Jeff Quinn gets asked the question everywhere he goes. He was born and raised a Bears fan in Downers Grove, Ill., just outside Chicago. Notre Dame was 110 miles away, and he loved the Fighting Irish like most kids who grew up in the Midwest. At age 47, he suddenly had a chance to go there.
Brian Kelly, his mentor and sidekick for 21 years, had been hired as the coach. Their families grew up together. Quinn was there several years ago when Kelly's wife, Paque, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kelly was there when Quinn's son, Kyle, survived a horrific car accident in 2009. They were more than friends and colleagues.
These guys grew closer than two coats of paint. They led Grand Valley State to consecutive national titles in Division II when few people knew them. They turned around Central Michigan. They guided Cincinnati to No. 3 in the rankings with a 12-0 record and into the Sugar Bowl against Florida. And now Notre Dame wanted them?
Notre Dame wasn't a university so much as a religious experience, the Vatican of college football. Based on their surnames, if not their resumes, the Fighting Irish were a match made in heaven for Quinn and Kelly. Kelly would run the show. Quinn would remain his offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Finally everything had snapped into place.
It was a no-brainer.
"We grew up together in this business," Quinn said last week. "You get a feel for each other. ... You really get to know all of his decisions, his mannerisms, his expectations. You can fulfill your role as a good assistant by being an extension of what he wanted. And that's what was great about us.
"On offense, he handled the quarterbacks, the receivers, the play-calling. I was handling the offensive line, the protections, the run game and the structure of coordinating the offense. Together, that was the magic. I was always going to be there for Brian, and Brian was always going to be there for me."
Kelly was there for Quinn, strangely enough, when the time came for them to go their separate ways. Quinn had been offered his own Division I program for the first time in his career when he called Kelly at 2 a.m. to discuss their options. Together, they asked each other the same question Quinn has been asked for 18 months:
Why the University at Buffalo?
Quinn likes to joke that once he took over on an interim basis for Kelly at Cincinnati and coached the Bearcats in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, he believed that Buffalo was another stop en route to heaven. In truth, he was smitten with UB and loved the region. He thought it was time he took his career in a new direction.
Of course, Notre Dame and UB are vastly different universities from entirely different football universes. Notre Dame is a multimillion-dollar industry and the most visible program in the country. It's the Yankees with its big television contract, national fan base and expectations through the roof. When the Irish lose, half of the country wants answers.
Half of the country doesn't even know UB football exists.
"If you look at it, you [say], 'This guy is nuts. Why didn't he go to Notre Dame?'" Kelly said by telephone. "No. 1, he loved the opportunity and the challenge of going to Buffalo, coaching in the MAC. No. 2, he loved the area geographically. When he came back, he said, 'I love it there, and I want to be the head coach.' I said, 'Go for it.'"
It was, in fact, a no-brainer.
Quinn had to take the UB job.
"This path has taken us to different places," Quinn said. "His path took him to Notre Dame, and that's where I was going. But to be one of the 120 or so Division I-A head football coaches, how many people truly get that opportunity?"
Football had taken them higher and farther than they ever imagined, but looking back both men agree their relationship meant more than their won-loss records. How many times did they uproot their families? How many people did they trust more to look after their kids than the other? How many hours did they spend in the same room in pursuit of the same goal?
And that's what made saying goodbye so difficult. They started working together in 1989, when both were assistant coaches at Grand Valley State. Over their last three years, Grand Valley was 41-2 and, during one stretch, ran off 20 straight victories.
Central Michigan had six straight losing seasons before they took over and led it to a MAC title in three years. They guided Cincinnati to its first two Big East titles, including the 12-0 regular season that ended with Quinn coaching the Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl, a blowout loss to Florida.
By then, Kelly had accepted the job in South Bend. Quinn was headed for Buffalo.
"It will always be a special relationship," Kelly said. "College football today hasn't been good front-page stories, and we all know that. It's still about families, not the knucklehead kid who takes money or the boosters who are slimeballs. It's about coaches and their families and how we're affected by these things. That's really the story."
Notre Dame lost three of its first four games and had a 4-5 record last season before finishing 8-5. UB lost three of its first four games and ended the season 2-10. Kelly and Quinn spoke many times throughout the season and reminded each other they had similar years together. The key was sticking together.
They always did. In many ways, they always will.
"Brian Kelly would give the shirt off of his back to any of his coaches and players," Quinn said. "He's dynamic, a great family man and a brilliant football coach. I knew that. The thing that I always looked at was my family and what I believed. I believed in Brian. I believed in what he was doing. And I still do."