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Justin Jackson: There were many sides to John Kelley, who was always misunderstood by those looking in from the outside

Feb. 29—MORGANTOWN — John Kelley never hid from controversy.

Coaching cliches—the University High football coach rarely used them. If you wanted to venture down the path of knowing what was truly on Kelley's mind, all you had to do was ask him.

And then get ready.

"He's pure entertainment, " was the way longtime UHS assistant Eric Snyder tried to describe Kelley, who announced his resignation as the Hawks' head coach on Thursday. "When he talks about going to that coach's office and trying to solve the world's problems, yeah, that's exactly what he does.

"Sometimes it's a hilarious answer. Sometimes it's a good answer. Sometimes it's both."

That's a side to Kelley few got to see, such is the way for coaches who have been around a while.

Kelley was indeed that—around for a while—having begun his coaching career at UHS as an assistant in 1983, long before the birth of the internet or the iPhone.

There was so much more to Kelley than what was seen on Friday nights, not that those weren't generally entertaining, too.

For starters, Kelley didn't wear his passion and love for University High on his sleeve, but rather his calf, which is where he sports a tattoo of the school's logo.

"I know he loved University High, " said former standout Scott Gyorko, who went on to play at WVU. "When you think University High football, you think of John Kelley. I loved playing for him. He made things like just going to practice every day, he made it fun. He was always a fun guy to be around."

Again, that's a side to Kelley few got to see.

To most of us, Kelley stood as an old school imposing figure, one who walked the sidelines with the demeanor of a drill sergeant while yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs.

That stuff wasn't for show. True, that was a part of who Kelley was, but it just happened to be a small part that was seen by the most people.

"That's what frustrates me the most, " he said. "It frustrates me beyond belief. People don't know me. They see one action on a Friday night and make a judgement and say that's the way I am.

"They don't know me as a person. They don't see the relationships I've built with kids. They don't see any of that stuff."

In all honesty, Kelley may go down as one of the most misunderstood coaches there ever was in Monongalia County.

"Yes, there is a misconception of who he is, " said Lance Hoover, the quarterback of the 1994 UHS team that played in the state championship game. "He was never a drill sergeant. He was very detailed in his coaching, but unless you spent a lot of time with him away from the football field, you never saw who he really is."

In truth, Kelley probably had more sides than a political debate.

He made outrageous statements to the media, like calling for a federal investigation if one of his deserving players didn't win an award or make first-team all-state.

"He'll definitely tell you how it is, " Gyorko said. "That's why it was so fun to play for him."

One time, before the 1998 Mohawk Bowl, Kelley predicted if the Hawks were to beat rival Morgantown High that it would be the biggest upset since, "Truman beat Dewey."

Of course, UHS then went out and won that game, which probably sparked a few more memorable comments.

"Sometimes John would say things that were out there, that's for sure, " former Morgantown High head coach Glen McNew said. "Sometimes it would rub you the wrong way, but you also couldn't blame him.

"John was dedicated to University High. That was his way of defending his school and sticking up for his players. You can't fault him for that."

And Kelley is not one to back down from whatever he says.

"I probably have turned a lot of people off, because I say what everybody else is thinking, " he said. "I'm going to continue to do that."

With that, Kelley quickly points out all that weighs on high school athletics in this state, much of which, he admits, were major reasons for his resignation in the first place.

That includes opening up a sort of transfer portal at the high school level, to adding a fourth classification in West Virginia, as well as a referee shortage and legislation that, if passed, would allow athletes to play non-sanctioned sports during the high school seasons.

"There are hundreds of people out there who know what's going on right now is wrong, " Kelley said. "I'm not just going to sit back and swallow it and say I'm going to take it. I'll speak out if I think it's wrong, and I did that in the past."

The perception of John Kelley, that's what we asked of McNew, who spent many nights on the opposite sideline from Kelley throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Both coaches are credited for not only building expectations at their schools, but for also taking a local rivalry and turning the Mohawk Bowl into a statewide institution.

"The rivalry got so intense, probably more intense than it should have been, " McNew said. "In a way, that intensity made things more fun. It made me work harder. I'm sure it made John put in a lot of long nights, too.

"What people don't know about John is how good of a guy he really is. I know it, but the rivalry got so intense that it probably never allowed us to become good friends."

Even with all of this, have we uncovered just who John Kelley is ? Probably not, so we just asked him.

"I don't know, " he replies with a smile. "I'm still trying to figure it out. I consider myself to be a loner. I'm not a shy person, but I'm different. If given the opportunity, I'm a pretty fair guy."

Kelley said he wasn't sure what life after football had in store for him.

McNew did have a suggestion.

"What I would tell John is to go out and buy a fishing pole and let's go enjoy some time on the lake together, " McNew said. "I think that would be really great."