In January, Kevin Kelly headed to Connecticut to interview for the head football coaching job at Yale. Just a few months earlier, such an invitation might have seemed improbable. After all, Kelly had led Georgetown to nine wins total in his first five seasons on the Hilltop.
But in 2011, the Hoyas broke through with an 8-3 record, their best mark since 1999. They finished one win shy of their first appearance in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, losing to Patriot League champion Lehigh on the final day of the regular season.
Kelly, 52, ultimately pulled his name from consideration at Yale, deciding that his roots in this area and a team on the rise trumped the chance to further pursue one of the Ivy League’s top jobs. He is back for his seventh season at Georgetown with a team he believes can take the next step in a whirlwind turnaround. The Hoyas return 17 starters and enter Saturday’s opener at Davidson with the most buzz around the program since it joined the Patriot League more than a decade ago.
“It’s taken a little longer than I hoped, but it’s rewarding now,” Kelly said. “I’ve been involved with a national championship [at Marshall, which won the Division I-AA title in 1996], bowl games, Army-Navy games, all that, and this past year was the most rewarding out of 28 that I’ve had [in college coaching] because I know where we started and where we’re trying to get to.”
Since the season-ending loss to Lehigh, Kelly has urged his players to “finish the job,” adopting the phrase as a motto for the season.
“We had to change our mind-set, change the mind-set of the Georgetown football program,” said senior linebacker Robert McCabe, the Patriot League preseason defensive player of the year. “You can tell out here at practice. It’s completely different. There’s lots of energy, everyone’s running to the ball, everyone’s excited to practice, excited to get better every day.”
“To be talked about and playing important games in November, that was a big deal for our kids and our alums and our program,” added defensive coordinator Rob Sgarlata, a former Hoyas running back who has been on the coaching staff since his playing career ended in 1994.
The increasingly upbeat atmosphere has proved refreshing for a class of seniors that started at the bottom — Georgetown went 0-11 in 2009, when they were freshmen — and has grown with the program.
Senior quarterback Isaiah Kempf played in nine games as a freshman, throwing two touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Even after winning the starting job heading into last season, he continued to split time with Scott Darby.
Kempf, a California native, stayed in town this summer, squeezing in early-morning workouts and evening throwing sessions around an internship at Merrill Lynch in the District.
Kelly made Kempf a captain for the season and said the 6-foot-3, 195-pound signal-caller has earned the right to be the unquestioned starter in new offensive coordinator Vinny Marino’s spread attack.
“I was just a little freshman — I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing,” Kempf said of his trial-by-fire start. “But going into my fourth year, I think [I’m] just being more vocal, talking to people so they know who’s leading them out on the field.”
Kelly, a former Navy assistant, hopes to keep the program trending upward both on the field and within the university community. Donations to the program were up more than 150 percent last year compared with 2010.
While average attendance remained largely unchanged for the four home games last season — and among the lowest in Division I at 2,568 per game — several players said the enthusiasm for the team on campus has continued to build. The Hoyas will also play on national television for the first time in recent memory this season when their Sept. 21 game at Princeton is broadcast on ESPNU.
After years of hopping from job to job as an assistant, Kelly said the interview at Yale only reinforced his belief in the life and program he’s built at Georgetown. He lives near campus with his wife, Kathy, and his son Patrick is a university student who assists on his staff. He said he hasn’t changed much in his day-to-day approach to the job in the past few years, even if the outside perception of the program says otherwise.
“Everybody loves a winner, right?” Kelly said after a recent intrasquad scrimmage. “All the sudden you kind of went from being dumb to being smart. That’s the coaching profession. Really, the difference is, to be quite frank with you, we’ve got better players than we did in years past.”