Brian Kelly’s formula for success
Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the January 2010 issue of Coach & Athletic Director magazine, which was the same month Brian Kelly left Cincinnati to take the job at Notre Dame. The following article breaks down how he transformed the Cincinnati program, which helps shed some light on the incredible work he’s doing currently with Notre Dame (No. 3 in the BCS).
Late last season, as the Cincinnati Bearcats prepared to play in the program’s most important bowl game in school history, head coach Brian Kelly had to pack up his squad and head north of the city to practice to avoid inclement weather. Not having an indoor facility — or a practice facility of any kind for that matter — the Bearcats were relegated to running through repetitions at an indoor soccer park.“When we were preparing for the Orange Bowl, the Orange Bowl, we had to go north of Cincinnati to Soccer World to practice,” says Kelly with a bit of a chuckle. “We did what we needed to do and didn’t complain. We all have challenges relative to our facilities but you have to be able to improvise, and you cannot allow it to be a road block to your programs success.”
Practicing where they play their home games, ancient Nippert Stadium, hasn’t hindered what Kelly has been able to accomplish with the Bearcats. In just his third season as head coach, Kelly is 34-6 at a school which historically is considered a basketball university first. Hired Dec. 4, 2006, Kelly promptly went out and led the Bearcats to a victory in the International Bowl just a month later. He followed that up with a 10-3 campaign in 2007, concluding with a PapaJohns.com Bowl victory. And, last season, Cincinnati won the Big East title outright defeating West Virginia and Pittsburgh for the first time ever in Big East Conference play. Kelly did it one better in 2009, as the team was 12-0 heading into its BCS Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida.
And, to think, he’s doing all of this without a practice field or indoor training facility. The team simply has to use all 120 yards of space at Nippert Stadium, which was constructed in 1902 and is the fifth-oldest stadium in college football.
“Yes, it’s hard for us because we can’t work on long-ball drills with the offense because the defense is on the other end of the field,” explains Kelly. “But, as a positive, we get a lot of great speed work and repetitions for our first-team offense and defense, because they typically have to play against each other so much at practice. We’ve never once said we can’t get the job done here. You just have to focus and plan accordingly.
Conditioned to succeed
Considering the lack of facilities at Cincinnati, it makes what Kelly has accomplished in such a short time even more incredible. Kelly incorporates a fast-paced, no-huddle, five-receiver offense typically into his game plan. Through 12 games this season, the Bearcats have scored 478 points while allowing just 249. The offense moves at a fast rate, which means players aren’t receiving the typical breathers between snaps. Conditioning is critical for Kellys offense.
“Our conditioning and training regimen is specific to how we run our program,” Kelly says. “One of the first things I did when I got here was to add more and upgrade to new Woodway Force Treadmill machines (resistance-based treadmills) for our players to improve their conditioning.”
In addition, during the season, Kelly shies away from lining up players and having them complete 50- or 100-yard dashes. “We’re not running sprints or doing traditional speed work. All of our in-season conditioning comes during practices with our drills.”
As an example, Kelly says his team runs its “88 Drill” every day in practice. This is a drill featuring eight plays run at a high tempo by the offense against the defense. Both sides of the ball work extremely hard to complete this drill successfully and the conditioning is accomplished at game speed in game-like conditions.
Having the defense as part of the conditioning regimen is critical to the Bearcats’ success as well. When your offense is high-powered, it usually isn’t on the field too long before scoring. That means the defense is logging big-time minutes.
“I know we’re last in time of possession in the Big East this year and probably very low overall in college football,” Kelly says of his team that has the ball on average for 25 minutes, 39 seconds per game while defending for 34 minutes, 11 seconds, which ranks Cincinnati 119th out of 120 team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly called Division I). “We make sure we have more depth and more rotations of players on the defensive side. That’s something I’ve always done throughout my career.”
In a system like Kelly’s, the quarterback is one of the most important pieces. If he goes down due to an injury, you might imagine so too would Cincinnati’s season. However, remarkably, the Bearcats used five different signal callers during the 2008 season while reaching the Orange Bowl, and, this year, have survived an arm injury to starter Tony Pike due to the excellent play of backup quarterback Zack Collaros.
“We give our backup quarterback about 40 percent of the snaps in practice,” explains Kelly about why his backup quarterbacks have been so successful. “I think most schools only give them about 20 percent of snaps, if that. For us, if we have 10 scripted plays to run in practice, the first six go to the starter, then the next four go to the backup. The backup still is running some of our highest-frequency plays, so he’s comfortable if and when he has to take the field.”
Kelly also says he has a large enough library of plays, sets, strategies, etc., to fit his offensive game plan to whoever is behind center. Pike is a typical, drop-back quarterback who eats up secondaries with his arm. Through 10 games (of which he only played in seven due to his injury), Pike had completed 133 passes in 203 attempts for 1,649 yards. His 64-percent completion percentage trails Collaros but it show that Kelly allows him more freedom to throw the ball down the field.
Collaros, on the other hand, is more of a runner who utilizes the open field in front of him to pick up huge chunks of yardage. In the four games he has started, he has completed 75 percent of his passes (93 of 124) for 1,434 yards. However, he also has run 54 times for 332 yards and four scores.
