SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - Brian Kelly appears to be the coach with all the right answers.
Nearly every decision he’s made this season has seemed to work out, from picking Everett Golson as starting quarterback to having Tommy Rees replace him at key times. Kelly has led Notre Dame from unranked to the brink of what could be one of the best chapters in the storied program’s history as the top-ranked Irish (11-0) prepare to face Southern California (7-4) on Saturday.
So he took a steep pay cut to become a graduate assistant. That set him on the road to becoming the head coach who may be on the verge of proving himself a worthy successor to Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.
“I’m not surprised at all by what he’s done,” said Curt Anes, who played quarterback for Kelly when Grand Valley State won the Division II national championship in 2002. “It’s the nature of who he is. He’s such a leader. He’s tenacious in what he does. He’s just really doggone good at it.”
Kelly always dreamed big. He remembers applying for a graduate assistant job at Southern Connecticut State and being asked during the interview where he saw himself in five years. He said he wanted to be a head coach.
“They obviously thought, `This kid just doesn’t get it,’” Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Kelly started coaching on a part-time basis a few years earlier. He was the defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Assumption while working as an aide to a Massachusetts state senator and for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1984. He was earning more than $25,000 a year, but missed football.
Former teammate Dave Conroy describes Kelly as “Assumption’s Manti Te’o,” saying as a player Kelly was the vocal leader who pushed those around him to be better. He remembers Kelly, a two-time captain, exhorting his teammates not to give up in the second half of the final game of the season in a 43-2 loss to Worcester State.
“He’s in the huddle. He had eye black on. He has tears streaming down his face, and he’s screaming at us, `Play with pride! Play with pride! Don’t stop!’” Conroy said.
Kelly, who set a then school record with 314 career tackles, loved football so much he worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift on campus security so his job wouldn’t interfere with practice. It was that passion that led him to quit his job in politics and accept the graduate assistant’s job at Grand Valley State, where he was paid $460 every two weeks.
Kelly got some breaks along the way. After two years as a Grand Valley graduate assistant, the defensive coordinator left and he was offered the job. Kelly became head coach in 1991 after Tom Beck was hired by Holtz as an assistant at Notre Dame.
“If there’s a chapter to the start of my career, it’s when I was presented with an opportunity, I took advantage of it,” Kelly said.
Kelly was doing well at Grand Valley State, regularly winning eight or nine games, but thought he needed something to push the Lakers to the national level. He heard about the spread offense Louisiana Tech was running and went down there to learn it.