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No punts, angry DMs and the burning passion for football behind Presbyterian’s Kevin Kelley

CLINTON, SC — OK, so the plan was to drive down to Presbyterian College this week and interview Kevin Kelley, the dude who never punts, about the incredible start to his first season as a college football coach. The plan was to talk about Week 1, when quarterback Ren Hefley set an FCS record with 10 TD passes in an 84-43 rout of NAIA school St. Andrew’s University, as well as the hammer-down mentality behind the following weekend’s 68-3 throttling of NCAA Division II’s University of Fort Lauderdale, producing 635 yards of offense and, yes, zero punts.

Yes, the plan was to visit sleepy Clinton, South Carolina, on Wednesday, two days after College GameDay had been there to shoot a feature for this weekend’s show from Notre Dame-Wisconsin in Chicago and three days after an extensive profile of Kelley was published in newspapers throughout the Carolinas. The idea was to have a chat that might provide even further insight into Kevin Kelley’s head, the one that contains what has been described as football’s version of “A Beautiful Mind.” Talking ball. Talking unconventional ball. Talking trick plays on second down in the first quarter. Talking about not even carrying a punter on the roster. About winning nine Arkansas high school state titles in 18 seasons. About having Bill Belichick on speed dial. About whatever other fun football topics on which we might giddily gab.

But instead, when walking into the cinder block conference room that the coach has commandeered as his office and strolling past the wall of framed media stories (Time magazine listed his no-punt offense alongside the AIDS vaccine and teleportation as the greatest inventions of 2009), the 52-year-old human powerplant that is Coach Kelley wasn’t his normal spirited self. Instead, Kelley was hunkered down behind his laptop, staring at a tweet, running one hand through his gray hair while holding his phone in the other. A member of his Presbyterian College team, a reserve, had posted a rather unflattering comment about his new head coach. The post was gone now, but the tweet was a shot of poison into his locker room’s morale and Kelley wanted to have the antidote ready by the time practice started later that afternoon.

No matter who called today, even Belichick, who checks in with Kelly multiple times a week, would have to wait until this Twitter thing was resolved. That waiting list included any sportswriters who just happened to be wandering around the room reading framed stories from Sports Illustrated (“Just Go for It!”) and letters sent from the White House (“Congratulations on your 200th victory!”).

“Sorry about this,” Kelley said as he was finally able to stand up from behind his desk and extend a handshake. “This is what it’s like right after you lose a game 72-0.”

Not many people know what that feels like to lose a football game by ten touchdowns, plus a salt-in-the-wound safety. But even those few who do, including the players on the Presbyterian roster, have no idea what it’s like to lose a game by 10 touchdowns plus a safety and then spend the next week willingly submitting to life as a social media punching bag.

That’s what Kevin Kelley was doing on Wednesday, willingly flicking through his torched timelines, a scrolling that started during PC’s four-hour bus ride home from their butt-whipping at the hands of the Campbell University Fightin’ Camels.

Dang, Coach, wasn’t losing the game bad enough? Why are you doing this to yourself?

“I am bluntly transparent, which is probably my problem,” he said, holding up his phone and pointing at a list of unpleasant DMs. “I accept it and I’m OK with it. The very passion that I love about football, the passion that for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday makes people forget about race and politics and everything that divides us, that’s the same passion that drives the haters when the games are over. They love the game so much that they just have to say something. And for most of my career, they’ve wanted to say something to me. If you’re going to embrace the good about that passion, then you’d better know how to deal with the bad side of it, too.

“That’s how I reason my way through this.”

But why him? Why so much ire and fire pointed at a guy who was coaching high school football one year ago? Why so much venom spewed at the head coach of the NCAA’s smallest Division I school, a university with fewer than 1,000 students and one of the tiny handful of FCS teams that play non-scholarship football? How can it be that this guy is the one who has his phone number and email address posted on college football message boards so that fans who don’t even know where Presbyterian College is can leave him threatening voicemails and uplifting attaboys of “I f—ing told you this gimmicky s— wouldn’t work!”

