SB Nation

Tim Casey | January 3, 2013

The Assumption Way

How Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly learned to win

Players knocked on doors. They made phone calls. They sought out friends and family members. Center Jim Grealis even stopped by many of the same houses where he used to deliver newspapers.

This time, however, he was hawking something else: Calendars.

Grealis and his teammates on tiny Assumption College’s club, non-scholarship football squad needed help to offset some of the costs of the 1979 season opener. So the coaches convinced local businesses to advertise in the calendars, and the players did their best Willy Loman impression, selling them throughout the area.

For the first time since the program began in 1967, the Assumption Greyhounds would be facing a true varsity team and flying to a game, going all the way to Pittsburgh to play Duquesne, the biggest game in the players’ young lives. The Dukes had a long and storied history but had not been relevant for a long time. Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen,” had once coached Duquesne, and in the years just prior to World War II, the Dukes had been one of the best programs in the country before dropping the sport in 1950. They began playing as a club team in 1969 and then made the leap to Division III in 1979. The contest versus Assumption would be their first varsity game in nearly three decades.

Accustomed to a few hundred fans watching them play at home in the outer reaches of the school’s a baseball field, the Greyhounds’ road games usually consisted of bus rides of only a few hours from their Worcester, Mass., campus to other small New England schools where they played before similarly small crowds. Flying to a game made it seem like they were playing the Fighting Irish themselves.

Assumption’s roster of around 45 players, most of them from nearby towns, included freshman Brian Kelly

Assumption’s roster of around 45 players, most of them from nearby towns, included freshman Brian Kelly, who grew up in Chelsea, Mass., about an hour away. Fred Glatz, Kelly’s coach at St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic high school, remembers him as a feisty offensive guard and nose guard who did not play much until his senior year. At only 5’10 and 185 pounds, he went unrecruited by any collegiate football program. Still, after enrolling at Assumption, he wanted to continue to play football and joined the school’s club team, a group, like the cheerleaders, funded by the student government association.

For Kelly, club football was a perfect fit, and the current Notre Dame coach earned a starting spot at linebacker before playing a down. He eventually would become a two-time captain and lead the Greyhounds in tackles his final two seasons. His four years at Assumption were the first strides on a long journey that would take him to the most storied football program in the country.

At the start, however, he was just hoping to make it to Pittsburgh.

Assumption’s football team received some funding from the school, but not nearly enough for the Duquesne trip. Although raising the money didn’t turn out to be a problem for Kelly and his teammates, the game didn’t go as planned. Assumption lost 38-0.

“We got our butts kicked,” Grealis said.

The next day, the Worcester Telegram ran an un-bylined article on the game at the bottom of the seventh page of the sports section, below the agate. The student newspaper, Le Provocateur, mentioned only the score in a three-paragraph story in mid-October recapping the Greyhounds’ 0-4 start. Later, in a year-end review column, sports editor Pete Rayno recounted a conversation he overheard at the post office. A student, upset that the football team received $14,000 – 13 percent – of the student government association’s $108,000 yearly budget, some of which went toward the Duquesne trip, seemed angry.

“If they want to get their a— kicked so bad,” said the student, “why the hell did they have to fly out to Pittsburgh when they could have thumbed across town and got it just as bad?”

From this most unlikely start, on Jan. 7 Brian Kelly of Assumption College will stand on the sidelines of Sun Life Stadium in Miami, trying to lead the undefeated Fighting Irish to their first national championship since 1988.

• • •
It’s a different scene than at Notre Dame, where the faithful are ready to erect a statue of Kelly if they defeat Alabama

Today, a visitor to Assumption’s campus can find few signs of Kelly’s history there.

It’s a much different scene than at Notre Dame, where the Fighting Irish faithful are all but ready to erect a statue of Kelly if they can defeat Alabama. Even at the campus of Grand Valley State, the Division II college in Allendale, Mich., where Kelly coached for 17 seasons after leaving Assumption, the school has re-named its 138,000 square foot athletics facility the “Kelly Family Sports Center.”

