development was once again part of Kelly’s impact. LB/S tweener Harrison Smith moved full-time to Safety and became a 1st round pick. WR Michael Floyd was pushed and prodded and played his way to being a 1st rounder. Manti Teo was a good LB in 2011. He lost weight and worked hard on his cover skills. He had a great Senior season. TE Tyler Eifert has developed into an elite player. The defense has several young guys who have a chance to be big time stars.
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Brian Kelly isn’t loved by all. You don’t change jobs the way he has without hurting some feelings. You don’t push players as hard as he does without bruising some egos. He might be even harder on his coaches than he is his players.
Kelly is very driven. He pushes everyone around him. Some people don’t care for this, but the majority of his players buy into Kelly’s ideas. One of the big reasons is the Kelly is a great communicator and motivator. One of his former players remarked that Kelly “could sell water to a whale”. This ties into Kelly’s political background. He did some work in politics before getting into coaching and learned a lot of valuable lessons. He knows how to press the flesh and hit the streets to talk to the public. Kelly understands the importance of getting your message out there.
When Kelly got to Cincinnati, the school had poor facilities and limited fan support. Kelly knew he had to get to work off the field. “I realized at the beginning that I had to be at every chicken dinner, at every bar, at every community-service event, so the city could see the passion that I had for the program,” says Kelly. “That was the way to build support for it—that and winning games.”
He can sell his ideas to his players. He can sell his team/program to the public. It’s all about getting people to do what you need them do. Kelly the coach is also Kelly the salesman and Kelly the politician. X’s and O’s only go so far. You must be able to motivate and communicate. You must be able to lead.
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Kelly is a leader. This has been evident from almost the beginning.
“Mike Kovalchik did two tours in Vietnam. Marines. Recon. Boots on the ground. He was a first lieutenant, a kid in charge of kids.
“There are certain things I can’t talk about,” he said of his time in Vietnam.
But Vietnam taught him an important lesson: A leader is a leader; age doesn’t matter.
Kovalchik left the military after 6 1/2 years and became athletic director at Grand Valley State, a small college on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. In 1991, Kovalchik was hiring a new football coach.
About 75 people applied. Many applicants had several years of head coaching experience. Bo Schembechler called him, trying to promote some of the young coaches at Michigan. And Ara Parseghian did the same thing for Notre Dame assistant coaches.
But Kovalchik trusted his gut and hired a young guy already on staff — Brian Kelly, a smart, intense, charismatic Irish Catholic, who was only 28 and had no head coaching experience.
It was a bold, risky decision. But age didn’t matter. Not to Kovalchik. A leader is a leader, whether it is on a battlefield or a football field.”
Tim Selgo was an Associate AD at Toledo and worked with coaches Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel. Selgo became the AD at GVSU and met Kelly in 1996. You could say he was impressed.
“I remember when I first met Brian and started talking to him — and keep in mind I was 38 years old at the time and Brian was 34 — I remember thinking to myself, ‘This guy is every bit as smart as Saban and Pinkel.’ I really thought if we could get a couple of things done with our facilities, we could really get it going.”
Selgo got Kelly to start doing fundraising. That led to better facilities. That helped lead to the national titles. GVSU hasn’t been the same school since. Enrollment has doubled and it has grown tremendously in the last 15 years.
Administrators see Kelly’s leadership qualities. Players and coaches see them as well. Kelly’s forceful personality isn’t for all, but you cannot ignore the results, on and off the field.
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This is all great, but would Kelly succeed in the NFL? He does have many of the qualities that you want. He was able to build and rebuild programs. That kind of success at multiple stops shows you that he has systems that work. This isn’t luck. This isn’t all about the players. This is Kelly’s coaching style and methods.
He’s able to let players know what is expected of them in a way they understand. He’s able to get them to buy into his ideas on what it takes to be part of a team. Kelly convinces the players that they can do great things if they will just listen to him and work together.
Kelly is adaptable, both schematically and to his environment. He loved to throw the ball all over the field in the past, but injuries at Cincy forced him to alter his attack one year. I already covered the time at GVSU when he put in the wishbone attack for a game. ND won with the running game and defense in 2012. He’s done it all.
As for environment, Kelly thrived at a D2 school, a MAC school, and Big East school, and friggin’ Notre Dame. He did whatever was needed at each stop. He was able to create fan support at Cincy by being active in the community (and winning). Kelly didn’t have to sell Notre Dame. There, he simply had to live up to huge expectations on the field.
Maybe my favorite trait is Kelly’s ability to turn good into great. This absolutely is something that applies to the NFL. Think about the 2012 Eagles and how many underachievers there were. Kelly would change that. Not everyone would respond, but more than a few would. Kelly sells the player on the idea that he must push himself to be the best player he can. For some reason, guys buy into this. It somewhat ties into an old Bill Parcells axiom: don’t let good enough be good enough. Always go for great.
I really believe that the inability to work psychological angles and push buttons hurt player development for the Eagles in recent years. Andy Reid seemed to treat his players in a trusting, respectful way. Kelly would be much more demanding. He would be confrontational. He would turn off some players, but if he just connected with a few guys, it would be huge. The Eagles had many good and very good players under Andy Reid, but few great ones.
Kelly has put together good coaching staffs over the years. His former assistant Butch Jones succeeded him at CMU and then Cincy. Butch is now the coach at Tennessee. Charley Molnar is now the HC at UMass. Chuck Martin took over GVSU when Kelly left and kept the program at a high level. Current DC Bob Diaco is a hot coaching candidate. Kelly doesn’t have NFL guys working for him, but he clearly understands the importance of a good staff. He’s made some great hires over the years.
I don’t know what Kelly would do in the NFL in terms of schemes. He’s used both a 4-3 and 3-4 defense. He loves the spread offense, but would not use that system in the NFL. Kelly would adapt to his environment. There would be some elements, but he’d update the scheme for the NFL. I’m sure Kelly would hire plenty of NFL guys so that he could successfully make the transition to the pros. Kelly is obsessed with success. He’s not going to stubbornly do something that won’t work or isn’t working.
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I still have mixed feelings about Kelly. His lack of NFL experience or ties is a legit concern. I was surprised to find out how much Brian is like Chip Kelly. Both have small school backgrounds. Both know offense and defense. Both love to spread you out and attack mistmatches. Both Kellys are very driven and very successful.
Brian Kelly did grow on me the more that I read about him. He didn’t just win at 4 schools. He did so in a methodical way. That means you can repeat that success at other times and in other places.
I do question how Kelly would do with working with highly paid staff members and star athletes. You need him to be tough and to push buttons, but he would have to do so in a way that wasn’t over the top. He’s been very over the top in the past and is working to try and dial down that part of his gameday demeanor.
Jeff Lurie said the number one thing he wanted was a leader. Brian Kelly is absolutely a leader. Kelly would need to sell Lurie and Roseman that he can adapt to pro football and win in the NFL. If he does that in the follow-up interview, watch out world. In a year when there isn’t a compelling “must have” candidate, Kelly is definitely someone to watch.
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