All eyes on Kevin Kelley — even Bill Belichick is curious if star high school coach can succeed in college

·10 min read

CLINTON, S.C. – The windowless bunker that doubles as the Presbyterian College football staff meeting room appears decorated from the Shawshank Collection. The gray concrete walls lack any color or adornment, other than a depth chart that lacks names.

Kevin Kelley, the most colorful new coach in all of college football, struggles with the setting. “Psychologically, if you study it,” he says, with a shrug, “gray is the worst.”

Kelley arrived at tiny Presbyterian last week as the coach who’ll be studied more than any in college football. He was hired after his high school coaching career earned national acclaim for philosophies that included almost always onside kicking and essentially never punting. There’s nothing gray about him or his methods.

Kelley arrives in this wisp of Clinton, South Carolina, a town of nearly 8,500 — locals proudly drop the T and say it more like Clinnon — with a reputation for being defiantly unconventional. And he’s proud to declare that won’t change.

Somewhat overlooked is the roaring success that’s come with the lack of convention — nine Arkansas state titles as the coach of Pulaski Academy and a 216-29-1 record in 18 seasons. Kelley humblebrags that the state “might have” installed a mercy rule because of him, as he estimates the rule was eventually invoked in about half of Pulaski’s games.

Presbyterian is the smallest Division I school by enrollment — school officials say 960 — and has a modest football reputation to match. Only one player in the past 50 years has been drafted from Presbyterian, one league title has been won in the past four decades and the school announced in 2017 it’d be going non-scholarship in FCS football. It began playing in the Pioneer Football League with schools like Butler, Dayton and University of San Diego in 2020.

By hiring Kelley, the Blue Hose have far exceeded in attention and fascination anything that the school has accomplished on the field. Everyone from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a friend and long-time admirer of Kelley, to the brass at local juggernaut Clemson University will be watching.

In a recent interview amid the gray walls, Kelley explained that he has no plans to change his methods. He’s more worried that people will start copying him and bringing them mainstream than them not working.

“I would kind of be a real dummy if you escalate to a dream job and then you completely change the way you did the dream job that helped you get there,” Kelley said.

Surely, there will be small tweaks. Kelley had nearly two decades of fourth-down data, as he converted more than 50% in 18 seasons. He’s 0-for-0 now in college. He also noted the college kickoff line is the 35, compared to the 40 in high school, which could change some of the field position data.

Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley, center, celebrates with his team after the Arkansas Class 5A High School Championship football game on Dec. 6, 2014. (AP)
Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley, center, celebrates with his team after the Arkansas Class 5A High School Championship football game on Dec. 6, 2014. (AP)

At Pulaski Academy, he onside kicked every time unless his team led by more than 21. He felt like recovering more than 16% gave his team an advantage because of the violent momentum swing that comes with recovery. To Kelley, the reward of the recovery remains well worth the field position risk.

What the football world is viewing as an experiment has long been Kelley’s highly successful reality, which is why he bristles a bit at the notion of this as a football science project.

“People have used that word over and over, and I get it,” Kelley said in a lengthy interview with Yahoo Sports. “I'm not upset or frustrated or anything about that. It is what it is to people. Perception matters, and that's the perception. But for me, it's not. For me, it's a way to teach the players here, and maybe the people that are watching, that there are a lot of different ways to do things to be successful, even if it's non-traditional, non-accepted.”

Count Belichick among the intrigued. He met Kelley in part because the daughters of Belichick’s longtime girlfriend, Linda Holliday, attended Pulaski Academy. Kelley and Belichick built a relationship and stay in touch.

“I know there is a lot of focus on a few of the things Kevin has done strategically,” Belichick told Yahoo Sports. “But I view it as him just trying to find solutions to problems and gaining advantages where he can based on personnel, matchups and his preparation.”

There are plenty of college football coaches paying attention, too. Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema recruited many of Kelley’s stars, including current Patriots tight end Hunter Henry. Kelley’s intellect and presence impressed Bielema the most: “He’s just a guy who generally seems to care. That’s what kids look for.”

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich, a known fourth-down gambler, noted he’s most interested in seeing how Kelley’s team responds to the constant positive reinforcement of believing the team can convert. “Very much fascinated,” Rolovich said. “Analytics are one thing. But what it does to the mindset of your team is valuable also. It makes you live in the positive.”

When diving in on all of Kelley’s success at Pulaski, it’s more of a surprise that it has taken this long for Kelley to get a college opportunity than him actually emerging in the college ranks. His offenses consistently ranked among the best nationally in high school football, and college opportunities go back more than a decade, and include interviews for position coach jobs, coordinator gigs and head coaching jobs.