Enter Laska Gymnasium, Assumption’s modest, two-story athletics center, and evidence of its most famous alum are nearly impossible to find. In the main lobby a glass case filled with memorabilia holds trophies and plaques honoring basketball, softball, men’s tennis, women’s soccer and baseball teams for modest accomplishments like finishing first or second in their league. There’s a plaque honoring Assumption’s women’s crew team for accumulating the most points in the 2010 New England Collegiate Rowing League, framed photos of some of the school’s best athletes from recent years and even a letter honoring a baseball player for being a third team Academic All-American. But nothing about Brian Kelly.

The lone Kelly memento? On a nearby wall are 155 small plaques honoring those individuals and teams that are members of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Each is an identical size, only 3 ¾ inches wide and 4 ¾ inches high, arranged by the year of induction. In the next to last row of the third of four panels, one small plaque no different from the others includes an etching of Kelly’s face. The inscription reads:

Brian K. Kelly ’83
Football • Softball

That’s it. After Kelly gave the commencement address to Assumption’s senior class last May, the school announced he would fund a $250,000 scholarship for the football team, which has since evolved into a Division II program. Still, there are no other mentions of Kelly’s name at the school and no other public indication that the most famous coach in college football began his career on a club football team at a college not exactly known for its sports programs.

• • •
No one grew up dreaming of going to college in Worcester to play football for Assumption

Assumption College is located in the middle of a residential area on the west side of Worcester, one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the blue-collar city that between 1950 and 1980 lost 20 percent of its population as the mills closed and people left for the suburbs. Although the city has since rebounded – Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame point guard, lives across the street from the campus entrance, and some nearby houses are valued at more than $1 million – in the late ‘70s no one grew up dreaming of going to college in Worcester to play football for Assumption.

Today, enrollment at the Catholic liberal arts college is just more than 2000 students, 500 more than when Kelly attended. While the campus exudes a measure of classic New England charm and in recent years has benefitted from an expansion of facilities and programs, in most respects it is considered a notch below Worcester’s other, better-known Catholic college, Cousy’s alma mater, Holy Cross, which itself is considered a step or two below Notre Dame. When Brian Kelly was at Assumption, the gap between the schools was even more pronounced.

“The atmosphere was that of pride in being the underdog,” said Patrick Powers, who received his undergraduate degree from Assumption and his Ph.D in government and political philosophy from Notre Dame, before becoming chairperson of Assumption's politics department, where one of his students was Brian Kelly. “It was, ‘We’re an underdog and nobody knows us but once we put our game face on, they’ll know us.’”

During the first weekend of December, with temperatures in the 20s and snow on the ground, current Assumption football coach Cory Bailey hosted numerous high school football players. He showed them around campus, trying to convince them to play for the Greyhounds.

At this time last year none of his recruits knew Kelly played and coached at Assumption. Now, Bailey estimates that at least half are aware of Kelly’s beginnings. The campus’s affection for the Fighting Irish has increased, as well.

“There are a lot more Notre Dame fans around here,” said Bailey, smiling.

They were proud of Kelly long before he was a coach of anything

Last summer, Bailey worked at Notre Dame’s football camp and in the spring of 2011, he attended a few Fighting Irish practices. Kelly provided Bailey with full access to watch how the program operated, and afterwards sent Bailey a DVD of each practice, so he could see how the Fighting Irish conduct their drills.

Before delivering the graduation speech last May, Kelly had breakfast with Bailey and assistant athletics director Jim Mullen at the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, where Kelly was staying. The 45-minute gathering featured plenty of talk about Assumption.

Bailey is not hesitant to tell recruits about Kelly’s past or the coaches’ interactions.

“It’s great recognition for us,” he said. “It adds a sense of credibility to the program.”

Rita Castagna, a coach and administrator at Assumption from 1974 through 2003, said everyone she knows in the area is discussing Kelly. His name even came up during a recent visit to her dentist.

