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Bend in road

Irish coach Kelly returns to his roots with dream job

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / October 1, 2010

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Amid a boisterous bunch of blue jerseys, gold helmets, and college kids, 72-year-old Paul Kelly finally found whom he was looking for. Instinctively, he reached for his son.

Paul Kelly was near the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, where his son, Brian, was minutes away from his first game as the head coach of the Fighting Irish. The season-opening game against Purdue was the culmination of a coaching odyssey that has taken the 48-year-old from Massachusetts to the Midwest. On this day, though, the father sensed something was different. The fast-talking former politician had never seen his smooth-talking son at a loss for words.

“I grabbed him and I said, ‘Brian! Brian!’ and when he looked at me, it was just pure emotion at that point. Neither one of us could talk,’’ Paul Kelly said. “I assumed the dad role: I can’t cry now because he’s going to cry. So finally he said to me, ‘Let’s go play the game!’ and he walked away.

“It was a fabulous moment, one that I’ll never forget.’’

Asked about the scene a week later while sitting in his spacious corner office in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex — everyone calls it “The Goog’’ — Kelly paused, then smiled.

“For a second it was, ‘Can you believe that we’re both standing here?’ Neither one of us said anything, but we looked at each other and knew that it was a pretty special moment,’’ Kelly said. “It was that unspoken time where a son and a dad connect.’’

The next moment could come tomorrow night, when Notre Dame visits Chestnut Hill for its annual game with Boston College. His team might come in limping — since beating Purdue, the Irish have lost to Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford — but Kelly, returning to his roots, will be walking proudly. Born in Everett, raised in Chelsea, he’s worked his way up through multiple successful stops to land one of the most prestigious jobs in college football. An Irish-Catholic from Boston becoming the head football coach at Notre Dame? Most people don’t even dare of dreaming that high.

Kelly’s not only living it, he’s totally immersed in it. The 1-3 record doesn’t excite fans, but Kelly, since taking over for Charlie Weis last December, has come in and quickly set an enthusiastic, encompassing tone, one that has focused on fundamentals and work ethic, and devoid of entitlement.

He told his new players they weren’t as good as they thought they were. His first few practices left some of them vomiting. He promised a team that would be fun to watch and would make the university proud by always playing hard. Perhaps most importantly, he established a presence in the community, meeting with, among others, every student organization at Notre Dame (19 in all) and maintaining a frenzied meet, greet, and speak schedule across the country, at a pace that resembles his quick-strike offense when it’s clicking.

To watch Kelly — either at practice, or on the sideline during a game, or on a fall Sunday, when he’s meeting with his staff, hosting recruits, or filming his weekly coach’s show — one easily sees that he’s constantly on the go, but always in control. Demanding, yet accountable. Aggressive, and always willing to give his team the best chance to succeed, even if it means taking chances or thinking unconventionally.

“He’s always challenged his coaches, his players to think well outside the box,’’ said Jeff Quinn, who was a member of Kelly’s staff at three schools from 1991 until this year, when he became the head coach at the University of Buffalo. “He’s pushed me, at times when I didn’t want to change or look at other ways of doing things.

“One time he walked into my office and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m going to send five receivers out.’ With the quarterback throwing, that leaves five guys to block sometimes six or even seven defensive players. We had never done that before, and I told him that. He goes, ‘You better go figure it out, then.’ He understands people, he understands the plan, and he knows how to articulate that plan. Brian’s very much a big-picture guy.’’

Prepared for the journey
The picture began to take shape back in the mid-1970s, when he was a student at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, growing up in a family that would spend many a Saturday afternoon watching Notre Dame games on television. Not the biggest or fastest or best football player by the time he reached high school, Kelly instead became the most prepared.

“He knew the playbook back and forth,’’ said Brian Currie, a classmate at St. John’s Prep and one of the team’s captains their senior year. “The coaches could ask him where players were supposed to line up, even guys who didn’t play his position, and he knew. At that age, pretty much all anyone cares about is his own position and looking at the cheerleaders. He was a real student of the game. Meticulous, always looked like a football player, and he prepared like one.’’

After finally becoming a starter as a senior (he was an undersized offensive guard and linebacker) and helping St. John’s Prep to a 7-2 record in 1978, Kelly enrolled at Assumption College in Worcester, where he was a four-year linebacker and a team captain as a junior and senior. Despite dabbling in politics — his father was a longtime alderman in Chelsea, briefly its acting mayor, and Kelly himself worked on Gary Hart’s ill-fated 1984 presidential campaign — he knew that coaching is what his future held.

Coincidentally, Notre Dame played a key role in Kelly first becoming a head football coach. He spent a few years at Assumption following his 1983 graduation, holding the unlikely job of coaching linebackers and softball, then jumped at the chance to join the staff at Grand Valley State, a Division 2 school in Allendale, Mich. He became Grand Valley’s head coach in 1991 when Tom Beck, the man who hired him four years before, accepted Lou Holtz’s job offer for a running backs coach and left for South Bend.

If there’s a blueprint for Kelly’s coaching success, the foundation was poured in Allendale. In 13 years as Grand Valley’s head coach, Kelly won 76 percent of his games (118-35-2) and back-to-back national championships, in 2002-03. It’s where he also met his wife, Paqui; the couple has three children, ranging from 9 to 13.

“People always ask me, ‘What’s he like at home?’ ’’ Paqui said. “He really isn’t a whole lot different. The job is seemingly 24/7, but at the same time, he wants to be around his kids, so he takes his opportunities when he can get them.’’