“Coach Kelley can be a polarizing figure among traditional football people because he doesn’t coach traditional football,” explained PC athletic director Rob Acunto, who has been a soccer coach and athletic administrator at schools ranging from the SEC to the Ivy League. “But the fact that he doesn’t coach traditional football is exactly why we hired him in the first place. He looks for angles and advantages to win games. Presbyterian College is looking for angles and advantages to have a winning football program.”

Acunto also no doubt hired Kelley because of the buzz his arrival would create, and it has. Kelley is, without debate, the most nationally recognizable high school football coach since then-Briarcrest Christian head coach Hugh Freeze was made famous by his role in the Memphis, Tennessee, story that became the basis for Michael Lewis’ “The Blind Side” and the movie it spawned.

Kelley’s meteoric rise is well-documented.

In 2003, faced with the task of changing the fortunes of proud-but-limited Little Rock, Arkansas, high school Pulaski Academy, Kelley began searching for advantages through analytics, leaning into his background as an accounting student and science teacher. He became obsessed with the game clock and stopwatch, searching anywhere and everywhere on the field to find time in chunks both large and small that his team could use to its benefit when moving the football downfield or preventing the other team from doing the same. He sought to create imbalances, physically and psychologically. He dove into books on economic theory and started watching game film inside-out, following the Air Raid philosophy of creating space where the ball could be thrown, but drilling that process down to microseconds.

He ditched punting because the numbers told him that fourth-down conversion rates were in his favor versus what he saw as the limited benefits of trying to tilt field position by kicking, a new twist on what old coaches used to say about throwing passes: There are three things that can happen when you punt the football and two of them are bad. He also started calling for onside kicks following any touchdown because it meant his team might get the ball back sooner and it would also cause his opponent to spend an unusually heavy amount of time preparing for those onside kicks during weekday practices. It was like playing late night Madden Football on your gaming console with all the easy settings turned up and all the running plays turned off, only in real life.

When his teams started stacking up wins and state championships, Kelley started receiving invites to analytics conferences not as an attendee but as a speaker. He started receiving innovation awards, including Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Disruptor Awards, which gave him a hammer for a trophy that sits on his desk as he reads ugly tweets.

“I stood between a woman who’d won the Nobel Prize and the man who basically invented modern rocket fuel,” Kelley explained as he wielded the hammer, his voice a near-dead ringer for Mike Gundy, but at a Jimbo Fisher-like pace. “They’re all saying, ‘You guys are geniuses!’ I was like, there are a lot of geniuses in this room, but I’m not one of them. I’m a dang football coach.”

When you win 200 high school games and don’t punt and Robert De Niro is giving you hammer trophies, then the sportswriters and TV cameras are inevitably going to show up. And they have. HBO, USA Today, ESPN, not to mention a crew that follows Kelley around nearly 24/7 for a web series.

“Attention, awards, media, that creates excitement with a lot of people, but it also creates resentment with a lot of people,” Kelley explained this week. “If you beat someone by a bunch of points, you’re a bully. If someone beats you by a bunch of points, you’re a fraud. That’s fine. I suppose they all think they are being original, but I have heard it all before and they don’t have anything for me now that I haven’t heard from back in the day when we started playing this brand of football.”

He rattles off stories from Arkansas high school football that make mean tweets seem like a roll of Sweet Tarts. Strangers on his front lawn. His wife, Dana, approached by angry women in a stadium bathroom. An all-out multiyear war against a Little Rock rival that was pushed over the edge when a local news story painted it as rich white kids vs. poor Black kids.

