The essence of Brian Kelly is not his keen intelligence or football acumen. Guys like Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer have far greater football IQ’s. No, what Coach Kelly possesses is far more rare and admirable.
With Coach Kelly, it is all about the perseverance of a man who has worked his way up from a completely unknown Division II graduate assistant to being the celebrated Head Coach of a team playing for The College National Championship. It is the confidence of a man who has learned to succeed by doing what he thinks is the best thing for himself and his football team, regardless of what others think. It is the veneer of hard fought self confidence, undeniable will, and a fierce desire to lead which defines the things he does and illuminates all that he has accomplished.
Going from a Division II head coach to become a successful coach at Notre Dame (and can any of us really deny that he has been successful so far?) is impressive enough; but let us for a moment consider the work he put in just to reach that humble “starting point.”
“This isn’t about the glory on a Saturday, it is about helping the kids.” Brian Kelly, 1991
It was March 22, 1991, and a thin, twenty-nine year old Brian Kelly had earned the job of Head Football Coach at Grand Valley State just four years after coming in as a graduate assistant. Consider how quickly he rose up: his rise at Grand Valley State would be akin to Scott Booker ending up the Head Coach at Notre Dame in 2016 (albeit at a much lower level). Still, as impressive as that rise was, it was just a natural progression from what came before and a ramping up to the meteoric rise to glory that followed.
Consider what Brian Kelly had already accomplished by 1991. Coming out of St. John’s Prep high school as a 5’10”, 185 pound nose guard and offensive guard who played very little until his final year, Kelly did not exactly have the measurables to be considered a “power player” much less the skills to be recruited as a “big skill player.” No one came calling, no college football scholarships were offered, and so Kelly joined the club team (funded by student government) of tiny Assumption College.
Now the race begins. Ready, set, go…
At Assumption, Kelly’s work ethic, leadership skills, and careful planning earned him the starting linebacker spot almost immediately, made him a four year letter winner, and ended with the honor of being a two-time captain who led his team in tackles those final seasons.
Graduating from being a player, Kelly was awarded the job of Linebackers’ Coach at Assumption, then Defensive Coordinator, while juggling the role as the Head Coach of the softball team. While “moving up” to Division II as a graduate assistant at Grand Valley State in the fall of 1987, Kelly did not waste his summer. Referred by Jay Toporoff, who worked in the Assumption College residential life office, as the “only one for the job,” Kelly became the head counselor for Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, a nearly 100% Jewish sports camp in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Incidentally, one of the eleven year old campers he mentored that summer was Jedd Fisch, the current Offensive Coordinator of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news…hs-jewish-past ).
So now, fresh from camp, we have arrived at Division II Grand Valley State. As a graduate assistant. Coming in from a school that played club football. And yet by that time, as we’ve seen, Kelly had already made tremendous strides; and he would continue to make incredible progress, moving from Graduate Assistant to Defensive and Recruiting Coordinator two years later, and then Head Football Coach two years after that.
Most of us know the rest of the story, two National Championships at GVSU, setting the Division II all-time scoring record, going 118-35-2, and then moving up to Division I MAC school Central Michigan. But let us stop here a moment, and gaze back at the photo, and more importantly, the picture we have painted of Coach Kelly.
Middling high school athlete, club team captain, tiny club school coach, summer counselor, Division II graduate assistant, Division II assistant coach, Division II head coach… Can you sense how determined and hard working Kelly was for those first 12 years of his life as an adult? Do you still doubt him?
Go Irish. Go Coach Kelly.