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New LSU Coach Brian Kelly Is A Rarity – He Has Coached On Both Sides, But With Singular Purpose

BATON ROUGE – Rare is the college football head coach these days who has coached on both sides of the football.

New LSU coach Brian Kelly has been on the offensive side for the most part since he was Cental Michigan’s head coach from 2004-06 and continuing through his time as Cincinnati’s head coach (2007-09), Notre Dame’s head coach (2010-21) and now at LSU.

But at Grand Valley State, a Division II school in Allendale, Michigan, Kelly was the Lakers’ defensive coordinator in 1989 and ’90 before becoming its head coach in 1991. He dabbled on both sides before winning back-to-back national championships in 2002 and ’03.

LSU new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has also coached on the other side, as he was Grand Valley State’s defensive coordinator under Kelly from 1996-98 after coordinating Kelly’s offense from 1992-95 there. He was also defensive coordinator for the Buffalo (and Columbus, Ohio) Destroyers in the Arena League while there in 1999 and 2000.

“Mike was a heck of a defensive coordinator for a very short period of time,” Kelly said. “It goes back to the ability to coach and teach and communicate and know the game.”

Kelly and Denbrock were graduate assistants together at Grand Valley State in 1987 when they were in their 20s. At the time, Kelly was coaching defensive backs.

“As a former defensive coordinator myself and a Division II head coach, I can appreciate someone who has had to coach all of those positions because I’ve had to have that on my agenda as well,” Kelly said.

Denbrock says it has helped both their careers.

“If you’re trying figure out why they’re stopping your offense, you gain a pretty good perspective when you flip back on the other side of the ball and remember how you were trying to take things away from offenses and what you need to go do on offense to adjust,” Denbrock said. “Those things have helped Brian and I improve as coaches.”

Kelly believed focusing on offense at Central Michigan would lead to bigger things.

“He wanted to learn how to run an offense and be a play caller to grow as a head coach,” Denbrock said. “Obviously, that’s happened pretty well.”

Denbrock switched over to offense for good himself when he went to Stanford in 2001 as tackles and tight ends coach. He became an offensive coordinator for the first time in 2014 under Kelly at Notre Dame.

Kelly later relinquished the play calling to Denbrock and his other offensive coordinators over the years. Denbrock, who was Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator 2017-21 after leaving Notre Dame, will be calling the plays at LSU as he did at Cincinnati.

“Delegating those responsibilities (play calling) was not very difficult for me because I felt it was important that I spend more time with the players on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “If you’re in meeting rooms and tied up for most of the day, it’s very difficult to build the kind of relationships you want with your team. Now, I’m still responsible for the football. This is not a detachment from anything. I’ll meet with both our coordinators.”

Denbrock, 58, is comfortable with Kelly, 60, poking his head under the headphones here and there. He knows him better than any other coach. Denbrock is coaching with Kelly for the fourth separate time – at Grand Valley State as graduate assistants in 1987, at Grand Valley State as Kelly’s coordinator on offense and then on defense from 1992-98, at Notre Dame from 2010-16 in a variety of roles, including offensive coordinator, and now at LSU as offensive coordinator.

“I’ll circle back with coaches – coaches I’ve coached with before,” Kelly said.

New LSU special teams coordinator Brian Polian was on Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame. New LSU safeties coach Kerry Cooks was on Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff, left to coach at Oklahoma, returned to Notre Dame and then followed Kelly here.

“In those early years, you’re really kind of forming your own philosophy as you travel around to different stops,” Denbrock said. “You may steal this or take this from this guy. But it just seemed like always all roads led back to Brian and I being in the same spot.”

As graduate assistants in the 1980s to their fifth decade in the business now with stints on both sides of the football, Denbrock and Kelly have realized they have many coaching philosophies in common, one in particular.

“You can’t start winning until you stop losing,” Denbrock said. “Teaching guys how to change habits or traits is something that he and I are very similar minded about.”

And that is exactly the philosophy LSU needs as it is coming off 5-5 and 6-7 seasons – the worst two-year run at the program since 7-15 in 1998 and ’99.

“They recognize and are aware of what they’ve done the last two years,” Kelly said. “And cumulatively, it’s been .500. That’s not good enough. There is a desire to want to change that.”

Denbrock says one of Kelly’s secrets is a singular modus operandi.

“He’s great about that now – making sure the message that comes from the staff to the players is exactly consistent every single day,” he said. “It’s not one day this, and one day this. When the plan is set, the plan is set. And everybody in the building is following it, so the players are getting a consistent message, which is vital to a rebuild. There’s been some resistance at times.”

Kelly inherited a 16-21 program at Notre Dame from previous coach Charlie Weis in 2010. After two 8-5 seasons, Notre Dame went 12-0 and reached the national championship game, which they lost to Alabama.

“They resisted at first at Notre Dame, too,” Denbrock said. “But like he says to them and we say to them, ‘We’re not changing. This is it. We’re here. This is what we’re doing.’ They’ve been great. But it’s hard. Players want to test their boundaries. Changing the way they think is a process.”

A process – to use a word of former LSU coach Nick Saban – that Kelly has followed with success.

“This is my fifth time doing this,” Kelly said of his fifth head coaching job. The last four were rebuilds.

“It’s going to be a process for us,” Kelly said. “We’re not ready to play now.”

Spring football practice begins for the Tigers on March 24. The season opener is on Sept. 4 against Florida State in the Superdome in New Orleans.

“If we had to play tomorrow, we’re not ready yet,” Kelly said. “But we’ll be ready.”

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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