Brian Kelly has never spent a day of his life in the NFL. After his 4-year career as a linebacker at Assumption College concluded in 1982, Kelly went directly into coaching at his alma mater. From there, he rose the ranks at Grand Valley State, from defensive backs coach, to defensive coordinator, to head coach, eventually leading the Lakers to Division II national championships in 2002 and ’03.
That success led him to Central Michigan, where a MAC championship in 2006 got him the Cincinnati job. Kelly went 34-6 in three seasons at Cincinnati, concluding with an undefeated regular season and a No. 3 finish in the BCS rankings in 2009. That run got him the Notre Dame job where, it seemed, he could now climb the final rung of the ladder and finally draw an NFL paycheck as a head coach.
Many observers (myself included) pegged Kelly as an NFL-coach-in-waiting. Even though he had no experience in the league, there was something vaguely… NFL about him. His CEO coaching style, his candidness with the media, his national profile, all of it pointed toward a guy who was positioning himself to become an NFL head coach. Not a rah-rah type or a drill sergeant, Kelly’s even-keeled approach to managing players seemed like it would work just as well with 28-year-old millionaires as it does with 18-year-old freshman. And so speculation was born.
Some of that was real — he really did interview with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, a job that eventually went to Chip Kelly — but much of it was not. Still, rumors persisted.
The NFL coaching market has open and closed yet again, and still Kelly is not an NFL head coach.
And, according to an interview he gave with Yahoo‘s Pete Thamel, Kelly likes it that way.
The Notre Dame head coach wants to remain the Notre Dame head coach for the rest of his career, he told Yahoo. Kelly’s contract runs for three more years, and he wants to see out his current deal and possibly more:
“I may look to see if we can add two more years,” Kelly said, reluctant to offer a specific retirement date but acknowledging the end is closer than the beginning. He’s flirted with the NFL in the past – most significantly with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. He says he’s moved on from that curiosity because “of the way it’s set up,” as he prefers the more “coach-centric” college model with full roster control. “I think if I’m fortunate enough to go five more years here, I would be very happy,” he said.
Five more years would take Kelly through Year 14 at Notre Dame and into Year 63 as a human being. It would also make him the longest-tenured head coach in Notre Dame history, surpassing the 13 years Knute Rockne led the Irish, from 1918-30.
At 81-35, Kelly’s .698 winning percentage puts him 11th out of Notre Dame’s 22 all-time head coaches, well below the likes of Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. But those are ghosts of a bygone era. Compared against Notre Dame’s modern day coaches, Kelly looks like, well, Knute Rockne. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis — none of them approached a .600 mark, while another good season would put Kelly above .700. Those three lasted a combined 13 seasons, so three more years would allow Kelly to outlast them all by himself.
To survive the meat-grinder that is the Notre Dame job that long is an accomplishment in and of itself.
As he enters the twilight of his career, Kelly’s focus will be on catching Alabama and Clemson, not winning the NFC East.