MIKE KELLY has been coaching for more than 3 decades, at every level from Division III to NAIA to XFL to CFL to the NFL. So he's pretty much experienced it all. Still, the former quarterback and son of a high school coach says he's never gone through a season like this one.
He took the Widener job last offseason, becoming the third man to run the program in as many years. That, after spending the past 2 years in the sports agent business. On Saturday the Pride will host Linfield (10-1) in the D-III quarterfinals. Kelly has yet to suffer a loss in Chester. Only one previous Widener coach managed to go unbeaten in his first season. That was Dutch Sommer, in 1913 (5-0-2), when the school was still Pennsylvania Military College. That would be Sommer's only season. Kelly has no intention of moving on any time soon.
"I expect us to be here on a regular basis, playing in December," said Kelly, who was an assistant with the Eagles in 2001-02. "This is what I envisioned all along."
The Pride made it this far 2 years ago for Isaac Collins before losing at eventual national champion Mount Union. Collins then left for Division II Seton Hill. Last year, it was 6-4 with Bobby Acosta, who is now on the staff at Syracuse.
"My hope was to be better than 6-4," Kelly said. "This is my third head-coaching job, but the first one where I had a legitimate returning quarterback [sophomore Seth Klein]. I don't care where you are, that's a vital cog. And [we've got] a pretty good wide receiver.''
That would be senior Anthony Davis, who has broken many of Hall of Famer Billy "White Shoes'' Johnson's records.
"Sometimes the right people are in place, and maybe they just need to be cultivated in a different manner,'' said Kelly, who was a quarterback at D-III Bluffton University in Ohio. "It's really worked out well for us. There's no doubt that if I'd come into the same situation years ago we wouldn't be where we are. My perspective on life has changed. I used to go around saying a lot of things that were all garbage."
It doesn't hurt that the defense also ranked among the nation's best. The Pride didn't even trail until their regular-season finale against 9-0 Delaware Valley. In the tournament opener, it had to score five points in the final 92 seconds to beat Muhlenberg by one at home. Last week, it beat Christopher Newport (8-4), 37-27, to improve to 7-0 in NCAA games at Quick Stadium. It also got the Pride to 12-0 for the third time ever. The 1981 team won a second national title in 4 years for legendary Bill Manlove by going 13-0. And in 2001, it lost in the third round to finish 12-1.
"I have [Manlove's] book," Kelly laughed. "I got it in 1984. He signed it for me. I met him before my initial tour through Division III . . .
"I knew this was a place where you could build something of substance. Then I'll drift off into the sunset."
Linfield, from McMinnville, Ore., is in the quarters for the third straight year. Last week they went to Benton, Texas, and gave Mary Baylor-Hardin - which lost by one in last year's semifinals to eventual champ Wisconsin-Whitewater and was ranked second - its first loss, 31-28. It was the first road playoff win for the Wildcats, who tragically lost sophomore linebacker Parker Moore on Nov. 15. He was stabbed to death by a stranger at a convenience store across from campus.
The winner will get either Wisconsin-Whitewater (12-0) or Wartburg (12-0).
"There's only so many teams still playing," Kelly said. "You don't take anything for granted. I think it's our Philadelphia-area grit that's carried us a long way.
"I've heard from so many people I hadn't been in contact with for a long time. The great thing is, the kids have had my back. They keep telling me that. I'll never forget any of these guys.
"It's been gratifying and humbling. But some people have said we're setting the bar too high. What do I do next year?"
That's a dilemma for another time. This one's not over yet.
Wesley (12-0), which will be joining the NJAC next year, is hosting Hobart (12-0) in Dover in the other half of the bracket.