Monday, August 10, 2009

Is this guy one of the best coaches in the country?

I was working on putting together a post about Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly when I discovered that Dr. Saturday had gotten there first. Kind of.

While the Doc does a nice job of quantifying exactly how far Cincinnati has risen in the two years Kelly has been in charge, I think the overall picture is a little bit muted. What's important is that every school Kelly has coached at has improved massively, and there's only one coach I can think of with a comparable history of success (I'll get to that in a minute).

Going back to his days at Division II Grand Valley State, Kelly's success -- which has come in places not exactly known as football hotbeds -- is indisputable. While the Lakers had always been a good team in D-II, they had never won a national title, and to say that Kelly took them to another level would be an understatement. He never finished under .500 in 13 years at GVSU, and his overall record was a ridiculous 118-35-2, including a 41-2 mark and two national titles in his final three years. And that record didn't come by way of weak scheduling or a bad conference; it came from a consistently dominant passing game that absolutely obliterated several D-II and NCAA records (look up Jeff Fox, Curt Anes or David Kircus, if you're interested), which is all the more impressive when you consider that Kelly calls his own plays but actually started at GVSU as a defensive backs coach and then a defensive coordinator.

After jumping up a level to Central Michigan, which had plummeted to the bottom of the MAC with a 12-34 record during Mike DeBord's four-year tenure, the turnaround was quick and thorough: 4-7 to 6-5 to MAC champions, with the added bonus of developing projected first-rounder Dan Lefevour at QB. The numbers on offense:

2003 (under DeBord): 96th passing, 69th total, 79th scoring
2004 (under Kelly): 47th passing, 39th total, 79th scoring
2005: 26th passing, 35th total, 76th scoring
2006: 22nd passing, 32nd total, 23rd scoring

Cincinnati was probably a more comparable situation to Grand Valley than to CMU, with Mark Dantonio leaving the Bearcats in solid shape (7-6 and a bowl berth his final year). But as noted in Dr. Saturday's piece, Cincinnati had never finished in the AP top 25 before Kelly's arrival, so his two seasons -- with a 21-6 record, two top-25 finishes, one Big East title and one Orange Bowl appearance -- have been arguably the two best in school history.

Last year's Big East championship team was particularly strong defensively, but the offensive improvement at UC has still been drastic:

2006 (under Dantonio): 51st passing, 61st total, 82nd scoring
2007 (under Kelly): 20th passing, 30th total, 16th scoring
2008: 26th passing, 52nd total, 55th scoring

If you're wondering about last year's dropoff, keep in mind that the 2008 team went through quarterbacks like Charlie Weis goes through candy. Dustin Grutza was the starter going into the season and put up excellent numbers in the first two games before breaking his leg; Pike then came in for two games and played even better than Grutza did before suffering an arm injury that knocked him out for two games; and Chazz Anderson then had two uninspiring performances before Pike returned and put a stranglehold on the starting job.

In two years, the quarterbacks Kelly has had to work with have been Pike, Grutza and former Wake Forest disappointment Ben Mauk, and Cincinnati has put up the offensive numbers shown above while finishing eighth (in 2007) and 32nd (in 2008) in pass efficiency. In other words, it doesn't really matter who's under center -- Kelly makes the passing game go. The running game has always been somewhat of an afterthought (although not nearly to the extreme of a Mike Leach or Hal Mumme in terms of percentage), but there's no question that the guy can coach offense.

In fact, there's another bright young coach who comes to mind when I think of Kelly, one whose consistently high-scoring offenses brought immediate turnarounds and historic success to formerly anonymous mid-majors before he moved on to bigger and better things. The guy I'm thinking of is Urban Meyer, and things have worked out pretty well for him since making the jump to Florida.

And based on Kelly's track record, there's little doubt in my mind that he'll experience similar success when (not if) he gets the big-time job he deserves.

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