Kelly will try to wake up Irish echoes
Published 2:39 am Friday, December 11, 2009
CINCINNATI — Notre Dame has settled on Brian Kelly as the man who can restore its faded glory, just as he turned Cincinnati into a national title contender.
Just 10 days after Charlie Weis was fired, it’s up to Kelly to revive the fortunes of a team that just completed the worst decade of football in the history of the storied program with a 70-52 record and three losing seasons.
Kelly got a five-year deal from Notre Dame and will be introduced as coach in South Bend on Friday afternoon. He declined to comment in Cincinnati, where he informed his players of the move after their football banquet Thursday night. He won’t coach them in the Sugar Bowl.
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“I am very pleased that a thorough and extensive search has led us to a new head coach in Brian Kelly, who I am confident will help us accomplish our goal of competing for national championships,” Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement.
The news didn’t play well with Kelly’s current team. Bearcat players were led into a meeting room, where Kelly told them he was leaving and thanked them for making his opportunity possible. One minute into the meeting, the door opened and receiver Mardy Gilyard walked out angry and alone, save his MVP trophy.
“He went for the money,” Gilyard told The Associated Press. “I’m fairly disgusted with the situation, that they let it last this long.”
Players weren’t told of Kelly’s decision until the banquet ended, nearly three hours after the news first broke. A few blinked back tears as they left.
“We already knew what he was going to say. We weren’t giving him a round of applause or anything,” tight end Ben Guidugli said. “It’s like somebody turned their back on us. We brought this whole thing this far. We’ve come this far. To have someone walk out now is disappointing.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn will coach the No. 4 Bearcats in their first Sugar Bowl game against Florida. Quinn has been one of Kelly’s assistants for 22 years, moving with him from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
The 47-year-old Kelly was 34-6 in three seasons at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East titles and two straight Bowl Championship Series berths. The Bearcats set a school record last season for victories with an 11-3 record, then topped that with a 12-0 mark this season.
Notre Dame has been searching for a coach for about a week and a half since firing Weis, who failed to lift the Irish out of mediocrity, much like his two predecessors.
Players had assumed from Kelly’s statements to the team last week that he was staying in Cincinnati.
“I don’t like it,” Gilyard said before the banquet. “I feel there was a little lying in the thing. I feel like he’d known this the whole time. Everybody knows Notre Dame’s got the money. I kind of had a gut feeling he was going to stay just because he told me he was going to be here.”
Quarterback Tony Pike said Kelly told them last week, before their title-clinching win over Pittsburgh, that he was happy in Cincinnati.
“The Tuesday when we were practicing for Pittsburgh, he said he loves it here and he loves this team and loves coaching here and his family loves it here,” Pike said.
Kelly has long admired Notre Dame, which seemed to be the perfect fit for an Irish Catholic coach raised in the Boston area. His name first popped up as a possible candidate last season before Notre Dame said Weis would be back for a fifth year.
When Kelly arrived in Cincinnati three years ago, then-university president Nancy Zimpher told Kelly she expected him to turn the football program into a Top 25 mainstay, win a Big East title right away and make sure his players graduate. He’ll face even higher expectations at Notre Dame.
It won’t be easy; the Irish have a 16-21 record over the past three seasons. And he’ll have to do it without two of Notre Dame’s best players.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his favorite receiver, Golden Tate, announced Monday they will bypass their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft.
Tate, speaking in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., after winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver, said he doesn’t know a lot about Kelly.
“He seems to be a guy of high character. I’m excited for him. I think he’s good for the Irish,” Tate said.
Tate said he has not had any contact with Kelly. Asked if he thought Kelly might try to persuade him to stay, Tate said he has yet to do so.
Offensive lineman Christian Lombard, a high school senior from Palatine, Ill., who has committed to play for the Irish next season, said he was excited about the hire.
“I’m really optimistic. He’s got a great track record so hopefully he’s going to get things turned around,” Lombard said. “From the time coach Weis got fired, he was the guy I wanted.”
Kelly grew up in Chelsea, Mass., and went to Assumption College, a Catholic school in Worcester where he played linebacker while getting his degree in political science. The son of an alderman, he intended to go into politics after college and he even worked on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign in the Boston area.
But football won out.
He learned how to be a head coach at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won back-to-back national titles and 32 consecutive games over one stretch. Working with a limited roster taught him how to be creative, finding a niche for each player.
He moved on to the Mid-American Conference and turned Central Michigan into a winning program in only three years. He also gained confidence in his coaching philosophies and his preference for a wide-open offense.
Kelly was criticized in September 2004 for remarks he made to the Detroit Free Press about perjury charges filed against two former Central Michigan players after other CMU players were charged with second-degree murder in the fatal beating of a man. The death happened shortly after Kelly was named Central’s coach.
“A number of them were African-Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they’re taught to look away,” Kelly said. “You don’t want anything to do with it. Get out of there. You don’t say anything to anybody.”
Then-university President Michael Rao called Kelly’s remarks “completely unacceptable” and Kelly apologized in an e-mail to students, faculty and staff. Rao then came out in support of the coach, saying he has a good heart and a record that showed a commitment to diversity.
In 2006, when Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati for Michigan State, UC decided that Kelly and his no-huddle, spread offense would bring a spark not just to the program but to the town, where college football ranked behind high school games in fan interest.
The Bearcats won 10 games his first season, set a school record with 11 wins and a Big East title the second and this season he had the high-scoring Bearcats (12-0) contending for a national title.
Gilyard said some players were angry that Kelly’s leaving just as the program had become nationally prominent.
“Just blindsided by the fact that it’s a business,” Gilyard said. “People lose sight of that. At the end of the day, NCAA football is a business. People have got to make business decisions.”