“He was like, ‘Can you believe it?’” she said. “‘You must be so proud of that guy.’”

They are. And they were proud long before he became the coach of Notre Dame. In fact, they were proud of Kelly long before he was a coach of anything.

• • •

In 1971, Paul Cantiani was busy running his own insurance company and coaching high school and American Legion baseball when his new neighbor approached him with an idea. The man, who had moved from Portland, Maine, to become Assumption’s admissions director, told him the school needed a football coach.

Although Cantiani had no experience either coaching or playing football, Assumption was desperate for someone to manage the foundering club football program that had begun just four years earlier and as yet had no budget. Cantiani, who grew up in a three-decker house in Worcester and never left the city, decided to take the job.

His official title was head coach, but in reality he was the CEO: an organizer, game scheduler, negotiator, fundraiser and marketer. For the most part, he left the coaching responsibilities to his assistants, including defensive coordinator Bernie Gaughan, his friend and a physical education teacher and basketball coach at a nearby high school. Their wives were both nurses and had been college roommates, and the couples often spent time together away from the field.

Both men donated their meager salaries to the Greyhounds and Cantiani also poured thousands of dollars of his own money into the team before the school’s student government association finally began providing some funding, around $15,000 per year. Still, the program was underfunded and Cantiani himself reached out to local businesses, selling ads for the game programs that netted the team another few thousand dollars. Every penny mattered.

When Kelly arrived as a freshman 1979, the program was stable but mediocre and lacked any status either among the student body or the administration. So when Assumption sports information director Steve Morris asked Cantiani several months earlier if he would be interested in playing its season opener against Duquesne in Pittsburgh, Cantiani, who had never been on an airplane, didn’t hesitate. It was important to let his players know they mattered.

“I said, I’m going to go out and I’m going to raise the kind of money for this and we’re going – the whole friggin’ football team’s going,” Cantiani remembered. He raised funds, contributed some himself and sent the players out across the city selling calendars. “I don’t know how much it cost, I don’t know how much I paid.” Cantiani said. “All I know is Assumption College’s football team was on a plane and the captain of the plane announced us on that flight. If you could have seen their eyes, I think you would have died right there.”

That trip was an anomaly. After flying to his first collegiate football game, for the remainder of Kelly’s playing and coaching career at Assumption, the Greyhounds never did so again. They remained a club program until 1988, a year after Kelly left.

“It wasn’t big-time football by any means,” said Jim Grealis, who graduated a year before Kelly.

In fact, it was barely small-time football. The Greyhounds played in the New England Collegiate Football Conference, a league that featured club teams such as Worcester State College, Bentley College, Fitchburg State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stonehill College in Massachusetts as well as Providence College and Roger Williams College in Rhode Island and the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Although the schools played 11-on-11 football and conformed to NCAA rules, as club teams none could offer scholarships.

Assumption practiced five days per week during the fall, but there were no organized offseason activities, no gleaming weight room, no training table, and no classes designed to keep athletes eligible for Saturday afternoon.

In almost every way, it was a do-it–yourself activity, one that taught team members self-reliance. The Friday before home games, after going through a light practice, the players became the grounds crew. Kelly and his teammates would line the field, marking off the yard lines, sidelines and end zones. They even put up their own temporary goal posts. All the school did was cut the grass.

The stands were similar to those seen at high school field hockey or softball games, a few rows of bleachers that held only a couple dozen people. The rest stood on the sidelines. Most games drew fewer than 500 fans, mostly students, friends and family members.

An Assumption home game in 1982

Kelly learned to persevere through conditions that would have caused many others to quit

Cantiani and his team received little support from school administration. He and his players saw themselves as renegades who had to fight for everything – in order to play football at Assumption, a player really had to want to play football. Brian Kelly learned to persevere through conditions that would have caused many others to quit.

