Don’t look now, Brian Kelly, but you are being followed. No matter where you go, which program you build, which team you coach, or which players you recruit, it seems like success follows you. If Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is smart, he will invite you – and your fortuitous shadow – to South Bend.
There are many reasons why Brian Kelly makes sense as a head coach for Notre Dame. Irish? Check. Catholic? Check. While neither of those traits are considered mandatory at Notre Dame (Ara Parseghian was Presbyterian), they sure make a decision easy for Swarbrick and company.
More than any conceivable ancillary trait, Kelly has a career full of success. It’s hard to think of a better indicator of future success than past success.
Brian Kelly joined the staff of little known Division II school Grand Valley State in 1987 as a graduate assistant. In two short years he moved his way up to defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. Two short years after that Kelly became the team’s head coach. In 13 seasons as head coach Kelly led the team to five conference titles and six playoff appearances, won two national championships and two coach of the year awards in Division II. In the final three seasons as head coach Kelly’s team only lost two games. Two. Games. Total.
After leaving Grand Valley (a school in Michigan), Kelly took the reins of Central Michigan University. When Kelly arrived the team averages just three wins per season for the previous four seasons. Kelly’s stint as head coach began with a four win season, then a six win season. During the offseason after the six win season Kelly recruited a quarterback named Dan LeFevour. LeFevour quickly won over his teammates as a freshman passing for well over 2,600 yards and throwing five touchdowns. LeFevour ended the 2006 season ranked fourteenth in the country in total offense, and is currently one of the top NFL quarterback prospects to enter the forthcoming 2010 NFL draft.
Kelly is currently at another Midwestern school, Cincinnati. In his first full season with the school in 2007 Kelly secured a ten win season with a bowl victory. The next season Kelly coached the Bearcats to a Big East championship and a BCS appearance in the Orange Bowl, a loss to the strong ACC champion Virginia Tech.
Kelly can coach. Kelly can also recruit quite well, especially in the Midwest. He also has some familiarity with Notre Dame. When Charlie Weis first recruited Demetrius Jones to Notre Dame it was believed that Jones would be the next great Irish quarterback. However, Jones and the head coach did not get along very well (hard to imagine it was all Jones’ fault…). Jones began the 2007 season as the starting quarterback in a loss to Georgia Tech, and so Weis replaced him. Jones demurred, but rather than fight Weis he walked in to Brian Kelly’s office and announced he wanted to play for the Bearcats. Kelly listened to the frustration Jones encountered in South Bend and gave Jones a safe place to land. Kelly convinced Jones to switch from a quarterback to a linebacker (it is tough to image Weis convincing Jones of the same thing). Jones is now an outside linebacker and working his way up the draft board.
Kelly has proven he can coach X’s and O’s and relate to players. Combine those rare traits with the Irish Catholic traits and Notre Dame and Swarbrick are staring at a no brainer decision.
The one mark – potentially – against Kelly is that he has not coached at a school with very strict academic requirements like Notre Dame. This is no small consideration, either. It is possible that coaches that do well relating to and coaching up student athletes that struggle academically will not do as well at Notre Dame given that most football player at Notre Dame are already scholastically strong. However, Kelly has displayed a history of recruiting and coaching smart players, especially at quarterback.
Is Brian Kelly, a coach that has never won a BCS game, ready for the prime time spotlight and unending scrutiny of coaching at Notre Dame? Perhaps not… but is any coach ready? Is it possible to properly prepare for a job like Notre Dame? No. The only preparation a coach can make is to build a successful career. Kelly has done that. More, he has run three successful programs, one for many, many years. As risky coaching hires go, Kelly is low risk. If Urban Meyer fails to win a championship in three seasons at Notre Dame it will be reported that he has lost his touch. If Bob Stoops fails it will be because he lost his touch years ago and Oklahoma fans will be breathing a sigh of relief. Kelly has nothing but upside and potential. Oh, and that success, too.