Bill Burgess waited in his office at Jacksonville State for his assistant coaches to arrive. They trickled in one by one as they came off the road from their December and January recruiting trips, making the final push to fill out the Gamecocks' class.
Every few weeks, Burgess would look around the facility and see Charles Kelly’s office empty. Kelly hadn’t returned. This was before cell phones, too. But there was never any angst as to why his star assistant was still on the road. Burgess knew Kelly’s track record, and his absence was usually welcomed. It meant Kelly was finalizing a commitment and would be coming back with good news.
“He’d supposed to be back in a certain day and he’d be a day late,” Burgess said. “With him, it was always, 'I got a chance to work a little bit longer.'
"... The thing that was obvious about Coach Kelly was he’d work. He put the hours in that are needed to be put in, and not everybody will do that. You got to have the people not looking at a clock all the time."
This was almost two decades ago, but Burgess’ name could easily have been substituted with any coach Kelly has worked under since 1990. Those who know Kelly well all say the same thing: Florida State could not have made a better hire at defensive coordinator than Kelly.
When Jeremy Pruitt left after one season as the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator for Georgia, it was the first time since 2008 that the defensive coordinator of the team with the No. 1 scoring defense left for another job. Kelly immediately stood out as the top in-house candidate, and coach Jimbo Fisher promoted Kelly from linebackers coach shortly after Pruitt departed. Fisher and several players said there are few, if any, changes from what the Noles ran under Pruitt to what they will run under Kelly.
The players already like what they have seen from their new leader. Sophomore defensive back Nate Andrews said Kelly finds a teaching moment every time he comes off the field.
“He teaches as you go along,” Andrews said. “If you mess up on the field, you come to the sideline [and] he’ll teach you, 'This is what you did wrong' or 'This is what you did right.'”
Kelly will also coach the secondary. He was a defensive back at Auburn and the position most of his former coaches believes suits him best. Defensive coordinator at a BCS school was the natural progression for Kelly, who has coached nearly every position on the field. Most importantly, he quickly adjusted to each new job title, whether it was running backs or linebackers.
“The good, outstanding coaches can coach any position and probably should be able to,” said former Central Phenix City (Ala.) High School coach Wayne Trawick, who hired Kelly as a junior varsity coach in 1990. “You can’t be a good DB coach without knowing routes and you can’t be a good linebackers coach if you can’t understand offensive blocking scheme. A good young coach won’t just study the position he’s coaching if he wants to move up … and he can coach any position.”
Al Groh and Kelly sat across from the hall from each other at Georgia Tech from 2010-12. It was a high-traffic area, Groh said, as he and Kelly alternated between each other’s offices exchanging ideas. It isn’t always easy for a head coach or coordinator to solicit suggestions from position coaches, but Groh said he made a special exception for Kelly, whose ideas were worth considering.
It wasn’t until Groh left Atlanta that he fully realized how much teaching was ingrained in Kelly. Groh, serving as a TV analyst at ESPN, was sitting in one of Kelly’s linebackers meetings a few days before a Florida State game. At Georgia Tech, Kelly’s role was coaching special teams and the secondary.
“He did an excellent job of coaching linebackers, like it was his all-time position,” Groh said.
Shayne Wasden, the head coach while Kelly was at Eufaula (Ala.) High School, might know Kelly best. They were teammates at Auburn and Wasden called Kelly shortly after being named head coach. He offered Kelly the defensive coordinator position, and rarely gave that side of the ball another thought. He never had to. He called Kelly a “grinder” and doubts anyone was going to outwork him on defense. Wasden knew there was not a better teacher for his defense, either, a vital aspect for a high school program.
Teaching is what Kelly does, even away from the football field. He was a math teacher and directed the alternate school at Eufaula, and he tutored students in math after practice, even the alternate students, who are usually kept apart from the general student body and are lightly taught during the day.
Teaching is an essential trait for Kelly, who is saddled with replacing some of the Seminoles' biggest stars. Lamarcus Joyner, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith are all likely to be picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, and they were arguably the defense's three most vocal leaders.
“[Kelly] knows the game as good as anyone. He’s going to recruit harder than anybody. He watches tape constantly. His work ethic is second to none," said Wasden, now the assistant head coach at Troy. "He's done well everywhere he's been. They'll be really good on defense. I don’t know if [Florida State] could have hired a better [coach]."