SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is betting Brian Kelly is the man who can finally win it all for the Irish.
Two people confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday that the Cincinnati coach and Notre Dame had reached a deal for Kelly to replace Charlie Weis. The two people spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not been made.
Notre Dame has been searching for a coach for about a week and a half since firing Weis, who failed to lift the Irish out of mediocrity, much like his two predecessors.
Now, it's up to the man who turned Cincinnati into a national championship contender to revive the fortunes of a team that just completed the worst decade of football in the history of the storied program with a 70-52 record and three losing seasons.
Bearcats players still hadn't heard anything official when they showed up for their annual football banquet at a downtown hotel on Thursday night. Kelly arrived at the banquet after most players, accompanied by police officers. When approached at the Bearcats' annual football banquet Thursday night, Kelly didn't stop to talk to reporters, saying, "No word. We're here to celebrate our seniors."
Members of the University of Cincinnati's board of trustees, however, already had been told of Kelly's decision, a person in the school's administration told the AP on condition of anonymity because the school had not announced Kelly's departure.
The 47-year-old Kelly is 34-6 in three seasons at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to back-to-back Big East titles and two straight Bowl Championship Series berths. The Bearcats set a school record last season for victories with an 11-3 record, then topped that with a 12-0 mark this season.
There was no immediate word on who would coach the No. 4 Bearcats in their Sugar Bowl game against Florida.
Receiver Mardy Gilyard, one of the last players to arrive at the banquet, said in an interview that he was upset Kelly had accepted the Notre Dame job after telling him and other players before their last game that he was staying.
"I don't like it," said Gilyard, the Big East's top receiver and kick returner. "I feel there was a little lying in the thing. I feel like he'd known this the whole time. Everybody knows Notre Dame's got the money. I kind of had a gut feeling he was going to stay just because he told me he was going to be here."
Kelly informed the team last Monday that Notre Dame had contacted him and he would listen. He was expected to tell the team of his decision to leave later Thursday at the banquet, which was closed to the media. Quarterback Tony Pike said Kelly told them last week, before their title-clinching win over Pittsburgh, that he was happy in Cincinnati.
"The Tuesday when we were practicing for Pittsburgh, he said he loves it here and he loves this team and loves coaching here and his family loves it here," Pike said.
Kelly has long admired Notre Dame, which seemed to be the perfect fit for an Irish Catholic coach raised in the Boston area. His name first popped up as a possible candidate last season before Notre Dame said Weis would be back for a fifth year.
When Kelly arrived in Cincinnati three years ago, then-university president Nancy Zimpher told Kelly she expected him to turn the football program into a Top 25 mainstay, win a Big East title right away and make sure his players graduate. He'll face even higher expectations at Notre Dame.
It won't be easy; the Irish have a 16-21 record over the past three seasons. And he'll have to do it without two of Notre Dame's best players.
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his favorite receiver, Golden Tate, announced Monday they will bypass their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft.
Kelly grew up in Chelsea, Mass., and went to Assumption College, a Catholic school in Worcester where he played linebacker while getting his degree in political science. The son of an alderman, he intended to go into politics after college and he even worked on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign in the Boston area.
But football won out.
He learned how to be a head coach at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won back-to-back national titles and 32 consecutive games over one stretch. Working with a limited roster taught him how to be creative, finding a niche for each player.
He moved on to the Mid-American Conference and turned Central Michigan into a winning program in only three years. He also gained confidence in his coaching philosophies and his preference for a wide-open offense.
Kelly was criticized in September 2004 for remarks he made to the Detroit Free Press about perjury charges filed against two former Central Michigan players after other CMU players were charged with second-degree murder in the fatal beating of a man. The death happened shortly after Kelly was named Central's coach.
"A number of them were African-Americans that had been in that culture of violence, and they're taught to look away," Kelly said. "You don't want anything to do with it. Get out of there. You don't say anything to anybody."
Then-university President Michael Rao called Kelly's remarks "completely unacceptable" and Kelly apologized in an e-mail to students, faculty and staff. Rao then came out in support of the coach, saying he has a good heart and a record that showed a commitment to diversity.
In 2006, when Mark Dantonio left Cincinnati for Michigan State, UC decided that Kelly and his no-huddle, spread offense would bring a spark not just to the program but to the town, where college football ranked behind high school games in fan interest.
The Bearcats won 10 games his first season, set a school record with 11 wins and a Big East title the second and this season he had the high-scoring Bearcats (12-0) contending for a national title.
Gilyard said some players were angry that Kelly's leaving just as the program had become nationally prominent.
"Just blindsided by the fact that it's a business," Gilyard said. "People lose sight of that. At the end of the day, NCAA football is a business. People have got to make business decisions."
KIFFIN NOT AWARE OF VIOLATIONS: Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin says he was not "aware" of any recruiting violations committed by himself, his assistants or support staff regarding the university's student ambassador program.
He said during a news conference Thursday he and his staff take the rules of the NCAA and SEC "extremely serious." He says he doesn't know of any wrongdoing by any of his staff or "of the kids that are being questioned in this."
Tennessee confirmed Wednesday the NCAA is looking into the activities of members of the university's Orange Pride group.
Several of the group's "ambassadors" traveled nearly 200 miles to a high school football game where three players are being actively recruited by the Vols.
ZIPS TAP IRISH ASSISTANT: Rob Ianello, a Notre Dame assistant coach and the Fighting Irish's recruiting coordinator, will now try to convince high school stars to come to Akron. Ianello was introduced as the Zips' new head coach on Thursday. The 44-year-old spent the previous five years at Notre Dame, where he landed some of the nation's top recruits. Ianello also coached the Irish's wide receivers coach and served as interim coach after Charlie Weis was fired.
HARBAUGH HIRES DAD: Stanford will have a second Harbaugh on the coaching staff for the Sun Bowl. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday that he's hired his dad, Jack, to be the interim running backs coach for the Cardinal's first bowl game since 2001. He replaces Willie Taggart, who was hired last month as the head coach at Western Kentucky.
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