In the Sept. 25, 1980 issue of Le Provocateur, the newspaper reported that in the week leading up to Assumption’s 14-10 loss to Fitchburg State, the Greyhounds “had to practice on the softball field next to the duck pond.” The article cited a source claiming a dispute between the football team and the athletics department led to the Greyhounds being banned from using their regular football field, which doubled as the baseball outfield.

Not that practicing on the softball field was a major downgrade. Tom Hazel, Kelly’s teammate for all four years at Assumption, said the field at his high school was “twice as nice” as Assumption’s football field. The equipment was not always the best, either. Hazel kept his helmet from high school because it was better than the one the college provided.

The program was one of five club sports teams (football, lacrosse, indoor track, judo and cheerleading) and academic/extracurricular clubs that all received funding from the student government association. Despite Cantiani’s best efforts, the team still struggled to pay expenses. To raise more money, the football players would run a concession stand at the basketball games and sell raffle tickets and other items. They worked hard for everything they had.

“You did what you had to do,” Hazel said.

Despite these shortcomings – or perhaps because of them – Brian Kelly, known as “Kellso” to his teammates and friends, thrived at Assumption. He was a tough, take-charge kid, a "rah-rah" type of guy who liked to pump up his teammates, just the kind of player the downtrodden program needed. He had no problem assimilating to his surroundings, on or off the field.

Dave Hazel, Tom’s older brother, first met Kelly during double sessions in the summer of 1979, when Hazel was a sophomore and Kelly was a freshman. He remembers Kelly as undersized for a linebacker but also as “intense,” “tough” and “fearless.” As a freshman, Kelly started right away, replacing Mike Maynard, a captain on the 1978 team. During Kelly’s first two seasons, the Greyhounds went only 4-6 and 3-5. To make ends meet, he worked as an on-campus security guard, a job that several other football players held to earn some extra spending money.

Kelly rapidly became one of Assumption’s top players. Before his junior season, Kelly’s teammates selected him as one of four captains, a rarity for a non-senior. He was re-elected the next year. The role suited him well.

“He knew my defense better than I did,” Gaughan said. “It was like having a coach on the field when he played.”

Brian Kelly at AssumptionKelly, No. 63, sits on the bench during an Assumption game in 1980

Even then, Kelly helped motivate the players and didn’t hold back his opinions. He was no wallflower.

“You knew Brian was around,” said Dave Hazel, a senior captain in 1981. “He was pretty intense. It was great playing with him. You knew you could depend on him. There was an enthusiasm he brought with him.”

Said Tom Hazel: “We played because we enjoyed it. Brian was just more passionate about it. He lived for the game a little bit more than some other players. He was a great teammate, a great leader, just a super kid.”

In Kelly’s junior year, the Greyhounds improved to 8-3, still the most victories in school history. They qualified for the National Collegiate Football Association club playoffs but lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Saint John Fisher College from Pittsford, N.Y.

The Greyhounds began Kelly’s senior season in 1982 with a tie and then won seven consecutive games before the final regular season game against rival Worcester State. A victory would qualify the team for the playoffs again.

The local Worcester Telegram rarely provided more than a box score or short recap of Assumption football games, but the day before the Worcester State game the paper ran a long feature on the team. The article noted that even though Assumption was favored, it had lost five consecutive games to the bigger school by a combined score of 110-28.

Spectators stand in the distance at an Assumption game in 1980
Assumption didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Kelly’s football career appeared to be over

As captain, Kelly, who led his team in tackles as a junior and senior, spoke for his team, already talking in the familiar clichés of a football coach. “It always seems we’ve had a mediocre record going into the State game,” Kelly told the newspaper. “But this year you could say State has its proverbial back against the wall. We know we have to win, too, but being favored and undefeated does a lot for a team.”

Worcester State scored the game’s first touchdown and Kelly broke through to block the extra point, but that was about the only highlight for Assumption all day. The Greyhounds lost three fumbles, threw two interceptions and were outgained 460 to 218 yards. They fell behind 43-0 before scoring two points in the final seconds when a botched snap sailed through the end zone for a safety.

