His father Paul was a Boston alderman and Kelly caught the political bug early.
As Kelly told Niall O’Dowd who interviewed him for our sister publication Irish America magazine, “Dad comes to all the games. He’s a bit of a celebrity. He’s on TV all the time. He’s a Notre Dame [fan] – it was all Notre Dame [growing up].
“He was a big influence. I think you are who you are based upon your life experience. He grew up as an Irish Catholic in Boston, going to church and being part of the community, and all the things that he was taught growing up were passed on to me and now to my family and that was that the church was important, community service was important, and we all played sports and were involved in athletics.
Football was originally Kelly’s second choice he told Irish America, “Actually, when I graduated college I went to work in the State House of Boston and worked for a state senator. Gary Hart was running for president and the state senator that I worked for in Massachusetts endorsed Gary Hart. So he lent me to his campaign.
“After that campaign ended, I wanted to go back to the thing that I wanted to do all along, which was coach. I probably wasn’t courageous enough to say it at the time [I graduated], which was “[I’m sorry] that you used all this money to send me to school and I want to be a football coach.” Didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time. So I went into politics for a couple of years, I enjoyed it, it was a great experience but it wasn’t what I was passionate about.
As for his Irish roots, Kelly has traced them closely. “My great-grandparents were from Ireland. My grandfather was a Boston cop for 35 years, and my first introduction to Irish culture was talking to him about the where the term Paddy Wagon came from.
“We lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which was a naval pier town where all the Navy guys would come in and they’d have some beers and then the police would be called in to round them up. They [the police] drove an open-air police truck and it was so cold at night that the guys who drove it had to have a little Irish Paddy [whiskey] to stay warm and that’s why they called it the Paddy Wagon. Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea. But it’s a good story, and that’s why I tell it.
“We have a family name that has an Irish story to it as well. My youngest son is Kenzel Kelly, and we got that from my great-grandparents. When they came over from Ireland and they were traveling through downtown New York as the Passion Play [depicting the passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death] was being put on. It was directed by a Father Kenzel and they liked that name. So my grandfather was [christened] Kenzel and my dad is Paul Kenzel and the last chance at keeping a Kenzel in the family was when my youngest boy was born; my dad bribed my wife, who wasn’t a big Kenzel fan, and said, listen, if you go with Kenzel and keep the name alive, you get the house on the Cape. So the name Kenzel is still alive.
As for what his Irish American upbringing taught him, Kelly says,
“I would probably say relationship building, how important it is, trust, and also knowing how to work with the media. I was working with the media on a day-to-day basis. So I think it helped me at an early age to work with the media and reach out as best we could to build good relationships.”
Now he has led the team from unranked to the BCS National Championship game. It ties in with what he said in the interview with Irish America, pointing to a painting of faceless workingmen on his wall, which is his favorite.
“You can see they’re Irish…I look at that [and I see] the Irish immigrants who came over and lost their lives and dug the canals. When I first saw it I said, “I’ve got to have that picture.” It also is about where we want to bring our football team – back to its Fighting Irish roots. Back to faceless and nameless. It’s not about superstars but about a team, about trust and commitment and all the things I was taught growing up from my family, from my Irish Catholic roots, and we’re trying to bring Notre Dame back to that, and that’s kind of the full circle here.
“That’s the job and the process. When you’ve been in it and it’s ingrained in you and you know where you want to go with it, you don’t get derailed too easily.”
His success has not surprised many of his closest associates.”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, told the Associated Press.
“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 played football in Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. His love for the game led him to quit politics and accept a graduate assistant's job at Grand Valley State where he was paid $460 every two weeks.
After two years as a Grand Valley graduate assistant, the defensive coordinator left and Kelly 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.
Working at a small school forced him to learn every aspect of the 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 believes Kelly makes a good coach because 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,” said Kearly.
When Kelly got to Notre Dame, he believed 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.
Notre Dame now are sixth in the nation in total defense.
“I think the one word I've used is consistency in approach,” said Kelly.
“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.”