“I love football. Football saved my life. I would have killed myself between 8 and 13 years old if it weren’t for football,” Kelley said. “I had a horrible life growing up. Dad in and out of the house. Alcoholism. Mom and stepdad at work in the factory at all hours. Football is what got me out of bed every single day and nothing else. You think getting called an idiot by some guy I’ve never met because I lost a football game is gonna hurt me? I’m a grown-up and I grew up hard. I can take it.”

He doesn’t just take it. Deep down, one gets the feeling that he relishes the conflict. He certainly relishes the told-you-so when that conflict is over. Kelley often points to a milestone moment in his life and career, the first time he read another Michael Lewis work, 2003’s “Moneyball,” about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s embracing analytics to compete with megateams who had three times his payroll to spend on superstars. That’s the same year Kelley took over as head coach at Pulaski Academy.

Now, as he did then, Kelley slips into that role of Brad Pitt-as-Billy Beane staring down a room full of old, crusty baseball scouts and wears it like a pair of well-broken-in coaching shorts, and that daily grind to change football minds isn’t limited to head-scratching visiting coaches or anonymous Twitter trolls.

“The biggest challenge for me as a college coach versus my years at Pulaski, and both Bill and Gus warned about this, is changing the mentality and culture of a team that is used to losing,” he said.

He is speaking of Bill Belichick and Gus Malzahn, an old foe from the Arkansas high school days and the demigod of every high school coach who dreams of one day moving up to college.

Kelley took the PC job in May, after the COVID-19-postponed spring FCS season had just ended, and didn’t meet most of his team until practice started in August. He tells the story from that very first week, about a running back who kept running in the wrong direction on a play and pushed back when he was corrected. Then he mentions a wide receiver who refused to listen when Kelley was trying to convince him that instead of a standard in-route that goes around a defensive back to get him turned around, darting inside sooner because it gets him in position for a catch sooner. He showed both players the analytics and the film to prove his point. But both grumbled, “Whatever. This playbook is never going to work, Coach.” Then he mentions the reserve who took to Twitter that very morning to rip the coach in front his teammates and the world.

“I say to all those guys, so what if you’ve been running that play to the outside your whole college career? And so what if you’ve been running that pass route the same way your whole college career?” he asked. “And so what if you don’t like me being your coach. Because guess what, you won 14 games in four years! This program has won on conference championship in a hundred years of playing football. It’s never won. Ever. So, what are you hanging on to? You should be willing to run Duck Duck Goose if I want to run it!”

Kelley knows that there’s only one way to convince his Blue Hose (PC’s mascot, an homage to the stockings worn by its first teams a century ago) that his unconventional methods are worth their study, practice and math skills: winning. When they were 2-0 and setting FCS passing records, there was little complaining to be heard. But leaving the field at Campbell beneath a scoreboard that read 72-0 turned out to be the Camels’ straw that broke their backs. Kelly admitted that he made a huge mistake. He knew his non-scholarship squad wasn’t likely to hang with Campbell’s full-scholarship roster — likely the toughest opponent they will face this season. But instead of swallowing his disruptor pride and mercifully running out the clock on the ground, Kelley kept slinging footballs downfield, and Campbell intercepted seven of them, including a fourth-quarter pick-six that made it 65-0.

“I wasn’t thinking about the mental impact. I saw their faces on the sideline, but not until it was too late. If we’d run out the clock, the final score is probably 52-14 and I’m probably not dealing with everything I am dealing with all week. Our players aren’t the only ones on a learning curve. I am, too. A big one,” he said.

It is Wednesday morning, and if someone told Kevin Kelley that he could board the bus for Saturday’s game at Dayton — the first conference game of the season against a fellow non-scholarship FCS Pioneer Football League team — he would load up his gear right now and start heading north. Football has solved most of the problems in his life. It’ll probably solve this one, too.

“We work 24 hours a day, all week. But the results on Saturday are what makes things happen,” he said. “We win again and you come back here next week, you’ll see a different group of players. All the sudden, people will say, ‘Hey, that Kelley guy, he knows how to coach again!'”

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