But when Kelley took college interviews – including a chance to be on Bielema’s first Arkansas staff — he also interviewed the coaches. He’d ask what the coach would do down six late in the third quarter on fourth-and-3 from their own 45. He said if the perception of the decision got invoked — how it would be received by fans or media — he knew that it wasn’t a fit for him.

“Honestly, almost 100% of the time it's, ‘We're kind of hoping you don't do that,’” he said. “And in my head, I don't say this, but I'm like, ‘Come on, why are you talking to me then?’ That's why I'm here.”

Often, coaches were more worried about the jobs of their assistants, as they make plenty of money but didn’t want to expose their assistant coaches.

“I think a head coach's job is to make the decision that you think is the best chance for the team to win, regardless of what kind of media you're going to face or crowd disfavor, anything like that,” Kelley said. “And that's what I've always tried to do.”

Coach Kevin Kelley of the Pulaski Academy attends
Coach Kevin Kelley of the Pulaski Academy attends "Coaching Fast and Fearlessly" during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival. (Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW)

His methods allowed him to win at a school where he knew he’d often lack a talent advantage. “I win games because I do see the game differently,” he said.

Kelley doesn’t have to worry about being second-guessed by administration at Presbyterian College. It wants Kelley to be Kelley. “The coach lives and dies by their decisions, so to speak,” athletic director Rob Acunto said. “So who am I to tell him what to do?”

Sit with Kelley for a few hours, and there’s no feeling that anything about his career or accomplishments are gimmicky. Everything is rooted in numbers, from his reluctance to punt to his explanation of why he has never taken a sip of alcohol. (There’s alcoholism in his family, and he didn’t want to risk the same fate himself after reading about the statistical changes of him dealing with alcoholism.)

At Presbyterian, the hiring of Kelley was viewed administratively as a way to outsmart the competition it didn’t have the resources to overpower. While Acunto bristled at the term "de-emphasis" being tied to Presbyterian's decision to be non-scholarship in football, the reality is the Blue Hose are going to struggle against teams outside their conference who have scholarships. 

“He's not going to try to outmuscle teams, it's more about he's going to outthink them and our players are going to do the same in the innovative way that they play,” Acunto said. “And he's proven that at his level, to be winning games against teams that are bigger, stronger, faster, and I think he can do that here.”

While Kelley’s special teams outlier decisions made him famous, he’s most proud of his offensive acumen and play-calling. Pulaski Academy, a private school in Little Rock, has consistently been one of the most explosive and productive teams in high school football for well over a decade under Kelley.

To explain how, Kelley again points to the data. He says that a defining indicator of winning a football game is plays of more than 20 yards. So his team’s offense is neither vertical, nor horizontal. Vertical routes aren’t completed at a high enough percentage, and he’s rarely had the personnel to run screen, bubbles and tunnels and have players jitterbug for big yards off short passes.

“Our whole offense is based on my guy not having to beat your guy,” he said. “Which is what I've gotta explain to all these [assistant] coaches later. I've got my computer out to show them some film. They're like, 'Oh, that's what you mean by ...' because nobody knows what that means. But we didn't have a 'my guy's gonna beat your guy' a lot.”

So he says his offense is actually more “intermediate,” which gives the passing concepts a higher chance to be completed because they are in front of the safeties. And a vast majority of the plays are designed for yards after catch, as routes with “stationary” targets don’t yield the YAC.

The “intermediate” offense combines what Kelley considers the two hardest things to do in football — play pass coverages and tackle in space. He estimates that if a quarterback can throw 40 yards, that leaves seven men guarding an area that’s 52 yards wide and 40 yards deep. “That's 2,000 square yards that seven guys have to defend,” he said. “That's almost 30-yard squares. You know how hard it is?”

We’re about to find out how hard the jump is for Kelley from high school to college. The most apt analogy of a radical style hitting college sports is the way Grinnell basketball — a Division III school in Iowa — began playing in the 1990s. It played at a breakneck tempo, tortured opponents with its pace and launched a barrage of 3-pointers. And while modern basketball certainly isn’t a mirror image of Grinnell, it has clearly arced in that direction.

“I think if Grinnell would have been a small Division I program, I think it would have happened faster to where we are in the game of basketball now,” Kelley said.

And Kelley knows the reality of his new post. The second-guessing will be louder if his methods backfire. But much like the criticism could be more extreme, so could the impact.

“If you don't win, it doesn't matter what you're doing,” he said. “If you do win, everybody pays attention to what you're doing.”

Three months before he coaches his first game, there are plenty of folks paying attention to Kevin Kelley.

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