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Coach brings winning history to Notre Dame

Sam Werner | Friday, December 11, 2009

Brian Kelly comes to Notre Dame with more collegiate accolades and achievements than any other Notre Dame coach in recent history — at least in the last decade.

From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Kelly has blazed a trail of football success all the way to South Bend.

After four years playing linebacker, Kelly graduated from Assumption College in 1983. Four years later, he joined the coaching staff at Grand Valley State as a graduate assistant and defensive backs coach. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1989, and then to head coach in 1991.

Kelly led the Lakers to winning seasons in each of his 13 years at Grand Valley State, compiling a 118-35-2 overall record. In his final three seasons in Grand Rapids, the Lakers went 41-2, at one point winning 20 games in a row. Kelly’s 2001 team set a Division II record by averaging 58.4 points per game.

In 2002 and 2003, Kelly led Grand Valley State to back-to-back Division II national championships, and was named AFCA Division II Coach of the Year in both seasons.
Kelly was hired by Central Michigan in 2004, and immediately turned around a programthat had won more than three games only once in the previous four seasons.

After a 4-7 record in his first year, Kelly led the Chippewas to a 6-5 mark in 2005, Central Michigan’s first winning season in seven years.

The next year, Central Michigan went 9-4, won the MAC and qualified for the Motor City Bowl. Before Kelly could coach the team in the bowl game, though, he accepted an offer from Cincinnati to take its head coaching position.

In his first full season with the Bearcats, Kelly led the team to their first 10-win season since 1949, and was named Big East Coach of the Year.

“[Mark] Dantonio left, and everyone was kind of like, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ Are they going to go back to just mediocrity?'” Garrett Sabelhaus, Sports Editor of the Cincinnati News-Record student newspaper, said earlier this week. “Then Brian Kelly came along, picked up right where Dantonio left off and just took it to heights nobody had ever imagined could happen at UC.”

Sabelhaus said a big part of the transition was getting the team used to Kelly’s potent spread offensive scheme.

“He just installed his system over the offseason, and then the next year they started to be that machine on offense that you see now as pretty polished,” Sabelhaus said.

In 2008, Kelly led the Bearcats to their first ever Big East title and BCS berth. This year, Cincinnati is currently undefeated and will play Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Sabelhaus said that Kelly’s decision to not coach the Bearcats in arguably the biggest game in their history could irk some in the Queen City.

“I think what people might be a little concerned with, and maybe turn on B.K. a little bit, is if he leaves before the bowl game,” Sabelhaus said.

While Kelly brings a potent offensive attack to Notre Dame, Sabelhaus also said that the defense was likely to improve under the new regime.

“The thing is, [Cincinnati’s defense] is a motivated group of guys,” Sabelhaus said. “You’ve got to think that if Brian Kelly gets the kind of recruits that Notre Dame gets, he’s going to do something with them, whether it’s on offense or defense.”

Sabelhaus added that Kelly was savvy enough with the media to handle the intense spotlight in South Bend.

“The way he handles the media is almost kind of a genius way,” Sabelhaus said. “He gets everybody on his side.”

Kelly will get to face the media scrutiny right away, as a talented roster has many Irish fans hoping for a BCS berth in 2010.

“Give him a year, or not even a year,” Sabelhaus said. “I could see him taking the guys that Notre Dame will get next year and turning it into a nine or 10 win season, maybe more.”