The Real Case for Brian Kelly: Joel Ain't Got Nothing on Me

Bumped to the front. Okay, so maybe there's an announcement pending for Monday that our next coach will be Lane Kiffin. But maybe not. So here's an excellent post in support of Brian Kelly from GraySnail. Many thanks to him. -- Joel

(Not editor’s note: I’ll see your Mike Leach crush and raise you one Brian Kelly.  It’s not the vaguely uncomfortable crush that John Parker Wilson has on Julio Jones, but it’s certainly there.  Also, you can post all the Bill Simonson information you want to, but this is my purview here.  Y'all can wait.)

So on one hand, you have a 47-year old pirate fanatic with an offense the likes of which we haven’t seen in years, and he’s leading his team to the best success they’ve had in a generation.  On the other, you have a 47-year old relative no-name who doesn’t have a fancy offense, doesn’t have a big-name defense, and is also leading his team to the best success they’ve had in, well, ever.  All things mean equal, you’d want the crazy pirate fanatic, right?  Volunteer Pirate Navy and all that.  And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to the no-name coaching talent.  While this will come as a surprise to – let’s be honest here - nobody, I think I have a coaching crush on Brian Kelly.

Where on earth did this guy come from, anyway?   He’s been a head coach for the past 18 years, starting out at DII Grand Valley State before moving on up to D-1A (FBS, whatever.  It’s still 1A).  Yes, I know the obvious comparison at this point is going to be one Jim Tressel, but:

Kelly doesn’t do the sweater vest thing.
Kelly’s offenses are normally more dynamic than 3.5 yards and a cloud of dust, punt on 4th and 15 inches, and 19-yard field goals.
Tressel has been successful at Ohio State.  Yes, BCS title game duds included, the Buckeyes did get there.

When Kelly took over the reins at Grand Valley State, they weren’t a bad team.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call them great – they stopped short of making the playoffs most years – they were clocking in with 8-4 type records most seasons.  (Raise your hand if you got a painful flashback to 2002.)  Kelly had a few down years early in his Grand Valley tenure, but it’s hard to argue with the results of his last three seasons – 41-2 with two national titles.  Central Michigan saw the success and decided they had to get some of that.

At the time, Central Michigan was a go-nowhere program in the MAC with a history of 2-9 records and coaches who couldn’t figure out success for the life of them (previous HC Mike DuBord's record: 12-34).  Kelly only ended up at CMU for three seasons – 4-7, 6-5, 9-4 (technically 10-4).  Not bad for a three-year turnaround.  Oddly enough, Kelly never coached a bowl game with CMU; due to the MAC having next-to-no bowl tie-ins at the time he was with them (it was basically Motor City Bowl or good luck next year), the 6-5 team didn’t go to a bowl, and his last season he was hired away to Cincinnati before the bowl game – fittingly, it was the Motor City Bowl.  Coaching protégé Butch Jones stepped in, and he’s still coaching CMU; this season they’re 9-3 again.

Cincinnati was a program that hadn’t seen success in, oh, 50 years or so before Mark Dantonio arrived on campus.  He did a good job of rebuilding – well, technically just building – the program, so much so that Cincinnati was one of the formerly C-USA teams tapped to join the Big East during the Ill-Fated Realignment of 2000whatever.  When Dantonio left for Michigan State, Kelly came on – and he was actually in consideration for the Michigan State job as well.  What’d Kelly do at Cincinnati?  He simply built on Dantonio’s prior success and now has a Cincinnati squad in position to get their first ever BCS berth (yes, I know the Big East is way, way down).  First 10-win Cincy season ever in 2007.  Highest ever national ranking.  Oh, and he’s doing this with not one, but four Weeblies at QB this year.

So can the man recruit?  Not sure; CMU and Cincinnati aren’t really historical powers, so aside from the immediate regions where they’d have pull, it’s tough to get a read on how he’d do on a national scale.  Recruiting at Tennessee is a vastly different animal compared to what he’s used to, but Kelly’s done a good job of making the most of what he can realistically get at; if you need examples, look no further than Dan "Hey wait, this guy isn’t actually Tim Tebow?  Are you sure about that?" LeFevour at CMU – he’s a Kelly recruit.  He’s also the only other guy to run for 1,000 yards and pass for 3,000 in a single season, putting him right up there with some guy named Vince Young.  He's pulled in guys who were D-II Heisman winners (well, their equivalent).

How have Kelly’s teams done in big games? Beat South Florida, in Tampa, in November of last year.  Beat West Virginia, in Morgantown, this year.  Beat Ohio in the MAC Championship game in '06.  And I would have some nice drive charts here, but the editor acts like Jonathan Crompton whenever I try and add one, so y'all are stuck with text.

[Note by Joel, 11/25/08 9:31 PM EST ] Lending a hand here:

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Fan support?  Well, I don't know if the fans are willing to come for a guy who's been compared to a Bruce Pearl.  I'm not sure that increasing Central Michigan student attendance to five figures is something that's a big deal.  Nothing good can come from getting a fanbase fired up on a weekly basis.

There’s the argument, there’s the reasoning. Would we end up with a Volunteer Pirate Navy, an eminently quoteable coach, and a slightly discombobulated fanbase with Kelly?  Not likely, unless I missed something huge.  However, Kelly’s succeeded at every stage he’s been at, he can turn a program around, and he can build on success.  If Kelly doesn’t end up at Tennessee, he’s going to end up at some other major program within the next 5 years – and then he’ll start making everyone’s lives hell.  Wouldn’t you rather have that on your side?


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