The coaching debut was with the seventh- and eighth-grade girls at the Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Mass. The girls' basketball coach at the high school in Clinton was Bernie Gaughan, and in the fall Bernie had a second job as the defensive coordinator for the club football varsity at tiny Assumption College in Worcester, because that's the way you have to hustle at that level of the game to make a buck, and his best player at Assumption was an undersized linebacker named Brian Kelly and …

That's right. That Brian Kelly.

The Notre Dame guy.

… and, let's see, by senior year, Brian knew the defense better than Bernie did, as Bernie himself said, and so when that job became open for an assistant in Clinton to coach the seventh and eight graders, the girls, well, Bernie thought Brian would be a natural, even though Brian still hadn't graduated college. This would be a way to start coaching, if that was what he wanted to do. It also would be a way to make a buck.

And so Brian became the head coach of the seventh and eighth graders, the girls, and went to work, fiery and fierce as usual, and his team rattled off nine consecutive wins to start the season. The coaching business seemed easy. The team then rattled off nine consecutive losses to finish the season. The business did not seem easy at all.

Brian, the way Bernie remembers it, was perplexed during the losing streak. Excellence had been trumped by ineptitude. How did a team that played so well during the first half of the season fall apart so completely in the second half? How could this be? He tried various antidotes during the slide, none of which worked.

The riddle was not solved until the team break-up dinner. "One of the girls told him at the dinner what happened," Bernie says. "It all was about the schedule."

In a show of gender equality, the schedule for the season had been divided in half at the school gymnasium. In the first half of the season, the boys practiced first, the girls second. In the second half of the season, the girls practiced first, the boys second. This meant that the boys arrived early in the second half of the season and were in the stands, watching, while the girls practiced.

"So that changed everything," the girl on Brian Kelly's team said. "None of us were going to dive on the floor, roll around. Not with all those boys watching."

And it all went from there.

* * *

Bernie became the head coach at Assumption the year after Brian graduated and offered the coordinator job to his former middle linebacker. It was an easy decision. The former middle linebacker, an alderman's son from Chelsea, just outside Boston, had a brief flirtation with politics, worked for a state senator from Worcester, worked for the Gary Hart presidential campaign, even drove the candidate around the state in his tired 1980 Ford Escort, but quickly came back to football as a first and better love. It was another easy decision.

Everyone at Assumption thought he would be a fine coach. He already had been a coach on the field for the Greyhounds as a player, the voice all his teammates heard first.

"My senior year, we had four captains," Dave Hazel says. "Three of us were seniors. Brian was a junior. The first practice, we all looked at each other: Who was going to lead everybody in calisthenics? Then the three seniors, we all looked at Brian. It was just natural.

"He was one of those kids who was older when he was younger. Do you know what I mean?"

On the semi-quiet fields at Bentley, Stonehill, Providence College - places not associated in the public mind with football - the game was played with less speed, less size, probably less coordination, but no less emotion and strategy than it was in the Big Ten, the SEC, any of those places. Kelly had roared around those fields as a player, a guy who still was hitting and talking, three touchdowns behind, three minutes left to play. He continued to roar as a coach.

"He was a stickler for the fundamentals," Bernie says. "Strictly a defense man. He knew everything about our defense. A gambler. We played a 4-3, blitzed a lot."

As a player, even though he recorded a school-record 314 tackles as a four-year starter, he always had enjoyed the practices as much as the games. He loved the planning, the preparation for competition. He loved it even more now. He was also a good recruiter, had the politician's confidence, the politician's charm. Bernie said he recruited the mothers.

After only one season as a coordinator, he was offered a job as a head coach at Assumption. No, Bernie didn't leave. Brian became the head coach of softball. Women's softball.

And it all went from there.

* * *

"He came to Durfee High School to recruit me," says Ann Gibbons, who was an ace pitcher. "He was … what? ... four years older than me. Five? , I was 18, he was 22, maybe 23. He said all the right things."

"He was young, but he had everyone's respect," Shonda Becker says. "He was very fair. He gave me a chance. I was third baseman as a freshman. He had a third baseman who was a senior. He put the job open. I became the third baseman in the middle of the season. You can't ask for more than that as a player."

Becker remembers a road trip to AIC in Springfield. Brian was driving the van and one of the players started complaining. Brian asked what the problem was. She said she was hungry, that she hadn't had time to eat. Becker held her breath. What would happen here? Brian wheeled the van into a McDonald's and came out with bags of food.

"We got to AIC late," Becker says. "Nobody had time to warm up, stretch, do anything. We won two. He knew what we needed, I guess."

Gibbons remembers a glimpse of the other side.

"We played a game at WPI," she says. "We won, 3-1, but he thought we should have won by more. And we should have. After the game, and this was their field, he lined us all up in the outfield and we said, 'Oh, oh, this is the football Brian,' and he made us run wind sprints."

He was the women's softball coach for four years. He was a solid coach, terrific. Everyone said so. Gibbons remembers how he would stop at players' dorms, just to talk, just to see how everyone was doing in life. His final team posted a school-record 23 wins and had six Northeast-10 Conference all-stars.

He also had continued to work for Bernie in football. That was his main job. At the end of the 1987 season, a 6-4 finish for the football Greyhounds, Bernie had a call from a coach he knew in at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. The coach ran the same defense Bernie ran and wondered if Bernie had any bright coaching prospects.

"Oh," Bernie said. "Do I have the guy for you."

The job paid $4,200 to be a graduate assistant and coach defensive backs. The bright young coaching prospect was 26 years old.

That Brian Kelly. Yes.

The Notre Dame guy.

And it all went from there.