From Division II Grand Valley State, where he won two national titles, to Central Michigan, where he won a MAC championship, to the University of Cincinnati, where he led a team to a 12-0 record, to, now, Notre Dame, where in his third season he took the once moribund Irish to the national title game, there's an obvious constant.
Brian Kelly has always been successful. And Brian Kelly has always been a climber.
That the NFL was on the horizon should surprise no one. Until word broke Wednesday with ESPN saying Kelly has met with the Philadelphia Eagles and there is mutual interest, the horizon still seemed off in the distance.
The interview, according to the NFL Network, took place Tuesday, just hours after the Irish's 42-14 BCS title game loss to Alabama, a disappointment that only slightly diminished a dream season. Kelly is now said to be out of the country for a brief vacation, an entirely separate bizarre turn. Notre Dame declined to comment on the reports.
For Philadelphia, there is risk all over this one. Kelly doesn't have a single day of NFL experience, either as a player or a coach. At the same time there's a simple and powerful angle to sell the fan base. Kelly wins. Everywhere. And he did it at programs that either hadn't ever achieved such success, or in the case of Notre Dame, not seen it for years.
A Philly fan base desperate for success after the slide under Andy Reid might buy into that. And while he's known as an offensive coach, a developer of talent and a fine motivator, this past season he won with defense in South Bend, a desperate need for the Eagles. Moreover, he's known as a terrific in-game manager, with solid adjustments. There's no need to bring up Reid's reputation on that.
Still, this would be a leap of faith. Kelly played ball at little Assumption College in Massachusetts, and after a brief stint in political organization he worked his way up slowly through the college coaching ranks. His time at even the highest level of college football is limited – three years at ND and three years at UC, if you consider the Big East that.
At 51 he would arrive as a newcomer to the league, yet lacking the reputation as an offensive savant like Oregon's Chip Kelly, whom the Eagles, among others, also pursued.
This would be, for Philly, a gamble.
It would be, for Brian Kelly, a stunning departure also.
Again, only the most devout Irish fan could believe that Kelly was going to stay forever in South Bend. In truth, the national demands of the job, from recruiting to alumni responsibilities, tend to wear everyone out. Lou Holtz, the last ND coach who wasn't asked to leave, said he was so exhausted after 11 seasons he thought he was too tired to coach anymore. After a brief rest, he realized he was just too tired to coach Notre Dame, so he took the South Carolina job.
Kelly is only in his third season, one in which the Irish arrived in national contention ahead of schedule. This would seem to be the time for Kelly to enjoy the fruits of his labor, to ride the momentum and see exactly what this program can do. He's always been pushing for the next job. Now here was a job he could dig in and see what was possible.
No, the blowout loss to 'Bama wasn't fun, but no one thought the Irish would get to the title game this year, and no one thinks it's their last crack. The Irish, as long as Kelly was around, were back.
He returns a star-studded team, including most of the vaunted defensive line, freshman quarterback Everett Golson and plenty of skill players. Manti Te'o has graduated, but there is plenty of young talent there.
And more is coming. Kelly is sitting on the current No. 1 ranked recruiting class according to rivals.com, a group flush with the kind of athletes from across the country that Notre Dame knows it needs if it wants to come back and beat an Alabama some day.
"Winning," Kelly said earlier this year, "sure does help."
Yet just days after brushing aside, but not burying, interest in the NFL, he's reportedly looking at the opportunity to take on another enormous challenge, at the game's highest level.
For Notre Dame this is a gut-punch. The Irish have suffered through nearly two decades of poor to average coaches while a perception was built that the school could never again be nationally relevant due to strict academics, location, a lack of conference affiliation and a host of other items.
Then when Notre Dame finally gets a capable coach who quickly proves none of that is true, who restores a measure of glory and has the program primed for even more, it might lose him?
That quickly? And to the Eagles?
You could argue this is a classic power play to use NFL interest – real or rumored – into a lucrative contract extension. Notre Dame is the king of those sucker jobs, having once handed Charlie Weis a ten-year deal just because gossip spread that an NFL team might want to talk to him at the end of the season.
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The thing is that Kelly was already going to get paid. He was already in the perfect position. He restored Notre Dame, bringing joy to one of the wealthiest alumni bases in major college football. He'd earned his raise.
No, the interest in the NFL is real. It's always been real, the ultimate spot for an upwardly mobile coach.
Brian Kelly has always won. Brian Kelly has always climbed.
In a nervous South Bend, with no obvious big-name, proven successor (defensive coordinator Bob Diaco?) standing by, everyone waits to see if the jump comes sooner, far sooner, than they ever imagined.
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