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Sunday Brunch: Retro Assumption--Brian Kelly's Roots

Oct. 28, 2017

By John Heisler

Brian Kelly hasn’t forgotten.

He hasn’t forgotten those formative years, growing up in the Boston area.

He hasn’t forgotten those wistful days with his father and brother at Fenway Park, watching their beloved Red Sox.

“The first one was the 1975 World Series – Game One between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds,” Kelly says. “When you’re 14 years old and you’re sitting about 15 rows up on the first baseline and it’s the World Series, that’s pretty significant.”

Brian’s father, Paul Kelly Sr., recalls when Ken Griffey hit a foul ball into the stands.

“I just reached up and caught the ball like there was nothing to it and sat down, and I’ve got the baseball in my hand.”

Adds Brian, “It was pretty cool. When your dad catches a ball with his bare hand and it’s the World Series, and he hands it over to you–you never forget that moment.”

He hasn’t forgotten those days growing up in Chelsea, around Shurtleff and Cottage streets. He grew up in that house with the pillars at 172 Shurtleff.

“I didn’t raise my family in Boston, so it’s really about childhood memories more than it is anything else,” says Kelly. “I don’t know that it defines who I am, but it did set the direction of who I am.”

He hasn’t forgotten the Tobin Bridge on the way in from Boston’s Logan Airport. Crossing the Mystic River over that bridge meant he was home in Chelsea.

He hasn’t forgotten choosing sides and playing sandlot football at Highland Park.

“We were playing tackle football as little kids,” says Brian’s brother, Paul Jr. “That was back when I knew more about football than you.”

He hasn’t forgotten the stops for pizza bagels at Katz Bagel Bakery on Park Street in Chelsea.

“They were humble means. It was blue collar at its best,” says Kelly. “I think it says a little bit about being an Irish Catholic from Boston, Massachusetts.”

He hasn’t forgotten his days practicing football in the dirt at St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts.

“I had to compete every day there,” says Kelly now. “Just going down onto the ball fields, you had to compete just to have a good day or you were going to get your butt kicked.

“Sometimes you don’t put it together until you kind of go back to your old neighborhood and see where you grew up and understand who you are.”

Kelly played football at St. John’s Prep with Jon Litner, a former NBC/Comcast executive, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Hockey League and now president of the YES Network.

Says Litner, “I just recall this guy who was so encouraging to the underclassmen, myself included, and just being a true leader. One of the first weeks of practice as a sophomore, I remember running scout team and getting beat up both physically and mentally to some degree.

“I remember Brian coming over to me after practice, and he knew I was dejected a little bit. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Hey, kid, it gets better, hang in there. Keep your chin up.’ That’s Brian.”

And Kelly particularly hasn’t forgotten his days at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he played football, coached softball and made friends for life – friends who certainly haven’t forgotten Kelly.

There’s Bernie Gaughan (he was promoted to head football coach after Kelly’s graduation), who hired Brian to coach football with him at Assumption after Brian graduated – and also helped Brian acquire another coaching job with a seventh- and eighth-grade girls basketball team in Clinton, Massachusetts.

There are George Verrastro, John Grady and Dave Hazel – all three co-captains with Kelly on the 1981 Assumption football team that won eight games. Verrastro is now a chief financial officer at an insurance company in Connecticut, Grady is an insurance executive in Worcester and Hazel is a group purchasing manager at Dell Computers in Franklin, Massachusetts.

There is Tom Hazel, Dave’s younger brother, who played with Kelly for a year before transferring to Worcester State College. Tom is now a supervisor for National Grid in Leominster, Massachusetts.

There’s John Hackett, a senior at Assumption when Kelly was a freshman. Hackett coached at Assumption while getting his master’s degree and continues to teach and coach football in Connecticut.

“I first re-connected with Brian when Grand Valley was playing against Bentley College in an NCAA Division II playoff game in the early 2000s,” says Dave Hazel. “The game was played at Bentley, in Waltham, Massachusetts, about 45 minutes away from where I was living.

