The Kevin Kelley Way: The Unorthodox High School Coach Brings His Style to College Football

Kelley, known for his reluctance to punt, won nine state championships in 18 years in Arkansas. Now he embarks upon a new challenge, taking over at Presbyterian College.
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Everything Kevin Kelley does has a reason. Everything down to the thickness and color of the socks he’s wearing.

“I’m wearing the socks I’m wearing because I looked at the temperature—I flew from Little Rock to South Carolina this morning—normally the high is about 80-something. Today, the high here is 56 with rain. These are thicker socks. Keep my feet a little warmer. If they get wet, they’ll soak up a little bit of the moisture quicker,” he says. “I wore black ones because I’ve got on blue shoes and blue shorts, and I thought that was too much blue.”

Colloquially, Kelley is known as the coach who never punts. While “never” is a slight exaggeration, he punts far less often than virtually any football coach in the U.S. After winning nine state championships in 18 years as the coach at Pulaski Academy, a private high school in Little Rock, he was named the new coach of Presbyterian College, an FCS school in Clinton, S.C., on May 7.

Kelley inherits a program that’s 16–46 since the beginning of the 2015 season and joined the Pioneer Football League—a nonscholarship conference—this year after spending 12 seasons as part of the Big South Conference.

Anyone who knows Kelley knows he won’t be deterred from implementing his unique coaching style at the collegiate level. He won more than 200 games at Pulaski while rarely punting and frequently onside-kicking, and he’s never one to tailor his style to the perceived norm.

“Football-wise, he is an innovator,” says Patriots tight end Hunter Henry, who played for Kelley from 2010 to ’13. “He’s an outside-the-box thinker. He’s always trying to gain an advantage. He will do whatever it takes to win. He’s a winner.”

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Kevin Kelley instructs his former high school team

To understand why Kelley coaches football the way he does—willing to do whatever he can to maximize his chances of winning regardless of convention—his childhood helps explain.

As Kelley grew up in rural Arkansas in the 1970s, the family refrigerator was rarely full. “I grew up in a very, very poor household,” he says. “I hate to say ‘efficient’—we didn’t use the word ‘efficient’ back then—but we had to be very efficient for food, with money, with things like that.”

Sometimes, he says, his family would eat only two meals a day: breakfast at 11 and then another meal at 4. Nobody in Kelley’s family attended college, and his mother didn’t even graduate high school. Yet she emphasized the value of education to her son.

“She told me how important it was to be educated and educate yourself, and that’s gonna be your way out of this chain that our family’s in,” he says. “And I did that. I bought into education and worked my way through college. The more I did dive into that, the more I actually appreciated, and I enjoyed learning. Nobody in my family really was of that mold.”

A belief in education, critical thinking and consuming information established the bedrock for who Kelley is as a football coach. And it’s because of his unique background that he brings this nuanced perspective to the game.

“I took a different route there than anybody in the family had, and I think it just kinda manifested from there that ‘Wow, there’s a different way about life to do things that our family had always done, and if there’s a different way for that, there’s probably a different way for a lot of things.’ ”

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Cade Massey is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who researches how analytics can improve decision-making. He spends much of his time studying sports and has worked with professional teams.

In 2005, Massey cowrote a paper titled “Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the National Football League” with Richard Thaler, a Nobel Prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago. They analyzed the NFL draft and, more specifically, how teams value their picks. After devising several models difficult for the ordinary football fan to understand, they concluded, in essence, that NFL teams significantly overvalue their early picks in the draft. One way to account for this inefficiency would be to trade their first-round pick for several second- and third-round picks.

This isn’t how teams operate. In fact, it’s more common to see the opposite—teams that trade later-round picks to move up in the draft. All this is to say that Massey knows firsthand the divide between academics like himself and football executives and coaches. The former swear by the calculus; the latter by anecdotal philosophy. That’s what makes Kelley a unique phenomenon.

“It takes a lot of conviction,” Massey says of Kelley’s strategy. “It’s hard for a guy who doesn’t run models and may not be a big data analyst kind of person—and most coaches don’t run models and most coaches aren’t super into data analytics—it’s hard for those kinds of folks to believe deeply [in] the results of these things. For you to take it as far as Kelley has taken it requires a real depth of conviction.”

But if the numbers suggest that what Kelley’s doing makes sense, why does it require this level of belief and commitment to put it into practice? Kelley has an idea.

“I’m a contrarian. I think that if everybody thinks it’s one way, oftentimes it is something else,” he says. “I’m willing to try new things. I’m not risk-averse. Most people are naturally risk-averse. If there’s a decision that can be made, they look at all the things that could go wrong instead of looking at all the things that can go right.”

Toby Moskowitz, a professor of finance at Yale and the coauthor (with Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim) of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, spends part of his book diving into Kelley and the fourth-down dilemma. A decade after its publication, he says he’s thrilled to see Kelley moving up to the college level, but he also understands why it’s taken so long for a program to take a chance on him.

“Losing unconventionally is way worse than losing conventionally, and so you see asymmetry in the way gains and losses are treated,” Moskowitz says. “For instance, suppose you go for it on fourth down and win the game, the coach gets some praise for that, but a lot of sports broadcasters, a lot of the media and a lot of the fans don’t give the coaches as much credit as they deserve. They’ll say, ‘Well, they got lucky. They took a risk and got lucky.’ If they go for it and fail, they get all the blame.”

