Kelly follows unusual path to lead Irish to No. 1
“I stole some of their spread ideas and then I implemented within our system and communication. That got me to start to spread the field. Then it just became addition, deletion. This works, this doesn’t work,” he said.
In 2001, the Lakers advanced to the Division II title game, leading the nation in scoring and total offense. Grand Valley State won the next two national championships. It was that offense the propelled Kelly to success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well.
Kelly said people used to ask him why he stayed at Grand Valley State so long.
“I was trying to figure it out. I didn’t have all the answers,” he said. “Even as the head coach I was taking the lowest-paying jobs at camps just to learn more about the game.”
Working at a small school forced Kelly to learn every aspect of the program, right down to overseeing the team’s laundry program.
“So I had to learn how to organize special teams. I had to understand how to take on a blitz patterns. I had to draw the cards that graduate assistants show,” he said.
Michigan Tech coach Tom Kearly knows him from the days when Kelly was at Grand Valley State and Kearly was offensive coordinator at Central Michigan and they’d trade ideas. Kearly believes what makes Kelly a good coach is he is always asking questions.
“He was always the guy to ask the question to provoke himself to get to the next step, to keep going to not ever get stagnant,” Kearly said.
When Kelly got to Notre Dame, he thought he needed to focus more on the defensive side.
“Having lived in that world of trying to outscore opponents, I felt that the best blueprint that we could put together for a national championship was through our defense,” he said.
The Irish are sixth in the nation in total defense, giving up 288 yards a game, and first in scoring defense at 10.09 as they seek to win their first national championship since 1988.
Kelly is confident the Irish are ready for prolonged excellence.
“I think the one word I’ve used is consistency in approach,” he said. “If there’s a consistency every single day where you come and have the same expectations, then you can build it for a long period of time.”