FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick has heard the accent, the one that identifies where his head coach, Brian Kelly, is from and how far he has come. It’s faint now, but its emergence is not for the faint of heart.
Kelly’s dialect these days is nearly indecipherable as he smoothly navigates media appearance after media appearance in the lead-up to Monday night’s BCS national championship game against Alabama. He has the polish of a presidential candidate and the presence of a motivational speaker. But in the heat of the moment when the Everett-born, Chelsea-raised Fighting Irish coach gets red-faced and vociferous, his Boston accent emerges to accentuate his point.
“I would definitely say when he’s mad. It just comes out regularly,” said Riddick.
Kelly conceded his enunciation lapses, saying, “I won’t go into that tirade. But it still does.”
Kelly may have made his name spending the last 26 years growing and resurrecting college football programs in the Midwest, from Division 2 Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame. But he’s still one of us.
He grew up loving Bobby Orr and the Bruins. He knows about Dunkin’ Donuts, Kelly’s Roast Beef, the old Boston Garden, and the Tobin Bridge. He went to college in Worcester. That’s why even the most ardent Notre Dame haters in these parts — that includes the good folks at the Heights — should suspend their animus and root, root for top-ranked Notre Dame in the national title game.
It’s storybook that the Irish-Catholic son of a Chelsea alderman who attended high school at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, played football at Assumption College, and got his first head coaching job with the Assumption women’s softball team in 1984 is one win away from restoring the luster to the most storied program in college football history.
If that’s not worth rooting for I don’t know what is.
Kelly’s accent has faded, but his memory of how he got here hasn’t.
Last May he gave the commencement address at Assumption and spoke to the St. John’s Prep Alumni Foundation. He invites his old college defensive coordinator and the man who gave him his start in coaching, Bernie Gaughan, and four of his old Assumption teammates to South Bend for a game every year.
“I know he didn’t forget his roots, that’s for sure,” said the 74-year-old Gaughan, who still coaches girls’ basketball at Clinton High School.
When Gaughan became head coach at Assumption in 1983, he hired Kelly, who graduated from Assumption that spring with a political science degree, as his linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.
“He was a leader. He was a captain as a junior and a senior. He made all the decisions,” said Gaughan. “We would call the defense. He had the ability to change it at the line of scrimmage. He was a cut above everybody else. He just basically kept studying the defense, and he ended up knowing it better than I did. So, it was a no-brainer to hire him when he graduated.”
Kelly said he remembered having to paint the field before games and turn on his car lights to illuminate late practices while coaching at Assumption. Now, he’s basking in the bright lights of being the Savior of South Bend.
In his third season, Kelly has awoken Notre Dame (12-0) from a nearly 20-year slumber. Notre Dame, which started the season unranked, is No. 1 for the first time since 1993.
Kelly inherited a Notre Dame program that had devolved into mediocrity after a promising start under Charlie Weis, whose “decided schematic advantage” turned out to be quarterback Brady Quinn. These Belichick guys look like geniuses when they have a Brady at QB. When they don’t, not so much.
At a school with a lot of signs, symbols, and superstitions, the third year has been a lucky charm for coaches. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third season.
Kelly has coaxed this Fighting Irish team to the brink of the school’s first national title since 1988. The truth is this is not the most talented team in the nation.
Notre Dame has a dominating defense led by spirited linebacker Manti Te’o, who should have won the Heisman Trophy but was the victim of the award’s perpetual discrimination against defenders. But the offense doesn’t have a Tim Brown, a Rocket Ismail, or a Jerome Bettis. It ranked 74th in the country in scoring. It didn’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver.
Kelly had redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson on a string all season, yo-yo-ing him in and out of the lineup.
Befitting a Catholic school, Notre Dame had a few prayers answered to reach South Florida. The Irish won five games by a touchdown or less. They won a controversial game in overtime against Stanford and escaped in triple OT against Pitt.
But Kelly is a staunch believer in the pluck of the Irish, not the luck of the Irish.
“Honestly, I don’t believe [in destiny]. I think you get what you deserve,” he said. “We had some close games this year, but to win those close games vs. losing those close games, you have to have more than just luck. You have to have a will, a determination. You have to have a confidence.
“And I believe that all of those things have to be built. I have not built any programs based upon we’re going to get good luck or we’re a team of destiny.”
Kelly looks comfortable in the underdog role against Nick Saban and Alabama because he has been beating the odds his entire football career.
The odds of going from an assistant at Assumption College to the most high-profile Catholic post outside of the Vatican are astronomical.
National championship or not, Kelly isn’t just one of us. He is a winnah.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.