Even in the best of times, some of the doubters mocked Kevin Kelley and liked to tell him that what he was doing would never work. And if it was working, well -- it was only a matter of time, they’d say, before he’d be exposed.
Too crazy. Too gimmicky. Too out there. Too this. Too that.
Kelley, 52 and stout, with a linebacker’s build, is the football coach who never punts, except on those very rare occasions when he does. He’s the coach who always goes for two, except when his team is winning by so much that it’d be unsportsmanlike to do so. He’s the coach who pretty much always onside kicks -- unless, again, the margin is too wide in his team’s favor. In following these rules -- never punt, always go for two, onside kick all the time -- Kelley became arguably the most successful high school football coach in America. His teams at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, won nine state championships.
That’s how he became the head coach at Presbyterian College, which hired Kelley in May, and that’s how Kelley came to find himself on Saturday night in Buies Creek, about 35 miles south of Raleigh, where in the dark humidity of a muggy late-summer night he stood near his team’s buses and tried to find perspective in defeat. Presbyterian had just suffered a 72-0 loss at Campbell and it’d been one of the worst losses Kelley had ever experienced. Now he knew what, or who, was coming: the people who took joy whenever he’d fail, the naysayers who’d never believe.
Hadn’t it always been that way, even when his teams rarely lost?
There was the time several years ago, Kelley remembered Saturday, when one of his Pulaski teams endured a rare defeat, and in those days at Pulaski a loss came along about as often as rain in the desert. At the time Pulaski was in the midst of four consecutive state championships, but the team had lost, for once, and it was like the critics had been waiting for it. As Kelley told it, a woman approached his wife in the bathroom after the game.
“It’s time for you all to leave,” the woman said. “It’s time to play normal football around here.”
If something like that could happen then, in the midst of so much success, Kelley, in his first months at Presbyterian in small-town Clinton, South Carolina, knew what was waiting for him Saturday night. The Blue Hose -- that’s the Presbyterian mascot, for the uninitiated -- had just lost by about 10 touchdowns, and if the messages streaming into his Twitter DMs and email were any indication, people were already jumping off the bandwagon, if they were ever on it to begin with.
Kelley took a quick look at his phone after the defeat, in part to get it over with and in part because he feels an obligation to accept and even embrace the consequences of his choices. He does not hide from the criticism as much as soak it in, as if its absorption will make that much sweeter the success he believes is inevitable. And besides, if his way had brought him great success and a measure of celebrity -- and it has -- then he could accept the derision that came with a 72-0 loss, too.
“I’ll listen to the haters,” Kelley said in a matter-of-fact way, resigned to the influx of incoming messages informing him that his strategy is too insane to work in college football, and moments later he walked toward the bus. It was going to be a long ride home, and only three games into his tenure as a college coach he knew some had already written him off -- if not before the season than certainly now. Kelley had heard it all before, and had always answered the cries that his strategy would fail with proof that it wouldn’t.
He’d won more than 80 percent of the time in high school. He’d won so much, and in such a unique way, that he had become a panelist at MIT’s sports analytics conferences, and a motivational speaker when a company or business organization wanted the perspective of a disruptor. He’d won so often that he’d earned the admiration of Bill Belichick, whom Kelley and his son counted as a friend.
“He told me and my dad, we were talking to him ... he said, ‘Football’s football,’” said Zack Kelley, who’s on his father’s coaching staff. “It’s going to work. It doesn’t matter if it’s high school, college, NFL -- he said ‘Football’s football and a good coach is going to make it happen.’”
But now Kevin Kelley had lost like he hadn’t in a long time, and afterward he said he offered his team his apology and told his players that this was his fault, but that there was even a precedent for this.
“I told the guys after the game, in 2003, in the first game of the year, Guz Malzahn was the head coach at Springdale (High School),” Kelley said, referencing the time before Malzahn went on to coach at Auburn before becoming the head coach at UCF. “And his team beat my team 63-0. And that felt very much like this one did.
“And then we went on to win the state championship game that year.”
But that was high school football in Arkansas and this was college football. Lower-level, FCS college football, but Division I, nonetheless. Kelley walked onto the bus and took his seat for the four-hour ride back to Clinton.
“I hope you’ll keep watching the rest of the season,” he said before he did, and whether Presbyterian recovered from this humbling evening or not, its journey during Kelley’s first year promised to be among the most interesting in college football. Could Kelley’s approach be crazy enough to work at a higher level? Or was it just crazy?
