Scooter Hobbs column: Kelly from Grand Valley to Death Valley

Published 9:00 am Friday, October 20, 2023

He had no way of knowing it at the time, but it looks like Brian Kelly, the Northern stranger who came to Louisiana with an odd accent from a Midwestern background, was preparing all along for the LSU job.

Kelly is college football’s winningest active coach, as you probably knew, and he can join an elite club Saturday if he can get his 300th career victory, against Army.

His Tigers are favored by 32 points to make Kelly the 13th coach to crack the milestone. He’ll join household names like Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden, Pop Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg. That kind of company.

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LSU is his fifth coaching stop in a head coaching career that began in 1991, the record on hold at 299-103-2.

Grand Valley State, is where it all started, which according to Google, is located in Allendale, wherever that is — probably in Michigan. You likely never heard of it. Rarely shows up as a College Football Playoff contender. Except for being in Division II and playing in front of crowds that occasionally top 300, doing it with — at best — partial scholarships, and far away from the lure of network TV and NIL money, well, it sounds a whole lot like LSU.

He would later coach at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before becoming the all-time winningest coach at Cheer Cheer for Old Notre Dame and then fleeing for the lure of the mosquitoes and humidity of Louisiana.

But back to the beginning, Grand Valley State, the Lakers they’re called, and play in the full mouthful of a league called the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Kelly spent 13 years there, going 118-35-2.

He got that gig after three years on the staff.

But the very first game there, the experience, might as well have been LSU Light.

“Looking back at the journey, I had no idea I’d at it this long,” said Kelly, who at least claimed that he had to be reminded of this week’s upcoming milestone at his Monday news conference.

Let’s just say the career reviews didn’t sound promising at the start.

“My first game, I remember the school president — the Grand Valley State press box was an open-window press box — and I could hear him because it was only probably 300 people there. He said, ‘Who the hell hired this guy?’ So I didn’t think I was going to be in this business very long. That was the first game.”

I looked it up. Grand Valley State that day beat St. Joseph’s 31-3. Kelly got to keep his job.

What, exactly, were they expecting?

“That was my first game,” Kelly said. “That’s my perspective.”

Who knows?

But it sounds vaguely familiar and certainly helps prepare you for the Southeastern Conference, where you can beat, say Auburn 48-18 and the postgame call-in shows are wringing hands and complaining that you had 12 penalties — the kind of thing that will get you beat if you’re playing Alabama.

Kelly, in fact, won two Division II national championships that may have slipped under your radar.

But he’s sticking to his story about what an expected win over Army would mean.

“I don’t really think about it that much,” he said when asked about the milestone. “First time I’ve heard that (300) was the case to be honest with you. If all I was thinking about was wins, I’d have got out of this a long time ago. When you love what you do, you’re not counting wins.”

Maybe not. But fans at LSU are always kind enough to keep track of everything.

Just like at Grand Valley State.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at