Jason Kelce’s heart was broken the last time he was in the same room with Brian Kelly, who waited until the end of the University of Cincinnati football team’s awards banquet on Dec. 10, 2009, to tell his Bearcats players he was leaving them after a 12-0 regular season for Notre Dame. Kelce, then a redshirt junior starting center for the Bearcats, said it was a year after the abandonment that his rage finally subsided.
Notre Dame fans were stunned to read reports Wednesday that head coach Brian Kelly interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I started crying, more for the guys in the room because I knew it was going to kill us for [the Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida] coming up,” said Kelce, now a second-year pro with the Philadelphia Eagles, and who started all 16 games as a rookie and two this season before a knee injury sidelined him for the year in mid-September. “It was definitely an emotional night when [Kelly] told us.”
So when reports surfaced Wednesday that Kelly, after his third season with the Fighting Irish resulted in a 12-0 regular season and a trip to the BCS National Championship, had met with Philadelphia brass Tuesday about the vacant head coaching position — a day after Notre Dame’s Monday’s 42-14 loss to Alabama — Kelce empathized with Irish players. He was also very intrigued by the idea of playing for Kelly again.
And what would his first words to Kelly be if the two were to reunite in the City of Brotherly Love?
“We meet again,” Kelce said jokingly.
“At the time, I was upset with him,” he added. “As I’ve had time to look back and reflect on it, it’s a tough thing to handle from his perspective. I think he did kind of always dream about coaching Notre Dame. I think that was kind of his dream job in college. It makes sense, and you get paid more. I’m not as upset as a lot of other people in Cincinnati still are to this day.”
Two days before squaring off against the Crimson Tide, Kelly sidestepped questions about the National Football League before finally saying it’s “not an option.” The verbal route he chose to reach that seemingly definitive conclusion was peppered with plausible deniability.
It was the same tactic Kelce said Kelly used in the days before leaving Cincinnati. Kelce added that, despite Bearcats players telling reporters Kelly promised he wasn’t going anywhere, that’s not what happened.
“I didn’t hear that once,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of coaches say this is their dream place, where they always wanted to be or they really like the kids and ‘Why would I want to leave?’ The guys that are firm in staying, they’ll come out and say, ‘I’m not going anywhere; I’m staying.’ That was never said by Kelly, so a lot of guys said he lied. That just wasn’t the case.
Eagles center Jason Kelce felt jilted when Kelly left Cincinnati for South Bend, but would welcome a reunion in Philadelphia.
“The same thing happened with Mark Dantonio, which I don’t think you can ask for a classier coach in the world than that guy. He’s pure class. Both he and Kelly said they wanted to stay and liked where they were at, but at the end of the day they had a better opportunity. Guys hear what they want to hear.”
Notre Dame players heard the news Wednesday and have yet to hear an official statement from Kelly or athletic director Jack Swarbrick concerning the flirtation with Philly.
Kelce welcomes the opportunity to work with Kelly again, adding that the NFL appeared to be the coach’s end goal.
“To be honest, if you would have asked me that before what has been going on [here], I would have definitely said I would be shocked that he was leaving Notre Dame that early,” Kelce explained. “I know that it has always been a job that he really, really wanted. Three years seems to be a short time to be at a place where you really, really like it.
“I always envisioned him going to the NFL because he’s that type of personality. He kind of blends with that a lot better. But three years seems to be too short at Notre Dame. I thought he wanted to be there, win a national championship or two and then naturally progress into the NFL.”
The driving force behind the meeting between Kelly and Philadelphia, Kelce said, is likely to stockpile ammunition for contract negotiations with Notre Dame, though it was expected that Kelly would have reaped financial rewards for what he accomplished in 2012 anyway.
“I think he could be doing it two ways right now,” Kelce said. “I know for a fact that Trace Armstrong, his agent, loves doing this with the coaches he represents; he loves playing the universities for more money and he also loves getting coaches into those interviews for that reason. I can definitely see him using the Eagles job to leverage more money out of Notre Dame, but you gotta think [Kelly] was already going to get paid from Notre Dame for going to the national championship and a 12-0 season.
