Brian Kelly is a college football lifer, a coach who has moved up the ranks in most impressive fashion.
Kelly started his coaching career as an assistant at Assumption College soon after his playing days ended. He eventually became the coach at Division II Grand Valley State.
After winning a Division II national title and spending 17 seasons with the Lakers, Kelly moved on to Division I football at Central Michigan. That led to the head job at Cincinnati.
By building the Bearcats program into a Big East champion, Kelly parlayed that into the highest-profile job in all of college football.
Now in his third season at Notre Dame, Kelly has the storied Fighting Irish in Monday’s BCS National Championship Game for the first time.
There is word that the Chicago Bears would like to speak to Kelly about possibly bringing his whistle over from nearby South Bend and become their new coach after firing Lovie Smith last week.
With NFL teams firing coaches at a rapid pace last week, there are plenty of openings. The Bills hired Doug Marrone away from Syracuse on Sunday. Stanford’s Jim Harbaugh, USC’s Pete Carroll and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano all have left the college ranks for pro jobs the past few years.
Will Kelly continue to build up and move on?
He says he’s not interested. At least not now.
“I think when I took the job at Notre Dame, I think I said it was a dream job,” said Kelly, who signed a five-year deal with Notre Dame and is expected to be in talks for an extension and a boost from his $3 million salary during the offseason.
“I think from my perspective I’ve got the best job in the country, NFL, college, high school, whatever. I just look at the place that I’m at and thankful for the opportunity that I have.”
Kelly did plenty of good work in his 16 seasons at Grand Valley and Central Michigan, although few knew his name until he left Cincinnati a few days after the Bearcats clinched a second consecutive BCS bowl berth.
On Monday, Kelly will roam the Sun Life Stadium sidelines for the first time since Virginia Tech beat the Bearcats 20-7 in the 2009 Orange Bowl.
Although that was a huge game for the Cincinnati program, it pales in comparison to Monday’s big-ticket matchup with the Crimson Tide for the national championship. Kelly hopes to keep bringing the Irish back to the title bout.
“Playing in this game is an incredible springboard into the next season,” Kelly said. “You set a goal, you set a bar. They’ve already been here. You come back the next year, it’s unacceptable for a standard to be any less than being back here again.”
Although the Irish haven’t played in a BCS title game and haven’t played in a BCS bowl game since losing 41-14 to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, Kelly isn’t worried about his team shrinking under the spotlight.
The Irish last won a national title in 1988 by beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame is 0-5 in major bowl games since beating Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.
“They’ll be nervous coming out, they’ll question the moment, the anticipation, just the buildup to playing in the game,” Kelly said. “But once the game starts, they’ll be fine. They enjoy the attention. That’s why they go to Notre Dame. They know that they’re going to get a chance to play on national television and in front of large crowds.
“There will be a little bit of nervousness that will go along with the start of the game, but they’ve handled this whole process very well, and I expect that to continue.”
Unlike Notre Dame, Alabama has been here before.
The Crimson Tide are trying to repeat as national champions and win their third title in the past four seasons. Notre Dame played in the Sun Bowl two seasons ago and the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando last year.
“I knew of Coach Kelly when he was at Grand Valley because of the success that he had there and certainly had a lot of respect for that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
“Certainly no surprise that in the three years that he’s been at Notre Dame he’s built arguably one of the best programs in the country relative to the success that he’s had there and the opportunity that’s created for his team this year. … He’s been successful everywhere he’s been.”