Henry, the NFL tight end, sums it up concisely: “It’s pretty bold. Just like anything else, it’s easy when you’re winning, but when things don’t go your way and you lose, you’re gonna get that backlash because you [used] some out-of-the-box thinking.”

If Kelley receives backlash, he doesn’t care. He has that conviction, that deep belief in the analytics, spurred by his love of learning and the realization that there’s more than one way to think about a problem.

In a sense, Kelley is remarkably similar to NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry in how little he cares about what others think about him. Barry was well known for shooting his free throws underhanded—and it worked. Across his eight seasons in the NBA, he shot 90% from the line, the fourth-best mark in NBA history. So why don’t more people shoot underhanded? The same reason more football coaches don’t play football the way Kevin Kelley does: It’s convention to shoot overhanded, just like it’s convention to punt on most fourth downs.

“I didn’t care anymore. If I’m making ‘em, that’s all that matters,” Barry said in a 2016 interview with Malcolm Gladwell on an episode of the latter’s podcast, Revisionist History.

That’s all that matters. To Barry, maximizing his skill set to be the best player possible mattered more than what people thought about how he maximized that skill set. Kelley’s cut from a similar cloth. Remember one of his guiding principles: “If everybody thinks it’s one way, oftentimes it is something else.”

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Kevin Kelley

Kelley’s coaching philosophy originates from a simple question: Why? Upon his promotion to head coach at Pulaski in 2003, he was full of excitement. “Then it hit me like a rock: ‘How am I gonna be any better or any different than the last guy was?’ ”

He began to critically evaluate everything the team did, from its January offseason training to the defensive scheme to the meals the team ate to punting on fourth down.

“I wanted to have a good reason why,” he says.

The analytics gave him a good enough reason as to why he shouldn’t punt. But there’s also the added impact it has on the opponent.

“If you crunch the numbers, it definitely tells you to go for it a lot more often than most people do,” Moskowitz says. “The other thing I’ll add to that is—as Kevin Kelley talks about, and he’s right—when you go for it on fourth down, it gives you an extra down. It means something very different, then, on what you do for third down and second down. A lot of the teams that he plays against often complain that knowing that he’s gonna go for it on fourth down, they’re not sure what he’s gonna do on third down. Third-and-10 is no longer a passing down for him.”

Kelley also always attempts onside kicks instead of traditional kickoffs until his team leads by more than 21. Based on his calculations, if he can recover about one out of every five attempts, it’s worth it—his team steals extra possessions, and, at least at the high school level, the kickers aren’t as good and the players aren’t as disciplined.

In other words, kicking off traditionally can often lead to a penalty or a shorter kick, anyway. Kelley is willing to automatically give up approximately 25 yards to the opposition because of how valuable those extra possessions stemming from onside recoveries are in determining wins and losses.

There are other branches to the Kelley tree, including two-point conversions (if you can convert them more than half the time, you go for two) and never having someone back to return punts (penalties and fumbles aren’t worth risking for a typical short return), but they all converge from the same trunk: Kelley himself.

“You have to be willing to stand in the face of a lot of opinion against you, because things will often go against you,” Massey says. “These things are small edges. ... There will be high-profile big situations where they go against you, and unless you have a deep philosophical commitment to it, it’s hard to stand in the face of that kind of pressure.”

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Kevin Kelley introduced by Presbyterian

Kelley's introduction at Presbyterian.

Though many fans of Kelley, including Moskowitz, have believed the 51-year-old coach has been ready for the next level for some time now, the question still remains: Can this work in college football?

For one, Henry says Kelley’s more than just the guy who rarely punts and often onside-kicks; he knows how to run an offense and get the most out of his players, while also preparing them for the next stage of their careers.

“It’s kind of funny because he’s actually the hardest coach I’ve ever had in all the coaches that I’ve ever had,” says Henry, who plays for Bill Belichick. “Just on me every single day. Demanded perfection in a way. It made me a better football player. Honestly, throughout the years, it’s made everything else a little bit easier because of how much he demanded.”

Henry also says that when he arrived at Pulaski, no one ever talked about Kelley’s fourth-down strategy. “It was easy to buy into because of the success that he had,” he says.

Instilling that same environment of belief at a new program and at the collegiate level will be key for Kelley. He admits he wasn’t even sure what the Presbyterian players’ thoughts would be about him when he was hired, but he’s committed to answering the question he asks the most: Why?

“I want ‘em to know why we’re going for it on fourth down here, why we’re gonna onside-kick it here,” he says. “They will go out and simply be more committed to that moment. People are gonna perform better when they do that.”

Massey elaborates on what it takes to get that buy-in from everybody.

“If it’s an unusual decision that you made—if it feels unusual to you, your team, your bosses, the fans—then of course people are gonna jump on it. So what’s the solution to that? The solution is to normalize it,” he says. “To convince your team, and ultimately over time to convince your fans and your bosses, that this is the way we play. This isn’t an unusual thing. This is not an exceptional decision I’m gonna make in the fourth quarter at a key moment. That’s just the way we play.”

The good news for Kelley? He doesn’t need to convince his bosses of anything.

“That’s why I’m really happy about Presbyterian College, because they were willing to try a different approach than what they had seen on the field from their own staff and everywhere else in America,” he says. “You gotta admit, that’s a big leap for a college president and athletic director to make, and these guys were willing to do that. I just like people that think differently.”

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