Back in the day when they were still young coaches trying to prove themselves, Jeff Quinn talked Brian Kelly into joining him on a fishing charter. The conditions were abysmal. The lake heaved with evil intent. It was, as Quinn called it, a Dramamine Day.
“I mean it’s a rough, rugged day out there,” Kelly said. “It’s a rough go of it. Nobody hits anything except for me. And I get the biggest lake trout that you could imagine. Whatever the fish story is, it’s bigger than that.
“I got it taxidermed quicker than I’ve ever gotten my pants pressed. And I got it back and I hung it in my office the very next day so he could see that trout every single day. And I carried it with me through all the years at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. And it was up on my wall for no apparent reason than to stick it in his nose. Isn’t that what friends do?”
Kelly and Quinn were center stage at the UB Center for the Arts on Wednesday night but the “Gridiron Conversation” played like two friends sitting on the deck shooting the breeze. Their kinship began some 20 years ago at Division II Grand Valley State, where they won a pair of national championships. It continued at Central Michigan, where they transformed a downtrodden program into a Mid-American Conference champion. From there it was on to Cincinnati, two Big East titles, a No. 3 national ranking and berths in the Orange and Sugar bowls.
Only then, after the 2010 season, did their career paths diverge. Kelly replaced Charlie Weis as head coach at Notre Dame. Quinn separated from his longtime friend to become head coach at the University at Buffalo. But the bond remains strong, enough so for Kelly to agree to join Quinn for a fun night of recollection and playful banter before a crowd of some 800.
“It’s an opportunity for us to reconnect,” Kelly said during a pre-event meet-and-greet. “We’re busy at our own jobs. Jeff’s doing a great job here in Buffalo and I got my hands full at Notre Dame so it gives us an opportunity to get together, talk some football and obviously being together for 20 years it’s great to have this opportunity.
“I’ve got questions for Jeff and he’s always been great with me in terms of helping me and my development and hopefully I can do the same thing. It’s just a great opportunity. As head coaches we don’t have a chance to do things like this so I’m happy to get up here.”
Notre Dame football was on the skids before Kelly’s arrival. National talk show hosts were questioning whether, as an independent with rigorous academic standards, the Irish would ever again be relevant on an elite level. Last season’s trip to the national title game answered that. Kelly transformed Notre Dame, as he had Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Quinn finds himself in a parallel situation. UB is the only AAU (Association of American Universities) institution in the country that resides outside one of the major conferences. Its academic standards are high. Making a go of it in the MAC has been a challenge.
“The University at Buffalo and Notre Dame have high standards academically,” Kelly said. “We knew that coming in. But it doesn’t mean they can’t coexist and that they can’t feed off each other, that you can’t be a great academic institution and not do it on the football field as well. That’s why I took the job at Notre Dame is that I wanted to have the No. 1 graduation rates and the No. 1 football team in the country. We got close to doing that. And I know that Jeff feels the same way.”
Kelly said coaches get to make choices in their careers.
“You don’t have to choose schools that have quality academics that Buffalo has and Notre Dame has,” he said. “These are choices we made freely.”
Kelly and Quinn spent the “first quarter” of the event reminiscing about their days at Grand Valley. They did everything back then, the wash, the travel arrangements. Quinn was doubling as a professor and startled Kelly by giving their starting tackle nothing better than a “C” in his class. Even back then, academics meant something to them. Cutting corners would have amounted to self-betrayal.
“We did valuable things that helped us learn how to run a football program,” Kelly said.
Quinn spoke of Kelly’s talent as a master motivator. Kelly returned the compliment, saying that loyal, dedicated and talented assistants are vital to the success of a program.
Kelly has made his mark at Notre Dame. Now it’s Quinn’s turn at UB.
“I can see it a lot clearer because he’s been with me so long,” Kelly said. “You can see the things that he’s doing in building the football program. Now, look. Everybody wants you to win right now. But you just look at their last four games and the wins that they had.
“Look, November’s a time when teams go one way or the other. They either quit and throw in the towel or they keep building. And you can see the momentum that Jeff has built. There’s obviously trust with the players that they know they’re going in the right direction and it’s another step. It’s going to take time but they’re definitely on the right track.”