HOW KEVIN KELLEY DEVELOPED NO-PUNT STRATEGY
Football is not necessarily a sport known for spawning innovation or risk-taking, and so tied is it to routine and tradition that any change stands out against the familiar. More than a century later, the forward pass remains perhaps the sport’s great invention, football’s version of the lightbulb or printing press -- though it’s fair to question why such a simple thing wasn’t obvious from the start.
It’s a sport whose offenses remained mired in a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality for decades and one that, at the highest level, was slow to embrace wide-open offenses until only recently. The most successful football coaches are sometimes described as geniuses, though many of them do things the same way, as if that way is the only acceptable way.
Pretty much always punting on fourth down; pretty much always kicking the extra point; pretty much always kicking off the normal way -- which is to say kicking downfield, instead of attempting an onside kick -- is just the way the game has been played, and forever. Few coaches have ever routinely done any one of those things differently, let alone all three of them at the same time.
Kelley realized he needed to try something new before his first season as the head coach at Pulaski. As he remembers it, “it hit me really hard” that he couldn’t play the game in an ordinary way and expect extraordinary results, and that if he did stick to the routine his teams would never reach their potential. A self-described numbers guy -- he studied accounting and briefly considered a career in it -- Kelley in the early 2000s encountered a report from a Harvard professor who’d analyzed thousands of football games. One of the takeaways: teams punt way too much.
The rationale was that coaches undervalued possessions, and that simply giving the ball away in the form of a punt was a poor strategic choice. The data suggested that the potential reward of scoring after successful fourth-down conversions was more than worth the risk of failing to convert those fourth downs and giving up field position.
His first season as head coach at Pulaski, Kelley punted 21 or 22 times, he said. He saw a benefit on the field but off of it, too, given that he used less practice time on punting and more on other parts of the game he found more important to winning. A few years later, he watched Moneyball, the film version of the bestselling book by the same name, and became more enamored with data and analytics. He devoured Freakonomics, a book about seeing the world differently, and similar ones by Malcolm Gladwell, including Outliers and David and Goliath, which Kelley cited during a lengthy recent phone interview.
“It’s vastly different than people think,” Kelley said of the Biblical story that for centuries has inspired underdogs to believe that they, too, can defy the odds against a more formidable opponent. Yet Kelley argued, referencing Gladwell’s book, that people have had it all wrong.
“David would have been the favorite if Vegas had a line on David and Goliath fighting,” he said. “Because David was a military guy that was a slingshot specialist that was never going to get into hand-to-hand Goliath. He just wasn’t going to do it.”
Kelley’s approach, then, is something like his version of becoming a slingshot sharpshooter and engaging an opponent from a distance. The never punting, the going for two, the onside kicks -- they became his way to tilt the advantage in his teams’ favor. And yet it takes a certain type of individual to be willing to try something that so defies the norm.
He wasn’t born with a natural inclination to embrace risk, Kelley said. He wasn’t a daredevil. Yet as a boy growing up in and around Hot Springs, Arkansas, Kelley found himself in circumstances that required improvisation. He didn’t have it easy, and the consistency that some of his peers could count on -- a stable environment at home, for instance -- Kelley could not.
“Football probably saved my life,” he said. “I had a bad, movie-like childhood at times. There was some alcoholism, there were things -- there were times I didn’t think I wanted to keep going, and I would be in a position where I could have easily ended it. And I wanted to go to football the next day, because I felt like that was something I loved being a part of.”
Kelley’s first job as a teenager involved working atop railroad bridges, dismantling crossties and carrying them with a partner off the bridge. They weighed 200 or 300 pounds each, he said, and it was a narrow walk back to safety and “there were no harnesses, no anything. We might be 150 feet above a creek that was a foot deep, where if you fall off, it’s over with.”
So how risky, really, is not punting or going for two after you’ve done that kind or work? Kelley survived that, and a troubled home that at times in his younger years had him contemplating whether he wanted to keep living. It’s no wonder then, perhaps, that he decided he couldn’t go through life punting -- that he was going to take chances. That sometimes it might not work, and that had to be OK because at least he’d given himself what he believed to be the best opportunity.
Presbyterian made it look easy his first two games, both against overmatched schools from lower levels of college football. The Blue Hose ran away from St. Andrews, an NAIA school, and from Fort Lauderdale, which is not an NCAA school but one in the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association). The 2-0 start created a bit of buzz, though Kelley last week acknowledged the reality of the competition.
Still, he argued, what he does would work. It worked in high school and it would work at Presbyterian, which competes in a non-scholarship league with Dayton and Davidson and others, and it would work at a higher level of college and even the NFL.
