Give credit to Presbyterian College for trying something different when it brought in famous high school coach Kevin Kelley to be its new football program ahead of the 2021 season.
To often, schools are afraid to try anything outside the box, or do anything to rock the boat. But when you’re a Division 1 football program that doesn’t have scholarships or much in the way of success over the program’s history, taking a chance on someone like Kevin Kelley wasn’t the worst idea you could have.
But this was never going to be successful, and Kelley walking away amidst the major college coaching carousel going off is about what most sane people thought would happen. A great coach at a private high school where he has the talent edge in 99 percent of his games does not make a great, or even good, or even competent college coach, as Presbyterian fans and much of America realized after 11 games this season.
Kelley got off to a dream start with the Blue Hose, winning the first two games by finals of 84-43 and 68-3, getting national attention for those scores and even ending up on ESPN’s College GameDay, tricking people into thinking that his wild system that almost never punts, always tries onside kicks, and nearly always goes for two, was going to work and revolutionize college football. Nevermind that those first two games were against a really bad NAIA team, and a “school” playing its first season of college football.
Kelley’s first real test came after those two games, playing a solid but not great Campbell College team in his first game against NCAA competition. They lost 72-0.
Throw out the two wins over non-NCAA competition and the Blue Hose gave up over 60 points per game, and gave up over 460 yards of offense per game, and north of 230 rushing yards per game.
If you haven’t yet, go take a look at their season statistics, and it’s alarming how bad this team was on the football field. Despite running 215 more plays than their opponents, they gave up 82 touchdowns to their 57, a different of 35, that again includes the two non-NCAA wins. Throw those out, and the differential is 76 to 37, a more than 2:1 ratio against NCAA teams.
The list goes on and on of just how bad this team and this strategy was at the college level. Opposing runners AVERAGED 5.2 yards per carry against them. The Blue Hose turned the ball over 46 times, 42 of those coming against NCAA teams. In nine games they averaged over four turnovers per game just on interceptions and fumbles, and that’s not even taking into account all the failed fourth downs that gave opponents the ball in prime position to score easy touchdowns. They forced 17 turnovers for a differential of -29. It was borderline insulting to watch these games and basically let this guy run a science experiment on the players at Presbyterian as the score got worse and worse.
And then Kelley had the gall to say in his farewell social media post that they were proud of having the No. 1 passing offense in the country and the No. 3 total offense in the country, that again, needed 215 more plays than their opponents to get there and included two games against non-NCAA teams, and bad ones at that.
Since Kelley stepped down, a number of defenders have come forward using some variation of, “Well he didn’t have scholarship players, how were they going to be good?!” To which I point to the eight other teams in the Pioneer League that Presbyterian played this fall, who also don’t offer football scholarships. They beat Kelley to the tune of 472-202 in those eight games. Eight games against equal competition, and they got beat by an average of 59-25. Maybe his “ideas” on football are just stupid? Or too far to the extreme?
As one of my Twitter followers put it after everyone was raving about Kelley’s start, and then subsequent drubbings as the season went on, “It’s like his fans are missing the forest for the trees with this strategy.” Which perfectly sums it up.
Are coaches often too conservative and punt or settle for a field goal too often on 4th and 1? Yes, and they should go for it more often on 4th and short to try and control the ball, or possibly get a touchdown instead of a field goal try. But that doesn’t make going for it on 4th and 13 from your own 22 when you’re down by 10 a good or smart decision. It just means you probably aren’t going to convert, and the opponent is suddenly automatically in field goal range, or needs just a couple plays to score a touchdown, turning your 10 point game into 17 points. I’m not going to say it would have changed the season, but 17 times this season Presbyterian went into the red zone and came away with ZERO points because of Kelley’s thinking and refusal to take the points when they were there.
It’s the same with his decision to always onside kick. You march down the field, score a touchdown to make it a one-score game…and your next thought is to onside kick and give the opponent the ball at your 45, one first down away from a field goal attempt and back to a two-score game? Make it make sense. Throw in that they were 9 of 48 on onside tries (18.75%) and over 80 percent of the time you did score, the defense had their backs to the wall.
Maybe Kevin Kelley’s philosophy and overall thoughts on football would have worked better at a school with more talent, but the same questions come up even if you have that advantage. Because in NCAA football, you don’t get to play 11 NAIA teams, or religious schools in a strip mall, and then celebrate how good you are.
Was taking a chance on Kevin Kelley a bad idea by Presbyterian? When you take into account what the program is and has been, not at all. But to think this was going to fix the program or do anything other than turn it into a reddit/r/cfb meme was foolish. There was only one way Kevin Kelley’s time at the school was going to end, I just didn’t think he’d, ironically, punt after one season.