Brian Kelly the politician? The career arc of Notre Dame's coach
FORT LAUDERDALE -- Earlier this year, the Notre Dame political science department conducted a campaign to attract more students. It featured famous alumni like Condoleezza Rice, and it provided students with an idea of the different careers they could pursue when armed with a political science background.
Michael Desch, the department's chair, admits he didn't consider featuring the campus' most famous political science graduate as a centerpiece for the campaign.
"I'm a little bit embarrassed that I hadn't thought of Brian Kelly as a successful political scientist," Desch said. "If we win the BCS championship, you can count on me finding a way to do it for the next iteration of our ad campaigns."
Kelly graduated from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., with a degree in political science in 1983. He served as a captain of Assumption's football team. But perhaps of equal importance, he spent a few years during that time working for Massachusetts state senator Gerry D'Amico. Kelly helped D'Amico run Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign in Massachusetts, doing everything from delivering media briefings to driving Hart around in his sputtering 1980 Ford Escort. (Kelly likes to joke it had only three cylinders.)
Nearly three decades later, as Kelly emerges on the biggest stage in college sports, it's clear he's shifted gears. On Monday, he'll lead Notre Dame against Alabama in the BCS title game. But something else is also evident: Kelly still boasts his political skill set. He shakes hands, deals with diverse constituencies and sticks to his talking points.
"I think my experience in politics gave me an opportunity to work with the media and know that you guys are normal people," Kelly said. "I know people don't think that way, but you're pretty normal, for the most part."
The comment was vintage Kelly: quick on his feet, light enough to generate a laugh and yet serious enough to answer a question. And while Notre Dame enters Monday's game as an underdog, Kelly is an odds-on favorite to win this week's media barrage. His charm and wit certainly make Alabama coach Nick Saban's monotone talking style seem overmatched.
D'Amico fondly recalls Hart's "lightning in a bottle" political run leading into the 1984 election. At the time, Kelly had recently taken an admission test for the CIA, and he was accepted to American University's graduate school to study international affairs.
But Kelly wanted to dabble in politics first, so he accepted a job offer from D'Amico. Soon, he found himself shepherding hordes of media at a downtown Boston hotel as Hart's campaign took off. (A few years ago, Hart admitted to me that he had to make a few phone calls to jog his memory about who Kelly was, thus revealing the lower-tier nature of Kelly's state senate staff role.)
Kelly is the son of Paul Kelly, an alderman in Chelsea, Mass., and grew up knocking on others' doors to drop off pamphlets. His years in D'Amico's state senate office led his boss to believe that, one day, he'd write Kelly a glowing letter of recommendation to attend law school. After all, Kelly had the right name for Boston politics, came from a political family and showed a deft touch when dealing with people; he'd cook chicken at a barbeque fundraiser just as willingly as he'd take part in political strategy sessions.
"I thought he was going to take a shot at politics," D'Amico said. "He had a lot of poise, that's the best way to say it. I found him to be more mature than most at his age."
D'Amico added with a laugh: "He looked more like a senator than I did."
D'Amico recalls driving with Kelly one day when the latter delivered some news on a turn in his career path. "I think I'm going to coach softball," Kelly told D'Amico.
Immediately, the senator quipped: "Brian, you have enough women who want to date you."
Looking back, D'Amico remembers it as the moment that Kelly found his calling. Kelly coached softball at Assumption, and soon after, he joined his old college coach, Bernie Gaughan, on the Assumption football staff.
As a player, Kelly loved the nuances of football: the practice, the strategizing and the team building that went into each game. He was a four-year starter who proved savvy enough to call the defensive signals for three years as a middle linebacker. "His communication skills and football knowledge at that time was off the charts," Gaughan said.
Gaughan accelerated Kelly's ascent when a coaching friend at Grand Valley State in Michigan called to see if Assumption had any capable young coaches. Gaughan put in a good word, and Kelly left soon after, puttering to Michigan in that same 1980 Escort.
In 1987, Kelly accepted a low-level job that paid $4,000 per year. But in doing so, he sparked a career arc that would eventually bring two Division II national titles as the head coach at Grand Valley before subsequent gigs at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and, finally, Notre Dame.
"I said, 'I have just the guy for you, if he gets the mother in the kitchen, the son will be going to his school,'" Gaughan recalled. "That's just the way he is. If he came in to recruit, it would be awfully tough for someone to say no to him."
Kelly's political savvy can still be seen every week at his press conferences, where eye contact, name recognition and concise messages are all staples. But when Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick researched Kelly in the hiring process in 2009, his political background proved to be something of a hindrance. Swarbrick said that Notre Dame scrutinizes any public statements or political stances that have been made to avoid controversies.
Still, nothing turned up, and Kelly has been charming alumni, wooing donors and sweet-talking recruits ever since. This year, Kelly invoked an old political strategy, stressing that he's spent more time with his team. He admits there are so many parts of the brand and beast of Notre Dame football that sometimes it can distract a coach. He made it a point to refocus on his most important constituency -- his players.
"His old man was an alderman in Boston," said Desch. "A big part of that is low politics and walking the wards and taking care of people. Ironically, it's the low-level ward politics that's been one of the biggest changes people have remarked about around here."
Swarbrick said the sign of a good politician is someone who both gets the garbage picked up and has a macro view of a city's economic development. A similar sentiment could be echoed for Kelly, who can weave through different constituencies with ease. "Brian's equally comfortable with the administrative leaders of the university and the guys who take care of the field at the stadium," Swarbrick said.
Don't expect a return to politics. His coaching career is going too well. But when asked if he'd consider running for governor, Kelly immediately rattled off an anecdote about seeing a "Long Live Kelly" sign at a muffler shop north of town. Then he cracked a joke.
"Is there a governor," he said with a smile, "of South Bend?"
If Notre Dame takes down Alabama on Monday, Kelly would surely win that vote in a landslide.