Aug. 4, 2009
By RALPH D. RUSSO (Associated Press)
NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) - Brian Kelly is the son of an alderman, a political science major who figured he'd go into politics after college. Unlike many top football coaches, he has no pedigree, no ties to famous coaches or programs.
He's gone from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, where in two seasons he has turned a basketball school into a BCS participant and become the coach most likely to be mentioned when a job opens up at a traditional football schools.
Washington and Tennessee both had interest in Kelly last year. And if the Bearcats can do anything close to repeating the 11-3 record they had in 2008, you can bet more schools with way bigger athletic budgets than UC will try to woo him.
All the speculation by fans and media about where he might be going next doesn't bother Kelly.
"I want to be talked about because that means we're having a good season," he said in an interview Tuesday before Big East media day at a Newport hotel.
Cincinnati has done it's best to keep Kelly. His new five-year contract pays him $1.5 million annually and the school has committed to improve facilities, including the construction of two new practice facilities.
"A year removed from a Big East championship, Cincinnati has decided to play a huge part in this as well," he said. "They want their program to be regarded as more than just a place to stop over. Have a couple of good years and find another job.
"They've made an investment to make this a Top 25 job. Let's make this a position that even though his name may be bandied about, let's create an opportunity here at Cincinnati that makes it so that he doesn't need to go anywhere else."
The 46-year-old Kelly has shown so far he doesn't need to go anywhere else to win big. Winning has followed him. In 18 seasons as a head coach, he's had a losing record once.
At Division II Grand Valley State in western Michigan, he took over a solid program in 1991 and built it into a three-time national champion before he left after the 2003 season.
At Central Michigan, he went from 4-7 his first season to a Mid-American Conference championship in his third.
He came to Cincinnati with a reputation as an offensive genius, another spread offense prodigy whose teams were fun to watch and impossible to defend.
But that wasn't what most attracted Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas. Kelly's charisma and ability to connect with people was what made him the perfect fit for a program buried in Buckeyes country that needed more than just an Xs and Os guy.
"We needed to hire someone who had a real presence," Thomas said in a phone interview. "Someone who could sell this program, get people excited about it."
Kelly, who worked on Gary Hart's presidential campaign after he graduated from Assumption College in his native Massachusetts in 1983, has pushed Bearcats football like a politician on the stump.
"Going to the local chicken and beer place in east Cincinnati or doing the home visits," he said, "that grass roots part is so ingrained in being a politician because that's your groundswell of support. Well, it's the same thing in building a program.
"How do we get Cincinnati to fill the stands? I had to do 77 different public appearances in a year."
Cincinnati wasn't a program in tatters when Kelly took over. His predecessor, Mark Dantonio, had two winning season in his three seasons.
Cincinnati football has been respectable for years. Kelly brought it to the big time. The Bearcats won their first Big East championship last year and earned a bid to the Orange Bowl.
This season, they were picked third in a wide-open Big East. Cincinnati brings back quarterback Tony Pike, star receiver Mardy Gilyard and most of the key players from last year's offense. The Bearcats won't surprise anyone if they repeat.
And Pike, who grew up in Cincinnati and remembers when 17,000 fans at Nippert Stadium was considered a big crowd, said Kelly might not be so quick to jump to a more glamorous job.
"Coach Kelly's kind of taken this program to a new level," Pike said. "In the past, people used the word steppingstone, Cincinnati's like steppingstone to a bigger school. Coach Kelly comes to UC and we can make it to a national championship game. We got the fan base now where we're selling out Nippert Stadium and we have the support around the community that a coach needs. We can offer that now. I think this is a place coach Kelly is going to be at for a long time."