“I worked in Division II for 13 years (at Grand Valley State where he won national championships in 2002 and 2003), so I know about not having first pick when it comes to the top quarterback recruits in the country and working with the best players available to us,” Kelly says. “What I have looked for in my quarterbacks is someone who is smart and a good athlete. With Tony and Zach this year, we have some diversity at the position, which, in the long run, has been good for our team.”
Kelly adds that the success of his quarterbacks actually comes in the offseason where they work extensively with a computerized play simulator. He compares it to a video-game system where the quarterback has the ability to read defenses, make decisions and visually compete in a game-like situation on screen.
While the high-powered offense puts up big numbers on the scoreboard, the key to the success of Cincinnati’s program is its turnover margin. Through 10 games this season, the team is plus-11 in turnover margin and became the last team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to lose a fumble this year when the Bearcats finally coughed up the ball against West Virginia on Nov. 13.
“We place a high level of accountability on our players when it comes to taking care of the ball,” Kelly says. “We work on it in practice through drills, like most coaches do, but our players know if they put the ball on the ground, they are going to sit. That’s the way to get to a player — take away his reps in practice or time on the field in a game. I don’t think that yelling and screaming works with players — but, accountability and losing playing time, yes, that gets their attention.”
And, for an offense that has thrown the ball 337 times so far this season, only five of those passes have been intercepted. “We communicate very well with our quarterbacks about where the ball needs to go. We do our best as a coaching staff to keep them out of cloudy or murky situations,” Kelly explains. “Sometimes, we’ll pass up some things down the field because we don’t want to turn the ball over. We value the ball, so, typically, our quarterbacks are throwing high-percentage passes with little risk.”
A lot of the credit for the quarterbacks, and the offenses, success in holding onto the ball is due to the Bearcats’ offensive line. That group only had allowed nine sacks through the first 10 games of the season despite having to pass protect for a team that loves to throw and doesn’t have the luxury of too many breathers between plays.
“We change our launch point for the offense quite a bit, so we’re not always in the pocket,” Kelly says. “We’ll run a sprint-out, a bootleg or set up in a shotgun to get the quarterback away from the pressure. And, we run a quick game, meaning we have our quarterbacks get the ball out in a hurry. This helps our offensive line and limits our negative plays.”
Winning with special teams
At Cincinnati, special teams aren’t an afterthought. Unlike many major college coaches, Kelly uses several offensive and defensive starters on special teams because he values the importance of this facet of the game.
“I’m not afraid of playing a front-line guy on special teams. Special teams have helped me win a lot of football games. I want our players really involved in special teams,” he says.
There are two great examples of how special teams have been a major part of two Bearcat victories this season.
• No. 1: Vs. Syracuse botched field-goal attempt turns into touchdown. The Orange are not a college football powerhouse these days, but playing in the Carrier Dome never is easy for a visiting team. In a 7-7 game on Oct. 31, in the second quarter, Cincinnati lined up for a field-goal attempt. Collaros, the starting quarterback on this day, was the holder. A poor snap caused the field-goal attempt to break down and Collaros scrambling for his life. Eventually, he hit Kazeem Alli for a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Bearcats a 14-7 lead, which they eventually turned into a 28-7 victory.
• No. 2: Vs. Connecticut going for a field goal on third down prior to halftime pays off. One week later, with a sizable lead (27-10) just before halftime of the game with Connecticut, Cincinnati lined up for a 34-yard field goal on third down. The snap for the attempt was a bad one, so Collaros had the presence of mind to throw the ball out of bounds. On fourth down, the snap was good and Jake Rogers split the uprights for a 30-10 Bearcats lead, which was important, as Cincinnati held off a furious rally and went on to win 47-45.
“For as long as I’ve been in coaching, I’ve seen just about all situations, so I know how important special teams are to a game,” Kelly says. “For coaches who might just be starting out in this game, I say one of the first things you should do is look for tactical weaknesses of your opponent in the special-teams game and take advantage of them.”
Changing the mentality at Cincinnati
When Kelly took over the Cincinnati football program, it had been in existence since 1885 but only had played in 11 bowl games. Not having a rich tradition from which to build, Kelly says he worked on instilling an idea of winning right away that had nothing to do with Saturdays.
He says coaches who are looking to rebuild their program, or are entering a new program, must start by communicating well with their players. Confusion due to miscommunication is a powerful obstacle to overcome. If you eliminate confusion on a day-to-day basis, you are on the right track.
Specifically for the Cincinnati program, Kelly says he put the focus on three concepts for his team as soon as he was hired:
1. Being prepared. Kelly wants his team ready for anything on and off the field. He also wants them to act purposeful in everything they do.
2. Care for yourself. Kelly instructs players to think carefully about the foods they put into their bodies. He wants them to get enough rest and rehabilitation after a game or practice. “Your players need to show a maturity greater than their 18 or 20 years,” Kelly says. “It can be hard for college-age players to take care of themselves all the time so be sure you stress how critical it is to their success.”
3. Priorities. Academics and football are the priorities for members of the Cincinnati football team. “If you are juggling eight other things along with football and academics, then you probably aren’t going to be good at any of them,” Kelly says. “Immediately after we arrived on campus, my staff and I stressed the importance of priorities within this program. It has paid off big-time.”