“We all had played against Bentley, as they were a rival of ours while we were all at Assumption. And since that time, we have followed Brian’s career and have made it a point to see his teams play and catch up when we can.

“We have been out to Notre Dame every year since Brian has been there. Brian has been great – he always has time for us and we always get a chance to shoot the breeze with him. We know how busy he is, so we are all very appreciative of the time he spends with us. It’s a highlight for all of us to visit and re-connect.”

While football played a major role in Kelly’s college years (he also worked for campus security and served as a resident director), he ended up as the unpaid Assumption softball coach during the spring of his senior year in 1983.

And the dozen or so women, all of them classmates, haven’t forgotten the then-21-year-old Kelly’s initial foray into the coaching realm.

Lisa O’Keefe, Carol Krupa, Brian Kelly, Helen Russell, Sue Malanga and Kathryn Hubbard (left to right)–all members of the Assumption College Athletic Hall of Fame

Recalls former Assumption basketball player Sue Malanga, “Brian’s roommate dated my roommate, that was the initial contact. Many of my friends on the basketball team also played softball, so being a small college we all pretty much knew each other and would support each other’s teams. We are all still connected and many of us made the trip out to Notre Dame for the spring football game in 2014.”

On one of those trips to South Bend, Kelly’s Assumption connections left Post-It notes all over his Notre Dame office.

Kelly hasn’t forgotten Helen Russell (she played third base) and Carol Krupa (right field), both 1985 Assumption graduates who played both basketball and softball (Russell also played tennis).

There’s Trish (Carter) Poirier, a Kelly classmate who played softball for him.

There’s Rita Castagna, the former Assumption athletic director and women’s basketball and softball coach who hired Kelly to coach softball.

There’s Melanie Demarais, still the Assumption executive director of institutional advancement and a Kelly Cares Foundation supporter.

Kelly may be far into his eighth season as the head football coach at the University of Notre Dame – not to mention nearly two more decades at the combination of Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State.

Yet his ties to those days at Assumption remain as strong as ever.

“Some people have the perception of me as the head coach at Notre Dame and whatever comes with that,” says Kelly. “I consider myself a Division II guy who worked his way up, had to learn how to do the laundry, used to take eight hour bus rides to northern Michigan. I’ve never really had it handed to me, and I hope I’ve kept it in perspective.”

Ann McInerney, now the associate head women’s basketball coach at Holy Cross, recalls her days on the softball field with Kelly.

“He was awesome, very passionate. We loved him,” she says. “We were very sad the day he decided to leave, but he left behind a pretty good legacy for us.

“Brian was fiery. He coached with so much passion. As a third base coach you rounded second, you were looking for the signals for what he’s doing, and he’s constantly jumping up and down, waving you home, pushing your limits. Whether you got thrown out at the plate or not, he was always pushing us to be the best we could be, and we enjoyed what we did with him. He was great.”

Kelly learned more than his share of lessons from those early coaching days.

“I found out that they play because they love to play,” he says. “That was just pure coaching. All you cared about was the preparation and the game. A lot of teams don’t have the mental toughness to keep fighting. That team did.”

Says McInerney: “When I watch Brian today, I am very proud of him. It probably sounds funny for somebody who played for him as a student athlete, but considering what he brought to all of us while we were here to where he is now today, there’s a lot of pride behind watching him.”

Kelly’s father is convinced the Assumption experiences played critical roles from a timing standpoint in determining his son’s career aspirations:

“He found himself, I think, when he got to Assumption. I think he realized that he was going to make this–he was going to make it on his own. I think it was the turning point for Brian, and it showed me that this was what he really wanted.”

Says Brian, “That environment was definitely something that taught me the lessons I know today about working with all kinds of student athletes. They helped me be the person I am today.

