Former Hounds' Linebacker Now Coach at Central Michigan

September 2, 2004


September 2, 2004



Brian Kelly brings linebacker's heart &

hard-working spirit to Division I

By Gretchen Flemming

MOUNT PLEASANT, MI --- Long before Brian Kelly was a successful college football coach, he was a young Massachusetts Democrat mingling with the likes of Sen. John Kerry.

In the early 1980s, Kelly studied politics and played football at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He also worked on the staff of Sen. Gary Hart as a legislative assistant, and served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1984.

At the time, Kerry was Massachusetts' Lieutenant Governor, serving in that position for two years before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984.

"(Kerry) was behind the scenes just like we were, so we got to know his staff pretty well," Kelly said. "He got all the second plate sittings -- you know, not at the main table -- just like we did. Our paths were crossing a lot."

Kelly, a Political Science major at Assumption College, a Catholic liberal arts school with an enrollment of just over 2,000, remembers the scene well.

"His staff and our staff, we were both young and we hung out," Kelly said. "If we went to the local watering hole on Friday, his staff was there, too. It was kind of an allegiance thing, we ran in the same circles."

Kelly, however, didn't really get to know the presidential hopeful very well. But then, he said, neither did the rest of the staff.

"The one thing I remember about him is that he wasn't an easy person to get to know," he said. "He wasn't cold, or distant, but he never let anyone get real close to him. We always said it was because of his time in Vietnam ... and the turmoil that maybe it caused him to be that kind of person. But he went into public service, so go figure."

So while Kerry pursues the highest public office an American politician can hold, Kelly continues down his chosen career path, moving into the highest division of college football as coach of Division I Central Michigan.

Kelly the politician became Kelly the coach, thanks to a number of influences along the way, including his high school coach, his college coach, and the people he's coached for and with during the past 21 years.

Fred Glaz, now retired, built a national power at St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., a team often featured in USA Today's Top 25 high school football rankings. Glaz said Kelly was a "tough nut" who played guard and linebacker, not one of the team's stars but a dependable, hard-working player.

"He was a good-looking kid with a great smile," Glaz said. "He wasn't very big, not much over 5-9, 160 if that. But he had size where it counted, in his heart and in his mind."

In college, Assumption College coach Bernie Gaughan taught Kelly a different approach to football.

"He brought the element of enjoyment to the game for me," Kelly said. "Fred was disciplined, hard-nosed, old-school from the Marine Corps. Bernie brought the fun into it, he brought the balance."

Kelly lettered four years at linebacker, graduating in 1983, and spent the next three years as an assistant coach at Assumption College before coming to Grand Valley State first as a graduate assistant, then the Lakers' defensive coordinator under head coach Tom Beck.

Beck, who recently was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, compiled a 50-18 record in six seasons at GVSU. He hired Kelly out of Assumption College as a graduate assistant in 1987, and Kelly became Beck's defensive coordinator in 1989.

"He was young, enthusiastic, intelligent, and he came inexpensively," Beck said. "We hit it off right from the start. He's a very sharp guy who speaks his mind, there was no double-talk."

Kelly often says Beck's teams played the West Coast offense before Bill Walsh made it famous with the San Francisco 49ers teams that won Super Bowls with it in the 1980s. He was always asking questions and learning about the offense, Beck said, even though Kelly's job was strictly defense.

"You could see he was analytical, always filing away things," Beck said, "whether it was in his head or on paper."

When Beck left Grand Valley after the 1990 season to become an assistant at Notre Dame, Kelly got his chance to be the head man. He hired Dennis Fitzgerald, a former head coach at Kent State during the tumultous times at the school in the 1970s, as an assistant.

Both were tremendous influences on him.

"From (Beck) I learned detailed organization on offense, defense, special teams, all the Xs and Os," Kelly said. "(Dennis) had been in the NFL, and was kind of retired and in the area, and I got him back into coaching. He gave me the head coaching perspective ... he got me to think about the big picture and vision."

Kelly put those things together at Grand Valley and the football program grew. The Lakers won or shared three Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and made three playoff appearances in Kelly's first eight seasons.

In 1998, the Lakers went 9-3 and advanced to the playoffs. The next season, a young Lakers' team went 5-5 and following a 1-4 start in 2000, fans and alumni began questioning Kelly's ability.

Grand Valley athletic director Tim Selgo remembers it well.

"That's just how fans are, that goes with the deal," he said. "From my standpoint, there wasn't any heat. I was totally confident in Brian."

Though the Lakers were struggling, Kelly decided to stick with his freshman quarterback, Curt Anes, and a host of other young players who would become the foundation for the Lakers' current success.

"I don't think there was any sense of panic within program," Selgo said. "Brian deserves a lot of credit when things looked pretty tough he stuck with Curt and those young guys. We knew we had talent, it was just a question of when it would come to fruition."

Grand Valley finished 2000 with six straight wins, won for the first time in the playoffs in 2001 as they advanced to the championship game. Then came the back to-back national championship seasons in 2002-03.

Kelly finished last season with the third-highest winning percentage of any active Division II coach. So when CMU coach Mike DeBord resigned after last season, athletic director Herb Deromedi didn't have to look to far to find someone with a proven record.

"I liked his experience, I liked his record, and I certainly liked his demeanor," Deromedi said. "I think (his political background) played a part in the way he deals with people. To work in the political arena and see what it takes to do that at a very young age, probably gave him a leg up on a lot of people."

Kelly the coach also is Kelly the husband and dad. He met his wife, Paqui (pronounced POCK-ee, a Spanish nickname given to her by her family, meaning "happy"), at Grand Valley when she worked in the admissions office.

"I'm really proud of his success," she said, "but to me, he's just a great guy."

They have three children, Patrick, 7; Grace, 4; and the youngest, 2-year-old Kenzel, whom Paqui calls "a little Brian." Paqui taught at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer High School before the move to Mount Pleasant.

Though she'll have her hands full as the wife of a Division I football coach, she says she doesn't look at it that way.

"Brian's a good dad," she said. "I brought the kids just for about 15 minutes to the end of practice, and the players said, 'Oh good, you brought the kids.' They really make him light up."

Paqui was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2003, went through six weeks of chemotherapy and has been cancer free since.

"My checkups are going very well," she said. "Last year was a whirlwind year, any way you look at it."

Kelly the husband and dad is also Kelly the interior decorator. The Kellys moved into a two-story house that was still under construction when they purchased it, so there were decorating decisions to be made.

"Anything that has to do with style and color, I pick out," Kelly said. "Window treatments, furniture -- her idea of nice furniture is Art Van's, mine is Klingman's. She's all about spacing and architecture. She knows what 15-by-15 is, to me that's fourth-and-long."

Would Kelly make a good politician? You bet, say those who know him.

"I think he would," Glaz said, "but I think being a coach is much better. Politicians don't have a very good reputation."

Deromedi also sees a connection.

"I don't know many politicians who could coach," he said, "but we've seen actors become politicians and certainly coaches become politicians like (former Nebraska coach) Tom Osborne, who's now very successful."

Though he says he thinks more about politics during election years, he really doesn't dwell on what might have been had he used his political science degree to pursue a career.

"I don't really think about politics unless someone asks me about it," he said. "I do what most Americans do. I vote when they tell me I'm supposed to vote."