By Mike Grenier
---- — Mike Cronin appreciates the fact that he’s had some extraordinary sports-related perks in his life. The 51-year-old from Manchester has attended NFL Super Bowls, the NCAA basketball Final Four and The Masters, among other things.
Then one day in August 2011, he went to the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., and visited head football coach Brian Kelly, a fellow St. John’s Prep alumnus and Cronin’s former roommate at Assumption College in Worcester. Cronin had no idea what to expect during his hastily planned visit and, as it turned out, it was nothing like the memorable major sporting events he’d attended.
It was better.
Brian Kelly, who leads the 12-0 Fighting Irish into the BCS national championship game tonight against Alabama, made it the kind of day that would rival anything that Cronin had ever experienced.
“It was spectacular — one of those great days in my life,” said Cronin. “First we’re in his office, just talking, and then I get the tour. We’re in the locker room and they have those little (dressing) stalls that look like they did probably 70 years ago. And then I’m touching the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign (leading to the tunnel and the football stadium) just like the players do.
“Notre Dame was starting (preseason) practice the next day, so Brian could’ve said he was too busy to see me,” added Cronin, “but he made time for me. I spent about two hours with him and it was as good as anything I’ve been to in my life.”
Kelly, 51, lived in Andover when he attended St. John’s Prep (Class of 1979) and has a University of Cincinnati helmet in his office. He’s justifiably proud of what he accomplished there, guiding the Bearcats to a 34-6 record in three-plus seasons as their head coach, including a 12-0 mark and a BCS Bowl appearance in the Sugar Bowl in 2009. The job he did at Cincinnati paved the way for his hiring by Notre Dame, so it was a turning point in his professional life.
But the place that was instrumental in shaping his life was St. John’s Prep, where he was an undersized backup lineman — No. 62 in your old Eagles program — who had to claw and scrap for every bit of playing time he ever got from coach Fred Glatz.
Bought into the team concept at SJP
It was on the Danvers parochial school campus where he first learned about camaraderie, teamwork, the right way to play the game and the value of an honest day’s effort. He would enhance and expand his skill set at Assumption College, Division 2 Grand Valley State and Division 1 Central Michigan over the next 23 years before attaining national prominence at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, but his template was St. John’s Prep.
When Kelly returned to the Prep for a speaking engagement last year, he insisted that he wasn’t much of a player for the Eagles, who went 6-2-1 and 7-2, respectively, in his final two seasons there. Glatz paints a different picture of Kelly, who also has a St. John’s Prep helmet in his office at Notre Dame.
“Brian was a guard on offense and middle guard on defense,” noted Glatz, 79, who coached the Eagles from 1967-1983 and got the VIP treatment from a grateful Kelly when he visited Notre Dame for the Michigan State game in 2011. “He was only 5-foot-9 and didn’t weigh much, so he just wasn’t big enough to be a (full-time) starter, but he was a student of the game and part of what we did. Not everyone can be a starter, but he really worked at the game and (eventually) played.”
Current St. John’s Prep coach Jim O’Leary was a young assistant for Glatz in the late 1970s and saw the progress that Kelly made. “Brian wasn’t our best player, but he was a tough, gritty kid. He made the best of his situation,” said O’Leary.
Kelly’s teammates never did buy his “not much of a player” self-assessment. Instead, they recall a kid who was a complementary player, someone who filled a role and completely bought into the team concept.
“Brian never complained when he wasn’t starting,” said Brian Currie, currently a Hollywood screenwriter and actor who was a Prep tri-captain and linebacker out of Peabody as a senior in 1978. “All he did was master the playbook and work his way into a starting position. He should be proud of that and never say anything to the contrary about his ability.
“I just remember how he paid attention to detail. He was meticulous about it, and he just hung in there and became a starter as a senior. It just shows you what tenacity can do, and he was a great teammate.”
