Sunday, December 07, 2008

Coachapalooza: your Midwestern roots are forgiven, Brian Kelly

First: would he come? It's a matter of complete speculation, but if Auburn made a serious run at him, I have to think the odds are against him turning believe us down. Dude's making, and I quote, "between $1.2-$1.35 million over the next five years as well as performance-based incentives." Current seating at historic Nippert Stadium: 35,000. For an example both of the alarming lack of program history at Cincy and their relative standing in the Ohio sports universe, allow me to quote from the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia's review of Bearcat history, published in 2004:

Biggest game: Eventual 2002 national champion Ohio State helped Cincinnati set school and Conference USA attendance records when 63,319 fans packed Paul Brown Stadium in Cincy for their game. The Bearcats lost 23-19, but gained the respect of the state's marquee college football team. Cincinnati won its final five league games to earn a share of the Conference USA championship, its first conference championship since 1964.

With all due respect, Auburn is a bigger and better football program than Cincinnati, period. Kelly is going to upgrade at some point; it's just a matter of to who.

This is where the potential hitch in the plan might come in. He has precisely zero ties to any team or, hell, as far as I can tell anything south of Ohio; he's spent his entire coaching career at Grand Valley State (Mich.), Central Michigan, and Cincy, with his college playing days spent in his home state of Massachusetts. A Southern good ol' boy he is not, and if he decides to stand pat and wait for his upgrade to come at a school in the Midwest--specifically a large, well-endowed school in the Midwest with a lame duck coach and phenomenal football tradition that would be delighted to hire a hugely successful Boston-area Catholic--well, it won't matter what Auburn has to offer him. And he did of course make that "No means no" comment the other day.

But he also followed that comment with "no one can ever speak in terms of forever." If you were Brian Kelly and Auburn stuck a multi-million dollar bird in your hand, would you really hold out for the two Notre Dame might have waiting in the bush? Call it 70-30 or so a serious offer gets him to the Plains.

Pros: I think the best way to condense Kelly's remarkable track record is this:

For three consecutive years, Kelly has coached a team to its best season in school history.*

In 2006, after increasing the Chippewas' win totals by one in 2004 and then two more in 2005, Kelly took CMU to a 9-4 record and their first MAC title in more than a decade. In 2007, Kelly gave Cincinnati its first-ever 10-win season and first-ever ranking the final polls. In 2008, as you have probably noticed, Kelly took a Cincinnati team picked by virtually everyone to finish no better than 4th in the Big East and handed the program its first-ever BCS bowl berth, beating the unanimous conference favorite on their own field along the way.

To boot, this season may be even more impressive than the record suggests. Phil Steele (who picked the Bearcats fifth in the Big East) had this to say about Cincy in his preseason mag:
The Bearcats (in 2007) were +16 in TOs, had favorable ypp** both offensively and defensively, only had 2 starts lost all season to injury which are all factors that point to a weaker record in '08.
Steele was right about the injury thing: Cincy had a plague on their QB's in the early part of the season, part of why they had to wheeze past the likes of Akron and Rutgers and got bombed by UConn. But once backup no-name Tony Pike got healthy enough to play and got a few reps under his belt, good night, Gracie: a six-game season-ending win streak with wins over four different bowl teams.

Of course, none of what Kelly's accomplished these past three seasons even reflects how miserable CMU had been before he arrived (only one four-win season in the last four) or how utterly dominant Grand Valley St. was in his final three seasons there: 41-2, a 20-game win streak, back-to-back national titles.

In short: Kelly wins. Everywhere he's been, at every level. D-II, mid-major, BCS. He wins.

How? The first thing John Q. Football Fan thinks about when he thinks about Brian Kelly is crazy spread offense fun, and not without reason: his 2001 GVSU team set a D-II record by scoring 58.4 points a game (!), his 2006 CMU team finished 31st in total offense and 23rd in scoring (while helping turn Dan LeFevour into the Tebow of the Midwest), and his 2007 Cincy team--16th in scoring, 19th per-play--set a school record for points. (That's after the Bearcats finished 62nd per-play in 2006.)

With the quarterback issues, Kelly's 2008 team has slipped a bit on offense (though still easily top 50) but it hasn't mattered: the Bearcats are a stellar 13th in the country in yards-per-play allowed, tied with West Virginia for the best mark in the Big East. That's up from back-to-back finishes in the 30's. No doubt, much of the groundwork was laid by defensive-minded predecessor Mark Dantonio, but Kelly's done nothing but build on it. Surprised? Don't be: his first coordinator's role at GVSU was on the defensive side of the ball.

Starting a coaching career as a defensive backs coach and DC, then basically learning an offense from scratch until you're one of the best offensive coaches in the country as well? Ladies and gents, Brian Kelly is one smart coach.

And while the evidence isn't overwhelming, Kelly's probably a capable recruiter. The Bearcats were, on average, the worst-recruiting BCS team in the country between 2002 and 2007. (Which should tell you something about the quality of his coaching the past two seasons.) But Rivals rated his first class 67th--a dramatic improvement--and he's even pulled in a couple of four-stars in a 2009 class currently 50th. Here, too, Kelly pulls his program inexorably forward, and at the age of 47 he's still got a reasonable amount of time to pull Auburn forward if they hired him.

Cons: As mentioned at the top, as long as he's been coaching Kelly hasn't gotten around a lot. He'll have to learn the SEC ropes on the job. That hasn't seemed to slow him much in the Big East, but it's still a concern.

