Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly share common bonds
If two of Butch Jones’ closest friends in coaching call the first-year Cincinnati football coach this week, don’t expect him to pick up.
Jones wouldn’t have a problem chatting with either of them, but this week is different. First, it is a game week for Jones. Second, those pals and mentors - Brian Kelly and Rich Rodriguez - will coach against each other for the second time Saturday.
The first time was in 2007, when Rodriguez coached West Virginia to a 28-23 victory against Kelly and Cincinnati. Saturday, Rodriguez and the Michigan football team are on the road to face Kelly, in his first year at Notre Dame, in a nationally televised game (3:30 p.m., NBC). Both teams are rebuilding and 1-0 after opening-week victories.
Jones is the best common link between Rodriguez and Kelly, two coaches known for their innovative uses of the spread offense.
Jones followed Kelly as the head coach at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati and worked with working for Kelly for a year at Central. Jones left Central to work for Rodriguez for two years as his wide receivers coach at West Virginia before returning to Mount Pleasant to replace Kelly after the 2006 season.
Jones has strong bonds with both men. Rodriguez said he and Jones talk almost weekly, but football is off-limits at this time of year. Football conversations, Rodriguez said, are for the off-season.
“Normally, if we talk this week, I’ll ask how the health of his team is doing and how his family is doing and all that,” Rodriguez said. “ There won’t be like any insider treatment, what they are doing here, because there’s not really anything I think we can get from that.
“If a guy is your friend, you don’t even want to put a guy in a position like that. But Butch and I are very close.”
Rodriguez and Kelly share other common bonds. Both took over good programs in the Big East and made them conference title winners. They also, as Kelly said Tuesday, share a financial advisor.
From a football standpoint, they share similar experiences of working through college football’s lower ranks to reach their current positions.
Kelly has been a head coach at every program he’s been at since 1991, when he was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at Division II Grand Valley State. Rodriguez first became a head coach in 1988 at Salem and then spent seven seasons at Glenville State in West Virginia.
Both were head coaches before they turned 30. Rodriguez was the youngest head coach in the country at age 24 when he took over at Salem. Kelly was 28 when he became the Grand Valley head coach.
“I really wasn’t somebody that was networking and looking for other jobs,” Kelly said. “I was really trying to be a better head football coach. And then, as I spent more and more time at Grand Valley and we had established ourselves nationally and had some success, other schools started calling me.”
Rodriguez took a similar approach. Instead of jumping from a Division II job to a D-I gig, he went to Tulane and Clemson as an offensive coordinator before returning to his alma mater at West Virginia.
“It is invaluable coaching at the small school level because you get an appreciation for all the stuff you have to running a college program,” Rodriguez said.
“Back then, my wife (Rita) was in charge of painting the logo on the field and putting together the video highlights for the team. The assistant coaches were the strength coaches and equipment managers as well.”
Kelly and Rodriguez have tried to impart those experiences on their assistants. Neither were big-time football players. Rodriguez walked on at West Virginia and Kelly played at tiny Assumption College in Massachusetts.
Yet they sit at the top of their profession now, with a disciple in common.
“The two years, two-and-a-half years I spent with Rich at West Virginia, he taught me so much about running a program and the building of a family atmosphere and competitiveness and creating that type of culture,” Jones said. “Brian, with the different things working with him, from consistency to confidence and things like that.
“You take little things, bits and pieces, and mold them into your own philosophy.”