Out of the blue Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is quitting and taking over at Louisiana State University (LSU) despite his team still having a shot at the national championship. The Fighting Irish are down to play Navy in Dublin in 2023.
The news hit like a thunderclap on the Notre Dame campus where the winningest coach in Fighting Irish football, Brian Kelly, is revered. Kelly has quit the Fighting Irish and is set to take over at LSU.
Irish American Kelly and the Fighting Irish seemed perfect matches when they came together ten years ago and so it turned out, although they never won a national championship,
Below are extracts from a Brian Kelly interview by Niall O’Dowd that took place some years ago, when revealed details of his own Irish heritage for the first time.
Niall O’Dowd writes:
Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Kelly was a linebacker at Assumption College, where he graduated with a degree in political science in 1983. His father Paul was a politician – a Boston alderman – and Kelly could have followed in his father’s footsteps, but football was his true passion and after a run at working in Democratic party politics, he was back at Assumption as a linebacker coach and defensive coordinator.
In the following years, at Valley State (1991-2003), Central Michigan University (2004-06), and University of Cincinnati (2006-09), Kelly developed a reputation for building winning teams. We began our conversation by talking about the win over Pittsburgh the day before. Despite the victory, Kelly is quick to say that the team is a work in progress.
Coach Kelly: We are in it for the long haul. We are in it to build it and sustain it for many years. So these are just short steps along the way. I knew when I got into this business – that when 18-to-21-year-olds were going to decide whether I could pay my mortgage – I already knew I was crazy. So from there it makes it easier, as long as you start with that perspective. The big picture is that you’re developing a program, and when you’re building a successful business or organization, you don’t measure it by what happens at the end of the month, you measure it by where you’re moving to over the long term, and that’s really the perspective that I have.
O’Dowd: An Irish coach and Notre Dame is a pretty good mix. What’s the heritage – how far back do you go?
Kelly: 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.
O’Dowd: Tell me about your dad.
Kelly: 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.
O’Dowd: And like your dad, I know you went to work for the Democratic Party. That’s an interesting departure for a college coach…
Kelly: Well, it didn’t start that way. 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.
O’Dowd: What did you learn from that time?
Kelly: 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.
O’Dowd: So when you started coaching, what were your initial plans?
Kelly: Just to be good at what I was doing, more than anything else. I thought I had a lot to give and the ability to communicate the game and teach it.
O’Dowd: Where did that come from?
Kelly: I think it was being in the backyard playing basketball with my brother, or going out in the street playing stickball. I think just competing. Today, everything is all planned for kids. When I played, it was just – let’s go play. And you played because you loved to play. You didn’t play for any other reason. Everything is so planned now. Sometimes, I think today, we’ve got kids just playing to play.
So I had that inside, that I was passionate about playing and loved the game and felt like if you’re passionate about something you should be able to teach it.
O’Dowd: Who were your football heroes?
Kelly: I loved watching Joe Montana when I was an Irish fan growing up. I’ve never been enamored with just one person. The great ones have always caught my attention.
O’Dowd: So when you’re coaching Notre Dame obviously it is an incredible responsibility. It is like no other job, is it?
Kelly: Well, I think if I thought about that every day I’d jump out the window. So I try to think about the process. Like I said earlier when we began the conversation about winning and losing. Obviously winning is much better than losing, but it’s a process. I focus more on the process of developing a program than on all the things that could make this overwhelming. That’s how I operate on a day-to-day basis. I’m confident in the plan and that the people that I have around me will accomplish those goals, and sometimes those goals take some time to reach.
O’Dowd: Anything surprise you so far?
Kelly: I think anytime you take over a new business or a new organization you go in there and you try to find out where the air’s coming out of the tires, so to speak. We’ve got a good idea of where it was and we’ve been able to address that. I was pretty well-schooled on the fact that there was going to be a lot outside of the game itself – whether it be the media or alumni or development, whether it be Thursday night shows, Friday luncheons, Saturday walk to the basilica, there’s so many things. I was prepared for that.
I think the surprising thing, more than anything else, was the players and some of the things that they were missing just in the game itself, and so that was a bit of a surprise. But nothing surprises me too much. That’s the Irish in me. I’ve always been this way.
O’Dowd: What did your wife say when you came home and said ‘I’m going to Notre Dame?’
Kelly: She did give me a blank look, like, ‘are you sure?’ My daughter, Grace Kelly, said, “Dad, I know it’s your dream job, but I’m crying now because I’m sad for me, because I’m going to miss my friends. I’m happy for you, I’m just sad because I’m moving again for the fourth time in six years.”
I think that’s how the whole family felt. Now that they’re here and they’re settled and they’re around Notre Dame and I can share the things that Notre Dame has with them, it makes it all worthwhile.
O’Dowd: How do you cope with the stress?
Kelly: There’s a lot of stress. I’ve worked hard to take care of myself and getting fit and getting check-ups and all those things because I worked 20 years to get here, I don’t want to have a heart attack while I’m here, you know? I think that’s absolutely a concern and I’m taking it seriously.
O’Dowd: Do you get time off at all?
Kelly: No. This is my time off [doing the interview with Irish America Magazine]. You guys get to spend it with me. How lucky are you? No, you get a couple hours here and there. I’ll have dinner with the family tonight – you just pick your spots and when you get a couple of hours, make it quality time.
O’Dowd: The painting hanging on your wall with the faceless workers is very striking.
Kelly: 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.
O’Dowd: You seem very strong in yourself; you’re not worried what people think.
Kelly: There’s going to be plenty of opinions. There’s never a shortage of opinions in this business. That’s the great thing about Notre Dame. As long as you understand that, and this is where my background helps me, when I was at University of Cincinnati, nobody cared enough. Here people care too much. It allows me to keep perspective on it, as well, and I know what we want to do. I know what our plan is, and they’ll all be on the bandwagon sooner or later, so I just always reserve room for them.
O’Dowd: Anything else surprise you here?
Kelly: There are some things at Notre Dame you have to get used to and one of them is TV time-outs. We have to pay the bills, so to speak. It’s hard to keep flow and momentum. It is choppy and I’m working through that right now. I think I’d like to get our players to see their head coach is involved in the game and he’s not just walking up and down the sidelines but he’s invested in it. The coaches that I played for were like that and I enjoyed that.
Now, there’s this line that you can’t cross, but I’ve always felt that that’s the way I’ve played the game and that’s the way I’m going to continue.