“When you go back to where you grew up, it’s your moment to kind of start thinking and remember some of the really neat times that you experience and are still there with you today.”

The left fielder on the Greyhound softball team, Carter appreciates the fact that the bare-bones conditions at Assumption were a far cry from what Kelly sees now in South Bend.

“Back in our day, Assumption didn’t have a softball field,” she says.

“We practiced on the only sizeable open parcel of land at the time which was on the front lawn of the campus. We hammered in some bases but I’m not sure if we even had a temporary backstop. A well-hit ball might have rolled over toward the duck pond and an errant throw to first base would have gone over toward the dining hall.

“I don’t believe it was until our senior year that we may have hosted a few home games at a field several miles off campus.

“I remember being surprised to hear in our senior year that my classmate and friend Brian was going to be our new softball coach. It wasn’t until much later I learned that Brian took the initiative and approached our then-coach Rita Castagna to express an interest in coaching.

“Looking back I imagine it must have been a challenge for Brian, as coach, to try to get the attention of a group of women his own age. I remember him being really good at getting us fired up. Before each game he would get us in a huddle and, hands together, we would say a Hail Mary. Then he would say, ‘Mary Queen of Victory . . .’ and we would all yell, ‘Pray for us!’ and then we would run out onto the field. That is a memory that gives me the chills to this day.

“At the end of the season that year we all chipped in to get Brian a chain with a medal that on one side was engraved ‘Mary Queen of Victory’ and on the other ‘Pray for Us.’ I don’t remember our exact record (it was 21-5, the .808 winning percentage best in school history), but I do remember the team played really well that season. As the season went on, I think we came to appreciate and respect Brian more and more.”

Carter remembers hearing a story about Kelly’s role as football captain.

“It was August of senior year and Brian, a co-captain of the football team at the time, was in touch with all of the guys about returning for preseason practice. One of the guys had been working on Cape Cod and was having trouble getting motivated for the football season because his thoughts were still about (his words) the beach and bikinis.

“Probably thinking that Brian, being a friend–and a guy–would be sympathetic to his dilemma, he approached Brian and suggested maybe he could have another week or so before arriving for practice. Brian’s response was, ‘But that wouldn’t be fair to the other guys, would it?’ He remembered, even then, being very impressed by Brian’s fairness even though Brian was most likely facing a similar dilemma at the end of his summer.

“Now, being able to look back at our senior year with Brian as our coach and having watched the rise of his career over the years, it shouldn’t surprise me that Brian is where he is.

“Starting with Assumption women’s softball, back then it was a study of the qualities that went into being a great coach–taking the initiative, being a great motivator, being fair, setting a good example and being a good leader. The rest, obviously, would come.”

Kelly thinks back to those early coaching experiences and realizes the foundation they built for him.

“I don’t know if the journey ever ends,” he says. “Because when you’re teaching, you’re always adapting and changing.

“I think that’s the great thing about coaching is that it’s a journey. It’s a journey you’re always on and you’re always trying to find ways to reach people.”

Adds Russell, “I love the connection we all have–I love that Rita Castagna, one of the first female athletic directors in the country, provided Brian with his first coaching opportunity. While Rita was moving up the administrative later she handed the reins to Brian to take our women’s softball team to new level.

“After title IX was signed in 1972 by President (Richard) Nixon, the early ’80s was a time of growth and advancement in women’s sports at colleges and universities–and Brian played a vital role for us. He treated us with respect as athletes and was a wonderful coach. He was intense and passionate, insightful about the game and provided us an energy and desire to win.

“When I watch him coaching now, and I see him on the sidelines, I can see the same man, the same mannerisms and intensity of the coach who was waving us around third when we were headed for home back on the softball field. It was a really special time. We are all so very proud of him and his success.

“To see Brian doing all he is doing now is so inspirational. There was no doubt he was going to be successful, it was just a matter of where he was going to focus his attention.

“He is a winner.”

Brian Kelly hasn’t forgotten.