“I hope since I’m being honest with you, you don’t put this in a context that makes me look like a complete idiot,” Kelley said, before making his case of why his approach could work at any level. “... That all said, I mean, I think that there’s a level of what I’m doing that they would be better off using in the NFL.”
“This is going to sound really, really stupid,” he went on, “especially if we go up there and get killed by Campbell ... but I believe you shouldn’t spend nearly as much time on blocking tackling as everybody does.”
By then, last week, ESPN was making plans to send a crew to Presbyterian’s game at Campbell to shoot a segment for GameDay, to air next week. After his team’s loss Saturday night, Kelley recalled the pregame conversation he shared with one of the show’s producers: “Just don’t get beat 72-0.”
A RARE PUNT BUT, “WHY NOT PRESBYTERIAN COLLEGE?”
Kelley’s team did something Saturday night that none of his teams had done in years. Three years? Four? Kelley’s son, Zack, the receivers coach at Presbyterian, couldn’t remember. All Zack knew was this: “He hates punting.”
When the call to punt came in from the sideline, one thought kept playing over in Zack’s mind.
“I can’t believe it,” he said later, repeating it.
Neither, apparently, could the Blue Hose. For even despite the circumstances -- the offense faced a 4th-and-20 from its own 4-yard line -- the players were so discombobulated by the directive to punt that they didn’t get the play off in time. Delay of game. So now it was 4th and 22 from the 2. Presbyterian lined up in the shotgun and it was a quick kick -- only 23 yards, and that was with a generous roll.
“Whenever that happens,” Zack Kelley said of his father being forced to punt, “he’s just completely beat down.”
Zack played wide receiver for his father at Pulaski, his final season in 2015, and during his four years there he could recall only one time when the team punted.
“He called timeout just so he could yell at us, and then go punt,” he said. “And then as a player you feel terrible like, wow -- I can’t believe I made him punt. I made that guy punt.’”
There was only that one punt for Presbyterian Saturday night. The Blue Hose often threw an interception or fumbled before it reached fourth down: 10 turnovers in all. True to Kevin Kelley’s form, though, Presbyterian attempted an onside kick to start the second half -- its lone kickoff of the game, given it never scored -- despite facing a 56-point deficit at the time.
It was long over by then, though there was still another half to play, and it might have been easy for anyone to look at the score and make judgments about Kelley’s system. In reality, though, Campbell, a scholarship team from the Big South Conference, held a significant physical advantage; the Camels simply overpowered the Blue Hose along both lines of scrimmage, and even without all the turnovers Presbyterian likely wouldn’t have had much of a chance.
And yet still, the game took on the feeling of a perverse football experiment. Could a team that plays the game in such an unconventional way find success in college? Could Kelley continue to prove the doubters wrong, as he’d done throughout his 17 years at Pulaski? In many ways, Presbyterian offers the perfect setting for such an experiment. It is the smallest school, by enrollment (a little more than 1,000), of any Division I football-playing school.
It is removed from the glare of any media spotlight. The expectations are low, at least externally.
Yet internally, said Rob Acunto, the Presbyterian athletic director, there’s a mentality of, “just because we are the smallest school in Division I, there’s no reason why we can’t walk with some swagger.”
“And so we never looked at it from the standpoint of, we’re doing things oddly but just saying, you know -- why not Presbyterian College?” he said. “We’re small, we may not have the resources other schools do. But what can we do to gain an advantage and be successful? And so Kevin was a good fit for that mentality, which was, ‘Let’s find a way to play with the big boys, so to speak.’ ”
In 2017, Presbyterian began transitioning to non-scholarship football, a move that required a transition from the Big South to the Pioneer League. The school in April fired Kelley’s predecessor, Tommy Spangler, after he won 12 games in four seasons. It will be difficult for the Blue Hose to compete against those schools that offer football scholarships, and the difference -- in both size and talent -- was noticeable Saturday night.
But, Kelley insisted, “Our team is not 72-0 worse than Campbell.”
“I was,” he said, after a pause.
He knew the defeat, and its margin, would be fodder for the doubters. That people would see the score and say: Yes -- told you so. Told you it’d never work beyond high school. But Kelley knows it’s early, yet. He’s only been the head coach at Presbyterian for three full months; he’d only just met about half his players in early August. And besides, he had 17 years of results that his way could work, that it would.
Yes, it’s different now. This isn’t high school anymore. Before he stepped on the bus Saturday night, he acknowledged that there probably isn’t much room for anything in between. He understood that this was either going to be a great success, one that maybe could revolutionize football, or that it would be a colossal failure. No margin. He was OK with that. He’d made his choice long ago, and refused to go through life punting.