“Brian was in the middle of a linemen mix that would have put anyone to the test,” added Mike Smerczynski of Peabody, the quarterback of the 1977 team who would end playing at Harvard. The group included Bobby Marraffa (Wesleyan), Brian Gildea (Columbia), Chris Davis (Harvard), Roy Norden (BC), Andy Coady (BU), Rick St. Germain (Holy Cross), Dave Cecere (Holy Cross), Gary Pfaff (played pro football in Italy), Mike Newhall (three-sport athlete at the Prep who went on to Providence), Jeff Connolly (Middlebury) and Currie (Middlebury).
Kelly always faced long odds against that type of in-house competition, yet he persevered. And he benefitted from Glatz’s coaching philosophy.
“It was a ‘We are in this together’ approach,” said Smerczynski. “Glatz would preach that the starters had a large number of obligations. It was do well, win and get your other teammates into the game. The inclusivity part was huge. It turned out to be pretty powerful stuff to have a team where everyone possesses a stake in the outcome. Brian was right in the middle of this type of effort.
Up the coaching ladder
Bolstered by what learned from Glatz and his teammates at the Prep, Kelly was determined to better himself at Assumption College. But it was a struggle. It was always a struggle. Assumption didn’t have a varsity football team when Kelly got there in 1979. It was a club team and the Greyhounds often got pounded. Kelly played linebacker and he, too, got pounded. He would take it and come back for more.
“His very first game at Assumption, I think the team lost, 38-0 or something like that,” said Cronin. “Brian comes back up to the dorm room and doesn’t say anything and on Monday he’s back at practice. He’s thinking about how he’ll get ready for the next one. He was just one of those diligent, organized guys. You can always find a place on the team for a guy like that. You want him as a teammate, a friend, a coworker. He’s a solid character guy.”
Sundays were a sacred day for Kelly and Cronin at Assumption. They’d postpone studying and cleaning their room (“a bloody pigsty,” said Cronin) in order to watch NFL games. That’s when Kelly started paying even more attention to how the game was played.
“We’d be watching the Patriots or whoever,” said Cronin, “and Brian would be drawing up plays on a napkin or a legal pad or whatever was around. You could tell he had a passion and fire for the game.”
Kelly stuck it out as a football assistant at Assumption from 1983-86 before landing a similar job at Division 2 Grand Valley State, located in Allendale, Mich., in 1987. He took over as head coach at Grand Valley in 1991 and was enormously successful there over a 13-year period, posting a 118-35-2 record and winning two national championships. Kelly finally got a shot at running his own program at a higher level when he was named head coach at Central Michigan in 2004, yet even that was low profile by Division 1 standards.
It wasn’t until he got to Cincinnati just six years ago that the prestige began to catch up to Kelly’s ambition. The Bearcats were in the Big East and they would get some of that ESPN exposure, and people had to start paying attention when he went 34-6 in four seasons.
“Its own ‘Rudy’ story”
When Notre Dame brought him aboard to replace Charlie Weis in 2009 — Kelly never did get to coach his 12-0 Cincinnati team in the Sugar Bowl because of his immediate commitment to the Fighting Irish — some of the happiest people in the country were the kids and coaches who had been such a big part of his life at St. John’s Prep in the 1970s.
“I remember watching ESPN one night and Lou Holtz (ironically, the last coach to win a national title at Notre Dame a quarter century ago) predicted that Kelly would be the next head coach at Notre Dame,” said Currie. “And he was predicting it about 18 months before Brian actually got the job.
“To me, Brian was already a winner when Notre Dame got him as a coach. It was surrealistic to see a buddy of mine, a former teammate at St. John’s Prep, get that job. Everybody at the Prep was unbelievably thrilled. He could’ve been named offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator and we’d still be bragging about him at the Prep. The fact that he was named head coach was icing on the cake.”
Currie is so excited about his ex-teammate taking Notre Dame to the BCS Championship that he toyed with the idea of renting out the Cabot Street Cinema in Beverly and inviting the St. John’s Prep football family to watch the game. “But I thought of it too late,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cronin will be skipping the national TV version of tonight’s game. He bought his ticket a while ago and was scheduled to fly into Miami today.
“It’s a nosebleed seat, but I don’t care,” said Cronin. “Brian doing all this stuff at Notre Dame — it’s kind of its own ‘Rudy’ story. This game is on my bucket list. I have to be there.”