Assumption didn’t qualify for the playoffs. Kelly’s football career appeared to be over.

• • •

Patrick Powers, who taught Kelly in two politics courses, recalled Kelly as a “middle of the pack” student, but one who was diligent and disciplined. As part of a work-study program for politics majors, Kelly regularly commuted to Boston to work for Gerry D’Amico, a Massachusetts state senator from Worcester. His duties included research projects, responding to constituent requests and driving the senator around to campaign fundraisers, what D’Amico referred to as “chicken and barbecue events.” His blonde hair and football player’s build caught the attention of female colleagues and D’Amico used to refer to Kelly as “the heartthrob of the fourth floor,” the location of D’Amico’s office in the Massachusetts State House. But his popularity and appearance were not Kelly’s only attributes.

“If you told him, ‘This is something we have to do,’ he grasped it right away,” D’Amico said. “He was very quick at seeing the big picture, very mature for his age.”

After graduation, Kelly continued working in politics in a paid, part-time position in D’Amico’s office. Then D’Amico, the state chairperson for Colorado senator Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign, helped Kelly secure a stint volunteering for Hart.

Hart entered the Democratic race as a heavy underdog to former vice president Walter Mondale. Few took him seriously until he won the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 28, a stunning upset over Mondale, Sen. John Glenn and other contenders.

The campaign went into overdrive and Hart remembers Kelly driving him around when he campaigned in Massachusetts leading into “Super Tuesday.” Hart later won the Massachusetts primary before losing the nomination to Mondale, and understandably does not recall much else about Kelly, one of hundreds of young and ambitious volunteers. Still Hart, now 76, appreciates the work.

“I’m gratified that he chose to work in my campaign,” Hart said. “The help of young volunteers like him would have been crucial in that effort (to win the Massachusetts primary).”

• • •
While Kelly was intrigued with politics, he was unable to leave sports behind

While Kelly was intrigued with politics and considered applying to the FBI, he was unable to leave sports behind. When Rita Castagna, who had served as the softball coach since the program began in 1976, assumed other duties and needed to find a replacement to coach softball for the 1984 season, she knew just the right person for the job – Brian Kelly. Kelly had dated one of Castagna’s players on Assumption’s women’s basketball team and had helped out as a softball assistant in 1983, his senior year.

There was only one small problem. She couldn’t offer Kelly a salary.

No problem, Kelly said. He would work for free.

That’s how the former football player, less than a year after graduating, got his first college head coaching job.

Kelly broke the news of his new position to D’Amico during one of their car rides.

“I said,’ Jesus, Brian, are you trying to get a lot of dates?’” D’Amico said, laughing. “I think I said it a little bit more crassly than that, but I’ll let you use your imagination. He started laughing and said, ‘No, no, no. I think I like coaching.’”

Brian Kelly coaching the 1985 softball team.

At first, Kelly assisted Castagna. Despite the fact that Kelly was not much older than the players, Castagna was impressed with his maturity and knowledge of the sport.

“It was obvious he knew what he was doing,” Castagna said. She soon felt comfortable enough to step aside and let him take over on a full-time basis.

Castagna eventually paid Kelly “a few dollars,” but nothing substantial, not enough to support himself. He lived on campus in an apartment as a resident director and served as an assistant coach for the football team.

He was impressive in every role he took on. After Gaughan became head coach in the fall of 1983, he hired Kelly to coach the linebackers before promoting him to defensive coordinator. “He was very intelligent football-wise and very personable,” Gaughan said.

Still, football was a club sport and Kelly was only an assistant. As head softball coach, the softball team was Kelly’s full responsibility. Although the school had no athletic scholarships and only a limited travel budget, Kelly was an aggressive recruiter. In the spring of 1985, he targeted two high school seniors in Massachusetts who would become among the school’s best athletes: pitcher Ann Gibbons and catcher/first baseman Ann McInerney. He attended their games, making the effort to get to know them as people as well as players. He completely charmed McInerney’s mother and father, both of whom had grown up in County Clare, Ireland. Kelly’s Irish heritage didn’t hurt.

