Brian Kelly could have been president. Instead he became a college football coach.

Koki Riley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
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BATON ROUGE - Brian Kelly's friends knew he would either be president of the United States or a football coach.

As a political science major, he was always organizing, communicating and leading projects on campus at Assumption University – a small, Catholic, liberal arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts, just an hour outside of Boston.

He was a freshman orientation leader and recruited students to join the football team - he was the team's middle linebacker. Even after he graduated, he stuck around as the softball coach and defensive coordinator on the football team.

"Brian and his friends were really active in a lot of what we were doing," said Melanie Demarais, who worked in student affairs at Assumption during the time and is now the interim vice president of Institutional Advancement for the school. "Clearly they were trying to drum up support for football and any of the other sports. So they made sure students were active and participating in college life."

Nearly 40 years later – he graduated in 1983 – the 60-year-old Kelly still utilizes that skill set at his new job as LSU's football coach, as he enters his first game with the Tigers on Sunday (6:30 p.m. CT, ABC) against Florida State at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.

It's why athletic director Scott Woodward hired him, for his history of building consistent winners at Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State that were well-structured, organized and disciplined.

No wonder why he was a political science major.

"A lot of getting things done involved convincing people that it's in their interest to do what you want them to do," said Michael Desch, a professor of International Relations at Notre Dame. "And that's a generic skill in a lot of areas of human endeavor it seems to me. It's not just Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi that has to do that, we all have to do that. And a football coach, especially a football coach at a place like Notre Dame or LSU.

"I mean it's not just you go out there on the practice field and do push-ups ... It's about putting together a team of not only players but coaches and support people. But also it's a huge political position."

Brian Kelly the politician

At the heart of Assumption's political science curriculum is critical thinking. It's about making difficult decisions, assessing all sides of the argument and educating oneself before coming to a conclusion.

"They would study all the great political thinkers of the day and assess how they would act, how they would be successful from the 17th century to modern-day America or world politics," Demarais said.

But, as Demarais suggests, those qualities were already ingrained in Kelly's DNA.

Kelly's father, Paul, was an Alderman – a city or town elected official – in Chelsea, Massachusetts, during the 1960s and '70s. He then briefly followed in his father's footsteps, interning for Massachusetts state senator Gerry D'Amico – who represented the greater Worcester area – and working on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign.

"His father, especially, was a huge influence and has been (still) in his life for sure with his work," Demarais said.

Kelly, of course, never became a politician. But Demarais remembers him often using his political background to his advantage during his time at Assumption, whether it was convincing a freshman to join the football team or serving as the director of the residence hall program even after he graduated.

"I think a liberal arts background, in general, and a political science background, in particular, is such a popular major for people who go on and do a wide range of stuff," Desch said. "It just teaches you about how the world works in terms of human interaction that is useful throughout your life."

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Why LSU football needed Brian Kelly

In the season before Kelly's arrival, LSU football found themselves in a sudden tailspin.

The Tigers had gone 11-12 in the two seasons since winning the national championship in 2019. LSU parted ways with coach Ed Orgeron in October although he finished out the rest of the season before leaving before the Texas Bowl matchup against Kansas State.

By that time, the roster was in shambles. The Tigers lost the final game of the season 42-20 with less than 40 scholarship players and a wide receiver starting at quarterback.

"When you see a coach fired, generally speaking, an athletic director may look for that coach's opposite. So if Ed was very raw, emotional, lack of attention to detail, loud, boisterous, all of those things, I think it's natural that you would look for the opposite," said Matt Moscona, the host of "After Further Review" on 104.3 ESPN Baton Rouge.

Moscona isn't the only one who believes a blueprint for championship success at LSU is in place. It hasn't been by accident that the Tigers have won three national championships with three different coaches in 16 years.

"I think you're seeing a guy (in Kelly) who isn't going to revert to the way things were with Ed but is trying to meet fans, former players, media and boosters all halfway with what their expectation is or has been and what his structure looks like and trying to find a common ground," Moscona said. "I guess if you want a political correlation, that's it."

'He's still very much the same person he was back in the day'

Demarais has stayed in touch with Kelly in recent years mostly through his work with the Kelly Cares Foundation. The last time she saw him was in May when Kelly's wife, Paqui, was awarded an honorary degree at Assumption for her work with the foundation.

"I have to tell you, he and his family are very excited to be at LSU," Demarais said.

Kelly's life has changed dramatically in the 39 years since Demarais knew him at Assumption. However, Demarais still sees Kelly as the same focused, determined and serious political science student she met decades ago.

"That's just the type of person he is," Demarais said. "He accepts his responsibilities, he takes it very seriously and he makes sure everybody else is doing their job."

Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at kriley@theadvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.

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