WORCESTER, Mass. – There’s a one-road loop through Assumption College’s campus, a two-lane ribbon that winds past the all-purpose athletic field, through the quintessential New England foliage and, somehow, into the heart of the College Football Playoff race.
It’s impossible to navigate this year’s first College Football Playoff standings without detouring through Assumption, which plays in the Northeast-10 Conference and whose football program is modest enough that the women’s soccer team lobbed crosses into portable goals in front of the goalposts on Monday.
Three decades apart, two central figures in this year’s FBS title chase graduated from here – LSU graduate transfer Cole Tracy (class of 2017) and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (class of 1983). Each has left an indelible mark on campus, both bringing the school along for a ride and reciprocating their appreciation for the campus that helped mold them.
“It’s been cuckoo,” said Tim Stanton, the school’s vice president of institutional advancement. “It’s enough right now that we follow Brian, now this with Cole, it’s crazy. I said to the president, ‘What are you going to do if Notre Dame plays LSU in a bowl game? It’s going to be like Army-Navy, where the president spends a half on each side.”
Tracy emerged as the best kicker in Division II here, setting the school record for points and field goals. He’s made an unflinching transition to the SEC that’s defied differentiation between Auburn and Kutztown, Georgia and Stonehill. He’s tied for the country’s lead with 21 field goals, including four against Miami, a 42-yard game-winner to beat Auburn and five in a victory over Georgia.
One of the most gratifying parts for Tracy has been shining a light back on Assumption’s tight-knit campus, where he came from his home in California for a simple reason: “I wanted to go where I was wanted.” He held a work-study job in career services and volunteered as the vice president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, an existence that blended him deeply into the student body.
He’s stood out at LSU, where fans have been so appreciative of Tracy’s performance that more than 200 of them have donated more than $16,000 to Assumption. They’ve been so generous that Tracy hopes his performance can help raise $250,000 for a video board at Assumption’s all-purpose stadium. “That’s the best part about this entire thing,” Tracy said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports on Monday. “For [all that Assumption did for me], to be able to bring them recognition. It’s not about the money, for people down here to know what Assumption College is. That’s the craziest part.”
Separated by a generation, Tracy and Kelly are linked by more than the brightest lights of Division I. Both their successes and benevolence have reverberated throughout campus. In the gleaming new white stone Tsotsis Family Academic Center, the atrium is named after Brian and Paqui Kelly. He’s given back generously, serving as the honorary chair of the school’s capital campaign, making one of the lead gifts and endowing a scholarship. He’s even met with groups of Assumption donors in South Bend, working with the school to host a large number of Assumption donors at a Blue-Gold spring game.
Kelly emerged here as an all-conference linebacker, and he’s still seventh in school history in tackles. But his time transcends his playing career, as he held his first coaching jobs here, including as an assistant to former football coach Bernie Gaughan. Kelly also went 64-54 as the school’s softball coach in four seasons, sporting a 1980s haircut out of a “Breakfast Club” trailer. In 1987, Kelly chose a career coaching football over politics and drove his 1980 Ford Escort out to Grand Valley State for a $4,200-a-year job coaching defensive backs.
In his office recently, Kelly said he’s taken great joy in watching the other famous Assumption graduate in college football. “Nobody gave me the heads-up!” said Kelly, his tone laced with sarcasm. “A million bucks, and I don’t even get a heads-up on the kicker!”
After cracking a smile, Kelly acknowledges that he doesn’t need a kicker, as Irish senior Justin Yoon has emerged as Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer. He’s been updated mostly on Tracy’s progress by his own Assumption teammates. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go Division I,'” Kelly said with a laugh. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘We’re getting donations for this kicker. We’re building a dowry.'”
Rest assured, Assumption has no bold Division I ambition, although officials there have dared to dream what could happen if Tracy hit a game-winner to beat Alabama. The perfect karmic kismet for Tracy’s All-American-caliber season at LSU has ended up being an unexpected financial boon. After LSU’s victory over Miami to open the season, Stanton came to work on Monday morning and found out that the school got seven donations for about $500. The amounts included tributes to Tracy’s jersey number, 36, and 54, the length of Tracy’s school-record field goal. Stanton texted Tracy about the spontaneous development — “that’s freaking awesome!” was his response — and he mentioned it in his press conference after the game-winner against Auburn.
That triggered another wave of donations, and Tracy chatted a few times with Stanton before deciding to try and raise enough to build a video board for the school. Tracy flew back to Worcester to see his old friends and teammates during LSU’s bye last weekend. He did an interview with the student TV station and filmed an in-house video to try and raise money for the video board. Tracy decided on focusing the money toward a video board, in part, to help out all sports on a campus where 30 percent of the student population play a sport.
“It wouldn’t just give back to the football program,” he said. “Being the vice president of SAAC, I got to see how important the other sports are as well. All the teams use that field.”
There’s a bittersweet tinge on campus, where Tracy has been followed rabidly by his old teammates. They’ve gone 5-3 without him but can’t help wishing they had one more season with him. Fifth-year senior Ronald Opara, who came in with Tracy, recalled an uncommon intensity that Tracy brought to the weight room and a laser focus — “you could see it through his facemask — each time he kicked. Tracy hit 27-of-29 field goals for Assumption last year, including a 28-yard game-winner at Kutztown to open the year. “We all knew he was going to make it,” Opara said. “If he hadn’t, the six-hour bus ride back would have been miserable.”
Junior punter Seamus Wallace summed up Tracy’s meteoric rise this way: “He’s a great kid. I miss him. But I love seeing him do his thing.”
On Monday morning, as has become his habit a few times a week, Tracy ate his breakfast tacos alone in Tiger Stadium. It holds nearly 100,000 more people at capacity than Assumption’s aptly-named Multi-Sport Stadium, and the student section is more than six times the size of Assumption’s student body. (Stanton pointed out that LSU’s athletic budget is more than double the size of Assumption’s budget as a university.)
As Tracy ponders his new stadium and sudden ascent from anonymity to the playoff race, he’s perhaps most appreciative of how his two school affiliations have blended together.
“I think it’s neat how many LSU fans we have up there now,” Tracy said. “That’s the biggest thing that I got out of it. We’re Tiger fans. I feel like everyone has latched on to my new community, that’s the most rewarding part.”
Tracy heard plenty about Kelly during his time on campus, and acknowledges the providence of two Greyhounds linked at the top of the polls.
“It’s neat to think there’s two people [from Assumption] in college football right now that are kind of making an impact and both are in the top four,” he said. “It’s kind of funny how that worked out.”
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