Asked if her husband is as driven to succeed as he seems to come across, Paqui said, “Well, yeah. They laughed at him a little bit when he said he’s going for championships.’’

Two more schools — and three more conference championships — followed once Kelly put Grand Valley State in the rearview mirror, first at Central Michigan, then at Cincinnati. He had the Chippewas in the Motor City Bowl in his third season, but by the time the bowl game was played, had already left for southwestern Ohio.

Call from South Bend
In three full seasons with the Bearcats, Kelly took the program to previously unimaginable heights. Cincinnati, which fielded its first football team in 1885, had one 10-win season to its credit when Kelly showed up in December 2006. He left after guiding the Bearcats to records of 10-3, 11-3, and 12-0. His last two teams won the Big East Conference and advanced to BCS bowl games. Kelly was named a national coach of the year in 2009, and the conference coach of the year all three seasons.

With a record of 34-6 at Cincinnati, bigger schools with higher salaries, larger stadiums, and more history and prestige began calling. Most he ignored, saying his family liked Cincinnati and the job was giving him the ability to compete for titles at the BCS level.

But when Notre Dame called, offering the job he most coveted, he listened. And ultimately bolted, leaving behind a wounded team upset at the timing of his decision: Word that Kelly had accepted the position came the night of Cincinnati’s team banquet, with the Bearcats celebrating an undefeated regular season and spot in the Sugar Bowl. He was introduced as the next Irish coach a day later.

“I’ve never really been much about daydreaming, whether it’s the next job or the current situation that I’m in,’’ Kelly said. “But Notre Dame is a little bit different.’’

Arriving in South Bend Dec. 11, 2009, Kelly found a fractured fan base, frustrated with a football program that closed a 6-6 season with four straight losses and no bowl, and skepticism from some returning players, all of whom had been recruited by Weis and the previous staff.

Not all the players were skeptical.

“Being from Cincinnati, I saw everything he did there, saw what he did with his players, talked to a few of the guys who played there,’’ said Notre Dame junior tight end Kyle Rudolph, whom Kelly recruited when he was a two-sport star at Elder High School. “I liked him as a person and liked him as a coach. He’s always been a winner. I was able to get the word around to all the guys about what kind of coach we had coming in here.’’

Anyone walking around Notre Dame Stadium will see statues of some of the greatest coaches in college football history, four men who have guided the Irish to 10 of their 11 national championships. Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz.

The school’s coaching fraternity is a tight-knit group, and when Kelly got the job, he didn’t need to reach out to any former coaches to see what he was in for. They reached out to him. All have offered advice (from Holtz: “Don’t be afraid to say no, because you’ve got to coach a football team’’; from Parseghian: “Notre Dame’s football team should be able to overcome adversity at any time, because that’s what those that follow Notre Dame expect in their own life’’).

In Weis’s final three seasons, Notre Dame went 16-21, so Kelly, once again, is faced with the task of changing a culture of losing. He’s accomplished that in the past by implementing what he likes to call a five-minute plan, instead of a five-year plan. As Quinn, who knows Kelly better than most, described it: “Do the little things the right way right now.’’

Kelly, no matter the setting, has been able to get his coaches and players to fall for his sales pitch. A proven track record of winning seasons brings with it a certain amount of respect. Confidence and motivation and superior oratory skills don’t hurt, either.

“I think we’ve all bought in,’’ said Ian Williams, a senior nose guard. “That first time he talked to us, I remember looking around and seeing guys shake their heads in agreement. When you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, there are certain things you can say to get them fired up. Coach Kelly just knows that right level.’’

‘The right guy wins here’
A month into the season, it hasn’t been easy. He’s lost as many games the past 20 days as he did the previous two seasons combined. Unapologetic in his style, which can include a spirited, expletive-filled dressing-down during practice or games, Kelly hopes that what’s worked for him in the past will be good enough at Notre Dame.

“At the end of the day, I’m trying to get the best out of them,’’ Kelly said. “That area that they can’t get to, I’m trying to get them to that area, where it’s uncomfortable for them. That’s what I’ve tried to do as a coach.’’

The job he likens to a daily wedding reception — “You always have to be on your best, because there’s so much going on around this program’’ — isn’t much different, for a few days during the week and four hours every Saturday, than the one he had at Grand Valley State. The path that took him to South Bend, starting in Chelsea, and winding through Danvers and Worcester, helped prepare him for everything else that comes with leading one of college football’s crown jewels.

“The journey for me, from Chelsea to Notre Dame, has been about getting an opportunity to be exposed to so many different things,’’ Kelly said. “Being with so many different types of people, from blue collar to elite, all the different kinds of people I went to school with at St. John’s Prep and then Assumption, I think that helps you recognize different people and personalities.

“The right guy wins here. I’m a college football coach, and I understand the importance of the balance between the game and being a student. Being a knucklehead teenager, the band, the cheerleaders, the pageantry, the community, all those things. I’ve lived it. It’s been my life.’’

Tomorrow night at Alumni Stadium, a few miles from where he raised his family, Paul Kelly will be back near his old home. Retired now, and living in South Bend for the fall, he might even reflect on the career choice Brian has made, and chuckle.

“I had some doubts along the way,’’ Paul Kelly said. “Was this the right thing for him to be doing?

“He proved me wrong. He went out and did it, so I don’t doubt him anymore.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com.

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