Perhaps the bigger concern is that Kelly doesn't have the shiniest off-the-field reputation, and that's putting it lightly. There was an ugly incident at CMU in 2005, where several current and former Chippewa players were indicted for the July 2004 murder of a man named Demarcus Graham, who was beaten to death outside of a Mount Pleasant bar. As Kelly hadn't even coached a game at the time of the murder (much less recruited the players in question), it wouldn't have been too much of a black mark on Kelly's record -- until Kelly had a talk with the Detroit Free-Press ...

"A number of them were African Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they're taught to look away," Kelly was quoted as saying in a Sept. 22 Free Press story. "You don't want anything to do with it. Get out of there. You don't say anything to anybody."
Uh ... oops. An editorial followed in the CMU student paper*** accusing Kelly of encouraging the players to be less than entirely cooperative with the investigation, and even if not everyone bought what said editorial claimed or even the context in which he'd been quoted, the damage was done. Kelly issued what I might call a fiery apology ("These comments were about the specific individuals involved in this case and their specific life experiences and were not stereotypical assumptions"), but the incident was already stain enough for both Michigan St. and Michigan to not even give him the time of day when their head coaching positions came open, despite the fact he appeared tailor-made for both.

Let's be straight-forward about this: Auburn can't afford the kind of PR fallout a comment like this from its head football coach would entail. If Kelly said anything remotely similar in nature on the Plains, he's gone, goodbye, seeya, we'll ship you your things.

But I also think Kelly's served his time, so to speak. I doubt pretty seriously he holds any kind of deep-held racist views; I mean, maybe I'm Opie, but the demographics of major college football being what they are, it's a strange profession he's chosen if he does. This was also the first incident remotely of this kind he'd faced during his career--I suspect if he got a second chance at it, he'd have learned his lesson and would remain much tighter-lipped with the press.

And aside from this single incident, Kelly's off-the-field record is about as good as anyone's. (Grad rates at Cincy? Above-average, at the moment, though those aren't Kelly's recruits; in 2007, both CMU and Cincy were fine.) To be clear, the guy's apparently more than capable of rubbing people the wrong way, but what hugely successful football coach is that not true about? (Though I suppose on a personal level, there goes some of my Saban-hatred leverage.) There's not a football fan in Michigan who doesn't expect Kelly to land a major job in the very near future, which is why you get threads like these devoted to figuring out why it hasn't happened already. From one particularly credible-sounding comment:
Also A GVSU alum, I worked in the athletic building when Coach Kelly took over for Coach Beck. (incidentally, Coach Beck left to be the DC at Notre Dame) At first impressions, Coach Kelly was an arrogant, young, egomaniac. He offended a lot of people with his attitude. That being said, he didn't have overwhelming talent when he began, but he won. His teams responded.

Moreover, I worked the football games on the sideline. He was hot-headed and foul-mouthed. Of all the coaches I was around, including the opposition, he was the worst!

I can see how he could annoy and offend people, however, NEVER was there any hint of inappropriate behavior in regards to school or NCAA rules!

Basically, he's a self-centered jerk who doesn't cheat, and he WINS!
Provided it's made to clear to him that any off-the-field embarrassments along the lines of his previous one would bring a swift end to his Auburn tenure, I don't see Kelly's reputation as a dealbreaker.

Final endorsement? Quick: what's the best SEC coaching hire of the last 10 years, maybe longer? Particularly after yesterday, it's easy to the point of knee-jerk: Urban Meyer.

What coach out there currently has the track record most similar to Meyer's before the Gators snatched him up? That combination of offensive ingenuity and studiousness, dog-cussedness, and a Midas touch at the lower levels of college coaching that includes a wholly unexpected BCS berth? It's not even close: Brian Kelly. Kelly's resume isn't quite Meyer, but he's about as close as it's possible to get.

As I mentioned, Michiganders have followed the guy's career step-by-step for years, and to man they are all desperately hoping that Auburn will take him off Cincy's hands before Notre Dame gets their grubby paws on him. This guy is going to make some larger school very, very happy in the near future. Unless and only unless Auburn can hire Paul Johnson away from Georgia Tech--a much less likely scenario in my opinion than Kelly abandoning Cincinnati--it's the JCCW's opinion Brian Kelly should be Auburn's No. 1 target****.

*It's sorta debatable whether 2006 is hands-down the Chippewas' greatest season ever; the 1994 team went 9-3 with a MAC title and in 1979 the Chips went 10-0-1 in Division II. But I think the bowl win (and D-I status) makes 2006 the choice from my neutral perspective.

**Yards-per-points. Steele tracks them as, essentially, a measure of a team's luck: a team that racks up the yards without scoring is probably better than they look, and a team that racks up the points without moving the ball is probably worse. In 2007, Cincy was closer to the latter.

***Apparently--my Goggle-fu hasn't been able to dredge this one up.

****Why Kelly over Leach? Either would make me a very happy camper indeed, but Kelly's won at multiple levels, is quite obviously the superior defensive coach, and lacks the weirdo factor that would make Leach such a tough sell to so many Auburn fans.

More updates will show up sometime this afternoon.


Chris_In_Inverness said...

Can someone please explain to me how in the hell Pual Johnson would help Auburn win in this league?

The effin Veer Option?!?!?!

What recruit in his right mind would come to AU? And some folks think RBs and OL would but I say this.

A kid chooses a school more often than not, hoping to make it to the NFL.

RBs need to catch the football and linemen need to be able to pass block.

GT threew the ball what? 7 times against UGA?

Please no Paul Johnson!

Jerry Hinnen said...

I'll get to that Chris, but something to consider--how many NFL-quality talents are we recruiting at QB or WR right now?