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At LSU, Mass. native Brian Kelly has reached the top of college football. The journey started as a softball coach at Assumption

At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly led the Irish to an overall record of 113-40.Ezra Shaw/Getty

Tony Gannon knows what it was like to be around Brian Kelly. How Kelly’s vision for himself was always greater than his circumstances.

Kelly and Gannon were new to the coaching game at Assumption College back in 1983. Kelly had played football there, while Gannon played at nearby Worcester State.

They knew each other in passing, but it wasn’t until Kelly, who was born in Everett and raised in Chelsea, and Gannon stepped into coaching roles at Assumption that Gannon realized he wasn’t rubbing shoulders with just another guy.

“I remember him and I going out for beers all the time like it was yesterday,” Gannon said during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Clinton, where he was a 30-plus year educator, coach, and athletic director. “His goal was to become a college football coach. And he’s done it.”


Kelly has done it, and then some. He recently accepted the head job at LSU, agreeing to a 10-year, $95 million contract, making him one of college football’s highest-paid coaches. That was after coaching Notre Dame from 2010-21. Before that, it was the University of Cincinnati. His path also had stops at Central Michigan and Grand Valley State. He even was the freshman girls’ basketball coach in Clinton. Yet the foundation of his journey is embedded at Assumption, where Kelly served as not only the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 1983-86, but also the softball coach.

Brian Kelly celebrates a 2009 win at Cincinnati.David Kohl

On the gridiron, Kelly’s talent for relaying a message and getting his players to respect him was evident. Keep in mind, at Assumption, he was around 23 years old, fresh out of college. Many of the players were friends and former teammates. Suddenly, they became players he instructed. But Kelly’s talent for seeing the game differently, and making those around him better, couldn’t be denied. It was a skill that former Assumption head coach Bernie Gaughan knew had the potential to make Kelly a star.


“Bernie saw something in Brian,” said Gannon, who is two years older than Kelly and handled the defense alongside Kelly. “The things that I can remember was how sharp he was and how he picked the little things up, you know? And, I mean, he didn’t stay at Assumption very long before [leaving] to Grand Rapids. He was a very good coach.”

Kelly left the same impact on the diamond. He was hired by Rita Castagna, who founded Assumption’s softball program in 1976 and became its head coach. Castagna was later elevated to athletic director and hired Kelly as her successor. It was a position he held from 1984-87. In that span, his teams went 64-54, including 21-5 during his first year at the helm.

Regardless of the sport, communication and the ability to motivate were part of Kelly’s DNA.

Brian Kelly ended his tenure at Notre Dame as the all-time winningest coach in school history.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

“I think he did have a vision of what he wanted us to do,” said former Assumption third baseman Helen Russell, who played under Kelly for three seasons. “The challenges that he presented to us to be our best. He taught us how to win in a different way. And I think he treated us with respect as athletes, and female athletes. So he really worked to build our talents, and helped create this winning environment.”

Kelly’s position today isn’t a surprise to the people he’s coached. The passion for coaching and guiding, despite the sport, is at the center of his endeavors.


“It wasn’t like he demanded respect,” said former Assumption captain and college Hall of Famer Karen Doucette, who played two seasons for Kelly. “People were really drawn to him. He was a good guy. You knew he was passionate about the sport and about us and everybody doing well.”

Kelly’s path is always moving forward. Russell said it was hard to imagine him leaving Notre Dame, but the LSU job was difficult to pass up. Plus, it aligned with his mission. But even though Kelly has advanced to the top of the college football ranks, he’s brought some of his former Assumption players along for the ride.

Brian Kelly is introduced as the new head coach at LSU.Jonathan Bachman/Getty

In 2014, for instance, a number of Kelly’s former softball players, including Russell, went to visit him at Notre Dame.

“He spoiled us rotten,” Russell said. “We met him and he gave us the full tour. I mean, we were in the locker room just in awe of what he had done. It’s an extra path he’s taken.”

A path Kelly foresaw.

“He had vision,” said Gannon. “He knew.”

Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.