Coming from the mid South, a select group of former high school coaches have hit the big time in college football.
For a long time, Art Briles was the most prominent example of such a success story.
For a few years, Chad Morris and Hugh Freeze were other well-known examples.
Perhaps the most successful has been Arkansan Gus Malzahn, whose dynamic offenses at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High broke numerous Arkansas state records in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Malzahn parlayed that high school success into an offensive coordinator position at Arkansas before later becoming the head coach at Arkansas State, Auburn and Central Florida.
Now, Malzahn’s friend Kevin Kelley is looking to make a successful jump to the next level as well.
Last week, Kelley was announced as the new coach of Presbyterian College in South Carolina after an ultra-successful stint of 18 years at Pulaski Academy.
His teams won nine state titles and set the 12 highest single-season yardage totals in Arkansas prep history, shattering some of the same records that Malzahn’s teams did.
For years after the two squared off on the gridiron, Malzahn recruited players from Pulaski Academy. Now, he’s providing guidance as Kelley puts together his first college staff.
For all of Kelley’s wizardry with numbers, though, doesn’t have any experience when it comes to how to take over at a new college program and bring in his system to a new group of older players.
That’s where talking to friends like Malzahn and Tim Horton, another former Arkansas assistant coach, has helped, Kelley said in a Hit That Line interview.
Malzahn is ready to help.
“I’m extremely happy for my friend Kevin Kelley. I’m also very proud of him,” Malzahn recently said. “He will do a wonderful job at the college level and this is a home-run hire for Presbyterian College.”
“Kevin and PC are a perfect match and I look forward to seeing Kevin light it up in the college football world.”
In the Hit That Line interview, Kelley said Malzahn gives him optimism that his famously analytics-based offensive scheme can work in college football. Before Malzahn made the jump to SEC football, a lot of people doubted whether his Springdale High tactics would work.
But Malzahn reasoned it would go better than anticipated because he would have SEC players, not just high school players, to run it. Malzahn’s reasoning proved, on the whole, right.
Kelley is hopeful for similar reasons.
Malzahn isn’t the only big-name coach singing Kelley’s praises.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, also thinks highly of the 51-year-old Kelley.
“Coach Kelley has been in meetings with myself and Tom Brady and the other quarterbacks in game-planning … and we’re able to talk on a fresh level that’s something different.”
If Kelley is able to make a big splash at the FCS level with Presbyterian, he could use that success to get his first big break at the Division I FBS level.
The head coach who hires him as an assistant would need to be extremely comfortable with his philosophies of hardly punting and almost always onside kicking.
One such potential head coach is Rhett Lashlee, a coaching disciple of Gus Malzahn, says Arkansas sportswriter Nate Olson.
Currently, Lashlee is the offensive coordinator at Miami but he’s long been considered a potential head coach at a Division I FBS program. Right now, Miami has the second-best ACC Championship odds in 2021 and if the Hurricane get close to pulling off such a feat, you’d better believe Lashlee will be an even hotter head coach prospect.
In another interview with Hit That Line, Olson said that if Lashlee takes over his own program, he may want to hire Kelley as an offensive coordinator because he and Kelley are “on the same wavelength offensively on a lot of things.”
By that point, if things go according to Kelley’s plan, Lashlee may not be the only head coach to come calling.
Last week, Kevin Kelley said he plans on making big waves at the Prebyterian in the next couple years.
The first season, the goal is to make the FCS national playoffs.
By year two, his goal is nothing short of the national tite.