“He was just a great seller,” McInerney said.

Said Gibbons: “He won my mother over, he won my brother over. They really wanted me to go there.”

Kelly told McInerney he had no problem with her playing basketball and softball, something other college coaches would not agree to. McInerney, who grew up 10 minutes from campus, started all four years in softball and became Assumption’s all-time leader in points and second in rebounds in basketball when she graduated in 1989.

Gibbons credits Kelly with helping her secure academic scholarships to help afford college. When she left Assumption, she held the career record in ERA and was the first Assumption softball pitcher to record more than 50 victories. Today both Gibbons and McInerney have joined their old coach in Assumption’s Alumni-Athletics Hall of Fame.

In Kelly’s four years as coach, the softball team did better each year, improving from seven wins in Kelly’s first season to 23 in his final year (1987), becoming one of the top Division II programs in New England. In 1987, the Greyhounds made it to the finals of the Northeast-10 conference tournament. They lost to American International College, a school that gave out eight scholarships at the time. Assumption had none, but they had Kelly.

The young coach was a familiar figure on campus. Players often saw him away from the field, bumping into him in the cafeteria and elsewhere. Still, despite the small age difference between the coach and his players, he wasn’t chummy and didn’t try to be friends. He was already serious as a coach and a mentor, teaching them about more than just softball.

“It was always important how we looked and how we behaved, how we took the field and how we left the field,” said McInerney, now the associate head basketball coach at Holy Cross in Worcester. “He wanted us to act like winners and champions, all that stuff … I have the utmost respect for that man.”

• • •
“He had all the qualities that you want in any aged coach”

Tom Beck didn’t oversell the position, didn’t try to con anyone. The Grand Valley State football coach was looking to fill a vacancy on his staff in 1987, and the opening was anything but glamorous. Grand Valley was a state college in Allendale, Mich., a town a few miles west of Grand Rapids and a place that made Worcester appear cosmopolitan.

The job paid just over $12,000 per year, a sum that Beck knew would turn off many experienced, older coaches. Although the title would be “graduate assistant,” it was a full-time job and included coaching the team’s defensive backfield.

Yet for Kelly, only 25 and single, the opportunity seemed promising. He liked coaching softball, but he loved football. The Lakers were a Division II program coming off a season when they finished 9-2. It was a big step up from Assumption, a position with a future, one that might someday lead somewhere. The paltry salary represented a raise and the job gave him the opportunity to devote himself to football full-time.

Grand Valley State didn’t have enough money in its budget to fly candidates out to its campus for an interview, but if his time at Assumption had taught Kelly anything, it was that money and resources didn’t matter as much as commitment. He paid for the 1,400-mile round trip between Massachusetts and Michigan himself, betting on his own future.

Gaughan had put in a good word for his assistant, and Beck remembers meeting a young man who seemed ready to take the next step in his career. Playing and coaching club football had given him not only the background to coach, but, even at age 25, the background to succeed and overcome any obstacle.

“I got along well with him,” Beck said. “He got along well with me, I presume. He was personable, he was intelligent, he was enthusiastic. He had all the qualities that you want in any aged coach.”

After the interview, Kelly received an offer. He accepted, returned to Worcester, packed up his belongings and moved to Michigan, taking a risk that would alter his life forever.

He was young. He was eager. He was ready.

He was on his way.

And on Jan. 7 the club football kid from Assumption College will try to win a national championship for Notre Dame.

About the Author

Tim Casey, a 2001 Notre Dame graduate, was a staff reporter in the Sacramento Bee's sports department from 2003 through 2007 before earning his MBA degree from Georgetown University in 2009. He now works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company. His freelance sports articles have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and numerous other publications.

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