Luck of the Irish — for Kelly and Notre Dame
(MCT) — In the winter of 1991, Notre Dame needed a new running backs coach. George Kelly, a former Irish football assistant turned school administrator, knew that coach Lou Holtz wanted someone who could recruit Chicago. His first thought was Tom Beck, with whom he occasionally shared coffee, a head coach then thriving with a crackling offense at Grand Valley State.
Holtz did not make calls. He didn’t sit with recruits unless the deal was closed, and he didn’t call coaching candidates to gauge interest. So Kelly called Beck, and Beck drove to South Bend, Ind., for an audience in Holtz’s office.
There, Holtz quizzed him on the counter option, about whether Beck would run it to the split-end side or the tight-end side, and why it was important to pre-empt back-side pursuit. They discussed Beck’s formidable goal-line offense, borrowed from Woody Hayes.
For Beck, previous Division I interviews hit a snag on his lack of experience at that level. A year earlier, Toledo had told him to meet the board and bring his wife, and then it hired an up-and-comer named Nick Saban. Beck thought Holtz offered a way to get where he wanted to go.
This was how Notre Dame hired Tom Beck to coach running backs in February 1991.
That created an opening at Grand Valley State. From a young, loyal staff, Beck recommended any of three individuals to succeed him. One was Brian VanGorder, later a Broyles Award winner for Georgia. One was Jeff Quinn, later the head coach at Buffalo.
The other was a skinny, organized, energized 28-year-old named Brian Kelly.
No team ever has reached the national title game without at least a little serendipity, and few programs have enjoyed as much enchantment as Notre Dame, so here we are again: The Irish hired a coach two decades ago and indirectly ignited the career for the man who would lead the program to the brink of a long-sought championship this season.
“I did not know Lou Holtz at all at the time, but when I saw Lou in Orlando (for the college football awards show), he reminded me that he started my career,” Kelly said Saturday. “Of course, that’s Lou. He didn’t know me, but he got my career started.
“But I got a chance to think about that one time that was brought up. I see it more as it’s only 90 minutes away. To have your career be within five or six hours — Cincinnati, Central Michigan, Grand Valley and Notre Dame — I think that has been pretty neat.”
The 199 career victories and two Division II championships and multiple coach-of-the-year awards suggest, retroactively, that not all of this was left to chance. Brian Kelly probably would have wended his way to the forefront eventually, even if coaching Notre Dame against Alabama in the BCS title game Jan. 7 could not be preordained.
But everyone starts somewhere. Kelly started by working for a man Notre Dame would hire, and his path opened wide from there. It began with an advertisement in an NCAA publication about a graduate assistant opening at Grand Valley State. Someone at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., saw it and thought Kelly would be a fit.
A call went to Frank Pergolizzi, the Grand Valley State defensive coordinator, and a resume followed. Beck said bring Kelly in.
“He came out on his own dime,” Beck said. “I don’t even remember how he came out, if he drove in or flew to Grand Rapids or what. But he got there.”
And he stayed.
“Everybody has flaws,” Beck said. “But as long as you’re sincere and honest with me, that’s the most important thing. Brian was enthusiastic, you could see he was intelligent. There was just no question I was going to hire him.”
When Beck left four years later, the question was whether Grand Valley State athletic director Mike Kovalchik would promote a promising but untried 20-something defensive coordinator.
Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler had called to offer recommendations. Kelly had little experience, but he could recruit. He had the force of personality. One of the internal candidates Kovalchik considered, he said, was a course short of a degree. The staff and team were solid, and Kovalchik figured a head coach could develop from there.
“I have to say, it was a real gamble,” Kovalchik said. “If it was the other way around, if it was an inexperienced staff or an inexperienced group of kids, it would have been a different story. But it worked out well, obviously.”
When Kovalchik laid out his argument for hiring Kelly to Arrend D. Lubbers, the school president seemed surprised and skeptical but told Kovalchik to go with it. So Kovalchik called down to Kelly’s office and asked the young coach to take a walk with him.
There was a rotunda in Grand Valley State’s field house where the school’s Hall of Fame plaques hung. Kovalchik stopped there and asked Kelly if he wanted to be the school’s next coach.
Kelly smiled. Let’s get to work, he said.
Kelly began with big ideas stuffed into a small place, a sort of idealism that is the current that carries you to a place like Notre Dame.
When he was hiring Keith Gilmore for his first Grand Valley State staff, Kelly didn’t need to do much selling. Gilmore, then at Northern Michigan, was going to say yes. But in a spartan head coach’s office, Kelly talked about family and life and a shared imagination.
“He just said we were going to do great things,” said Gilmore, who coached with Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati and now is Illinois’ defensive line coach. “We were going to win a lot of football games. We were going to make this the best job in the country.
“It’s no surprise. He has had the same philosophy, he just has had more resources and opportunities as the years have passed. This is par for the course in my mind.”
The big thoughts kept coming. In 1996, Kelly and new athletic director Tim Selgo drove to Detroit for an alumni function. Five hours in a Chevy Impala provided time to merge their visions.
The program needed a new weight room — the entire campus shared the only one at Grand Valley State — and a new locker room. They needed to schedule notable Division II programs like UC Davis and South Dakota State fearlessly to set their own bar.
“This is one thing I think he’s better at than any of them out there: He can really see the big picture better than most football coaches,” Selgo said. “That’s why I think he’s the perfect guy at Notre Dame. There is a bigger picture at Notre Dame, and he fully embraces that.”
In 2002, Grand Valley State won its first Division II championship. Kelly spoke to Bowling Green and Montana about head coaching vacancies. He passed. In 2003, Grand Valley State won it all again. Kelly talked to Eastern Michigan about its gig. Kelly turned it down.
While colleagues told Kelly he couldn’t keep refusing jobs, Selgo encouraged patience. Better opportunities will come, he advised.
Three weeks later, Central Michigan, a program with a decent winning tradition down the road, offered Kelly its coaching job. Three years later he was at Cincinnati. On Dec. 10, 2009, he became the 29th coach at Notre Dame.
“I remember telling him my first hope was that he and I could retire together at Grand Valley,” Selgo said. “But I understood. He was ready to move on to coach at the next level. He certainly did that, and he has done it extremely well.”
Coincidences and breaks merged with standard coaching determination and exceptional talent to bring Kelly to Notre Dame, to the most serendipitous spot of all: a chance at a national title in an Irish coach’s third year on the job.
Frank Leahy, Parseghian, Dan Devine and Holtz all won championships in Year 3. Add Knute Rockne, and the third-year record of that quintet is 50-2-1. They all have statues outside of Notre Dame Stadium.
“Why the third year?” Holtz said. “By that time you’re comfortable with it, the players have bought into your system, you have been able to recruit for your system, and you have been able to build a camaraderie and a trust. That isn’t there immediately when you go anywhere.
“These are some of the things that you learn as you go there — boy, the demands and the expectations, and all of a sudden you feel you have to be special. And you don’t. Just be yourself. And by the third year you start to feel that.”
The most consequential twist is Kelly coming to Notre Dame when Notre Dame couldn’t afford for Kelly to lose. No, it couldn’t stand for Bob Davie and Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis increasingly aggravating a quarter-century of agony either.
But a place reaches a maximum pain threshold when a coach carrying a championship pedigree and apposite personality enjoys the resources and cooperation, on every level, to achieve what his predecessors could not. So what began with Notre Dame hiring a running backs coach 21 years ago crescendos with Kelly coaching for a championship Jan. 7.
The rest seems left to him.