Kevin Kelley, Arkansas’ most successful and outspoken high school football coach, has generated plenty of national hype over the years thanks to his unshakeable allegiance to analytics.
Kelley’s Pulaski Academy teams out of Little Rock hardly never punt and prize quick-thinking quarterbacks who have led the Bruins to six of the last seven state titles at the 5A level.
His football brain is so esteemed that the likes of Bill Belichick tap it for advice.
Patriots Coach, Bill Belichick, who doesn't like to say much at his press conferences went on and on about Kevin Kelley
— Steve Sullivan (@sully7777) December 3, 2020
While Kelley hasn’t yet made the jump to college, the case gets stronger by the year for a Division I program to roll the dice on someone who has never coached at that level.
For years the common thinking has been that, if he did make the leap, the most common sense landing spot would be Arkansas State University. He knows that program inside and out given many of his players have gone there (as well as to the Razorbacks).
Plus, the Red Wolves’ former athletic director Terry Mohajir has a penchant for hiring offensively innovative minds.
With Mohajir gone now, though, that’s not as likely to happen.
But the dream of seeing Kelley’s unique brand of football in a big-time spotlight lives on.
It’s especially vivid with The Athletic’s Andy Staples, the longtime national college football writer who is familiar with Kelley’s schemes and history.
Staples thinks the desperate times unfolding in Kansas present the perfect opportunity to roll the dice on a coach whose whose teams score score a touchdown on 88 percent of offensive drives not including a sack or a penalty. (After a sack, that percentage drops to 8.)
A day after firing Les Miles in the wake of reports of investigations around Miles’ reportedly sleazy behavior around LSU co-eds, Kansas athletic director Jeff Long was fired himself. Long had sustained considerable backlash in the wake of a Tuesday press conference in which had become defensive about his track record of hiring “deficient” coaches at Kansas and his previous stop at Arkansas.
The first step to Kansas becoming the most innovative college program in the nation was to fire Jeff Long, Staples writes.
“Aside from not properly vetting Miles off the field to learn that he nearly got fired from LSU (when the Tigers were good) for his treatment of female student workers, Long thought that Miles, who ultimately did get fired at LSU for letting the game pass him by and for underachieving with supremely talented rosters, would somehow magically be able to take a much less talented team and beat more talented teams.”
The behind-the-scenes documentary that the team of longtime Arkansas sportscaster Bo Mattingly shot around Miles’ hiring might have also played a role in KU’s decision to axe Jeff Long. Especially the fact Mattingly’s film crew was at Miles’ house to document events —even before he had officially accepted the position, as the Kansas City Star points out.
Jeff Long’s replacement at Kansas should take a serious look at Kevin Kelley.
Staples points out that what Kansas has done in the past in hiring re-tread coaches (Charlie Weis, Les Miles) hasn’t worked. “Kansas needs to be bold here, or its football program will remain a running joke.”
No kidding. The Jayhawks have only won 7 of their last 105 games in Big 12 play.
They can’t get much worse.
Kevin Kelley Puts a Price On It
Kelley told Staples he’d coach the Jayhawks for $90,000 a win. Likely, the base salary could be a lot lower than with the kind of “proven” Power 5 coaches who keep failing Kansas. Let’s say the base is $200,000.
So, if Kelley delivers a 7-win season, he would get paid $630,000 plus his base salary. $830,000 for a bowl season and amazing turnaround story ain’t bad. In fact, it’s a bargain for a Big 12 school.
Sure, once Kelley proves he can be successful with his methods and he’s officially the Next Hottest Thing among college coaches, then the contract would be renegotiated. But the burden of providing the proof of concept would be on him first.
Staples adds: “So why not take far less financial risk on a coach who — at the very worst — will deliver the same miserable results his much more expensive predecessor did and — at best — will actually make Kansas competitive?”
“It’s time to take a big swing and hire Kevin Kelley,” Staples concludes. “If it doesn’t work, the Jayhawks will stink just like they stink now. But if it does work, it’ll be the most fun Kansas has ever had playing football.”
As for how Kelley would handle taking on the likes of Oklahoma and Texas on a yearly basis, he doesn’t think he would adjust his strategy much.
“I’d handle it the same way I do here,” he said. “We’ve got a severe talent deficit here.”
Kelley believes that his teams are so successful based on extra effort and superior scheme and skills. They regularly beat out-of-state teams with bigger and more more highly-rated players.
Last year, for instance, they toppled Virginia’s powerhouse Life Christian Academy despite having only three starters weighing more than 200 pounds. Staples pointed out that Life Christian brought four class of 2021 FBS signees into that game alongside eight 2022 players with FBS offers.
The Bruins, meanwhile, had no Division I players in the class of 2021 and only one likely FBS signee (Joe Himon) in the class of 2022.
Kelley knows some fans roll their eyes when he talks about Pulaski Academy historically playing with a talent deficit.
Many look at P.A.’s success and say: “What are they doing over there? They’ve got to be doing something off. There’s no way they could be doing that year after year, playing that well without doing something wrong or cheating,” he said recently on the Buzz 103.7 FM.
“It’s actually kind of a natural reaction.”
He believes other teams’ coaches and fans don’t spend enough time self-reflecting:
“What can we do for self-improvement? What can we do to increase our efficiency, to get better, to win, to beat them?”
In the bigger picture, he sees Pulaski Academy’s extreme success as an outlier, something that is part of a cycle.
For evidence, he pointed to the fact that Shiloh Christian hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of success it had in the early 2000s under Gus Malzahn. “You had a guy that was doing an extraordinary job, doing things a little bit differently. And they make a run where they win three out of four. And they’re in five out of six of them. And everybody’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll never going to stop them.'”
“And then, slowly and surely, it cycles away and nobody cares anymore.”
In recent years, “we’ve had a little run with us and Little Rock Christian. And we’ve won six of the last seven. But it’s an anomaly. I mean, it just doesn’t happen.”
“There’s a lot of private schools that don’t even have to play by the rules that recruit and do all that stuff. And they’re not even having that kind of run. It’s just not done very often.”
Gus Malzahn is one of the few high school coaches in the modern times who was able to successfully jump to head coach of a Power 5 school. That process took him half a decade, though.
He had to first serve as an offensive coordinator at a few stops and do a year in Jonesboro.
In the Big 12, Art Briles went from high school coaching legend to head coach of Baylor in nine years. In between, though, he served as an assistant at Texas Tech and head coach of Houston.
Kelley jumping directly from the high school ranks into a head coaching position at the Power 5 level would be a major gamble. Given that his offensive philosophy is so extreme compared to almost all other coaches, however, it makes sense that bringing him aboard would be “all or nothing” kind of proposition.
Whatever team takes him isn’t just gambling with who he is as a person, but what he represents in terms of a radically different approach to football strategy at all levels.
As a college assistant coach, he almost certainly wouldn’t be able to implement his strategy in full.
Yes, experimenting with Kelley could be an abject failure.
But fortune also favors the bold.
By hiring Kelley, Kansas has a chance to do something that is truly worthy of a behind the scenes documentary.
Below, hear Kelley talk about his relationship with Belichick, how Tom Brady used his son’s foot for throwing practice and more about pushback against P.A. and LR Christian: