Kevin Kelley is football’s great wild card. Now he’s taking over at Presbyterian

·7 min read

Kevin Kelley stepped toward the glass windows of a suite area off the mezzanine level at Bailey Memorial Stadium and peered toward the playing surface below.

On the field that Kelley will soon call home, the “Blue Hose” written in block letters across the center of the field is worn. Football yard lines have since been replaced with lining for the recently completed women’s lacrosse season.

An idle cannon that’s blasted on fall afternoons by ROTC members to celebrate Presbyterian College touchdowns sits just off the back left corner of the east end zone, though there haven’t been many scores to commemorate in recent years.

This small corner of FCS football is where the sports’ own Einstein — or Doc Brown perhaps — will begin his latest experiment.

“(Presbyterian) was willing to take what people are calling a risk with me,” Kelley told The State. “And at the same time they were willing to take that risk, I was willing to take that risk, too.”

Kelley’s approach catches PC’s eye

Kelley was introduced Friday as the 16th head coach in Presbyterian history, replacing the since-fired Tommy Spangler, who finished his second stint with the Blue Hose with a 12-29 record.

There’s no mistaking Kelley’s resume. He won nine Arkansas high school state championships over 18 years as the head coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock. His 216-29-1 record over that span is video-game good.

Kelley, in short, is an offensive mastermind. He owns the 12 highest yardage outputs in a season in Arkansas state history. It’s why his teams have won at the rate they have. It’s also part of what guided him to a spot in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame last month.

Numbers aside, it’s the way that Kelley has obliterated Arkansas high school competition that has onlookers in Clinton and around the country talking about a program that has been mostly a map dot in the landscape of FCS football the past 15 years.

Kelley has made a career out of borderline gridiron blasphemy. He doesn’t just throw conventional football wisdom out the window — he hucks it off a mountaintop, finds it after its descent, douses it in kerosene and incinerates it with a flamethrower.

Kelley almost never punts. He always kicks onside during kickoffs — at least until his team is up 21 points.

Kelley’s approach sounds brash, but it’s far more calculated than it might appear. He’s an analytics hound. The numbers, he explains, suggest more possessions in a game mean more points; and more points than your opponents equates to more victories.

The math, in a bizarre and backward way, makes perfect sense.

“He’s highly intelligent,” Kelley’s former defensive coordinator at Pulaski Academy, Madison Taylor, told The State. “But at the same time he’s like a mad scientist. You come away from that, you live across the sideline and you’re like, ‘Wow. He’s so far ahead of his time.’”

Kelley’s insistence on eschewing common football knowledge is well-documented. ESPN has taken interest. So, too, have the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

He’s brushed shoulders with some of America’s elite coaches. Kelley and former Auburn-turned-UCF head coach Gus Malzahn were peers when Malzahn coached high school football in Arkansas. Legendary New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — who Zoomed into Kelley’s introductory news conference Friday to share some notes on his ability as a coach — is even among Kelley’s confidants.

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It’s this exact inventiveness and flair that caught the eyes of both Presbyterian President Matt vandenBerg and athletic director Robert Acunto.

The search to land Kelley in Clinton took roughly two weeks. More than 110 applications flooded in, some even before the job was posted. Acunto quipped Friday that he’s still getting emails from interested candidates.

“When I say it is the most competitive pool I’ve ever seen,” he told The State, “I’ve been doing this for over 25 years — it was highly, highly competitive and we got the right guy, for sure.”

Big goals with Blue Hose

Kelley developed a streak as a screamer during his time in Arkansas. On the sidelines he’s as boisterous as can be. He doesn’t strive for perfection, he demands it.

Former Alabama quarterback and current Arkansas State signal-caller Layne Hatcher recalled his first touchdown pass as a freshman at Pulaski Academy. Zipping a toss to a receiver into the end zone, he came back to the sideline oozing with excitement. Kelley promptly congratulated his quarterback on his first score by chewing him out because he’d made the wrong read.

On a trip to Los Angeles to take on Chaminade College Prep when now-New England Patriot and former Arkansas standout tight end Hunter Henry was still in school, Kelley didn’t like his team goofing off as they strolled the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Standing in front of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Kelley ordered his team to perform up-downs on the pavement. The Bruins had no choice but to start chopping their feet.

“That’s the standard,” Hatcher told The State. “That’s the excellence. It’s not about the result. It’s about the process it takes to be great.”

For as unique as Kelley’s on-field philosophies are, his word play is equally so.

Earlier this year he said he’d take over the Kansas job without a salary and simply be paid $50,000 per win. Kelley then told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month that if he was ever diagnosed with terminal cancer, he’d head to the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago with a lighting rod to see if being struck would cure him.

It’s all a bit out there, sure. But for a school that’s had just two winning seasons since 2007 and is 11-44 in conference play over that same span, different is a chance at quite literally capturing that lightning in a bottle.

Presbyterian has seen ample change to its football program in recent years. This season will mark its first as a member of the Pioneer League — a conference that stretches from San Diego to Stetson with a smattering of Midwest institutions like Valparaiso and Butler scattered in between.

The Blue Hose will also fully operate as a non-scholarship program beginning in 2021 in the culmination of a process that began three years ago. It makes recruiting a challenge to a school that already can cost north of $52,000 per year for residential students, according to its website.

Kelley isn’t shying away from any challenges Presbyterian presents. Rather, he’s embracing them.

He’s keeping former Spangler assistants Joey Orck (offensive coordinator) and Kent Haltiwanger (director of player personnel) as he adjusts to the intricacies of college coaching and NCAA bylaws.

Acunto, Kelley said, is also a valuable resource and one of the few administrators in all the interviews for college coaching jobs he’s partaken in that is 100% in on his unique brand of football.

“The thing about high school (coaches) is you don’t get to go out and recruit for your spot,” Kelley said. “You’ve got a coach which you’ve got to manipulate your system a little bit around those guys. I think that makes you a good football coach. And since I’ve already got that experience, I’m hoping I get to bring that here.”

Kelley said during his introductory speech Friday that he wants to win a Pioneer League title in his first year and a national championship his second. The goals are lofty — and perhaps foolhardy — but the Blue Hose’s new lead man is used to ruffling feathers.

Kelley told The State he wasn’t sure anyone would ever take a swing on him as a college coach, given his far-out ideas. Presbyterian did.

Now it’s up to Kelley to turn the rest of college football into believers — one fourth-down conversion at a time.

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