“I think he truly is interested in going to the NFL, but I think he could also stay at Notre Dame, take the pay increase and then try the NFL in a couple years. It will be interesting to see what happens.”
Eagles offensive tackle Todd Herremans was recruited by Kelly to play at Grand Valley State, but chose another path to the NFL. He's also interested in rekindling the relationship in Philly.
And if Kelly does end up coaching the Eagles?
“I’ll probably have goose bumps when I see him again,” Kelce said. “We were so successful at Cincinnati. Those were the greatest college years for me when he was the head coach. I wouldn’t be in the NFL today if it wasn’t for him and strength coach Paul Longo. I would be extremely excited. It would be a good experience for me.
Another Philly perspective
Eagles offensive tackle Todd Herremans couldn’t help but chuckle about the prospect of his relationship with Kelly coming full circle. The eight-year pro out of Saginaw Valley State University (Mich.), which is a Division II in-state rival of Grand Valley State, where Kelly got his start as a head coach, was recruited by Kelly in 2000. Many names have been tossed around after longtime Eagles coach Andy Reid was released at the end of December, but Kelly’s in particular piqued Herremans’ interest.
“I’ve followed Coach Kelly’s career ever since he recruited me,” said Herremans, who chose Saginaw Valley because of the opportunity to play right away there rather than redshirt for Kelly at GVSU. “I’ve watched him go to Central [Michigan], Cincinnati and Notre Dame and watched him have success everywhere. I became a fan of him. I used to hate his guts when we played [Grand Valley State] in college because he just always had a team so prepared and was such a really good coach.
“Watching him be so successful, I would love to see him be able to take the next step and go to the NFL if it’s the right fit for him.”
Though significantly toned down during an undefeated 2012 season, Kelly’s in-your-face style hasn’t always worked for other fiery college coaches that made the transition to the professional ranks. Not to mention few college coaches in general, regardless of personality, have accomplished much when trying their hand on Sundays over the last two decades.
“There is a little bit of an adjustment,” he explained. “Some coaches make the adjustment, some are like ‘This was successful in college and I’m going to keep doing the same thing here.’ I’m sure that eventually the players that don’t react to it well will get weeded out and eventually he’ll get everybody on his page. [Kelce] actually thinks [Kelly] would rather coach professional athletes because the things that frustrate him the most are kids that aren’t professional about their work — dumb mistakes and more inexperienced things. In the NFL you’re really not going to get that. If you do, you can just go find somebody else if you don’t like it. You’re not stuck with a kid for so many years because of a scholarship.”
Added Kelce: “Of all the coaches that are in college right now, he might transition the best to the NFL. Kelly runs his teams very similar to an NFL style. He doesn’t preach family as much as a lot of other college coaches do; he doesn’t preach a lot of quotes and stuff like that. It’s kind of like a business model of an organization: If you don’t get the job done the next guy goes in. He’s very professional about the way he goes about things.”
Kelly made a name for himself at Grand Valley by winning two Division II national championships and reaching the title game three straight times in his last three seasons (2001-03) before moving on to Central Michigan. But it wasn’t only the Lakers’ dominance on the field that caught Herremans’ attention 130 miles northeast in Saginaw.
“I think one of the bigger things that people overlook about coaching in the NFL is you have to be a hell of an administrator to be successful in the NFL,” he said. “There are so many things other than coaching that you have to deal with, and I think that’s one thing that set Kelly apart when he was coaching in Division II. He handled himself like it was a Division I program — like a big-time school.
“He did the pressers and got a lot of notoriety for his school. He kind of politicks a little bit as he coaches. I think that he’s well rounded and well suited for an NFL job. … I think he has the tools to be an NFL coach. He’s been successful at multiple levels.”