SOUTH BEND, Ind. – For years, Brian Kelly had a unique perspective on Michigan football. He was a college coach on a smaller stage, building programs at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan in a state where everything is pretty much secondary to what happens in Ann Arbor.
"I was really trying to figure out how to be a better head coach," Kelly said. "As I spent more and more time at Grand Valley and we had established ourselves nationally and had some success, other schools started calling me."
Kelly won two Division II titles at Grand Valley, spent three years at Central Michigan and eventually ascended to Cincinnati. There he made the Bearcats a national power and led them to an unbeaten regular season a year ago before leaving for one of the shrines of college football, Notre Dame.
Rich Rodriguez, whom Kelly faces Saturday when Michigan comes to Notre Dame, started his career in a similar setting and manner. He was 24 when he got the head coaching job at Salem (W.Va.), and a year later moved to Glenville State to be head coach.
After seven years there and four years as an offensive coordinator under Tommy Bowden, first at Tulane and then at Clemson, Rodriguez returned to his home state. At his alma mater, West Virginia, he posted 60 wins, captured four Big East titles and went to six bowls in seven years before leaving Morgantown for Ann Arbor — a testy departure that still rankles many Mountaineer fans.
From their small college coaching origins, Kelly and Rodriguez are now immersed in a football culture where their every move is fodder for the tweeters, bloggers, critics and every Joe Blow with an opinion.
The fans and the alumni are watching with keen eyes, too — especially Rodriguez, whose first two seasons with college football's winningest program were losers in a place where it is not tolerated. The recruits are also observers, as they will be this weekend when some visit the South Bend campus.
"It's a rivalry game," said Mike Elston, Notre Dame's defensive line and special teams coach who played linebacker at Michigan and was later a grad assistant there. "In recruiting, it comes down to a lot of guys going to either Notre Dame or Michigan."
Rodriguez is 1-0 against Kelly in their one meeting between West Virginia and Cincinnati. Both have build their reputations on a dynamic spread offense.
Working their way through the ranks has been beneficial but now both Rodriguez and Kelly need to win. It's expected. It's demanded.
Michigan (.737) and Notre Dame (.734) are 1-2 in all-time winning percentage. Michigan's 878 wins are the most in the NCAA and Notre Dame is third with 838, just behind Texas (846).
Where Kelly and Rodriguez have landed is a long way from Grand Valley and Glenville State. Their journeys are somewhat similar, and so are their short-term goals — make their school national contenders again.
"I think it helps to have, when you step in a job like this, to have Division I experience, which we were both fortunate to do," Rodriguez said.
"Speaking for myself — and I'm sure coach Kelly would tell you the same thing — it was invaluable coaching at the small school level because you get an appreciation for all of the stuff that you have to do running a college program. Back then, I mean, my wife was in charge of painting the logo on the field and putting together the video highlights for the team."
Out of punt formation last week against Purdue, a Notre Dame blocker in the backfield caught a poor snap and flipped it back to the punter. It wasn't planned, Kelly said, although he did have such a play at Grand Valley.
"We had lost our long snapper," Kelly recalled. "And we only had one, you don't carry two in Division II because you can't get them all on the single bus that you're taking to the Upper Peninsula.
"So we had the quarterback go in, take a direct snap and pitch it back."
Now both Rodriguez and Kelly have large staffs and rosters with numerous assistants. The atmosphere has changed but not their drive to win. And Saturday's meeting is important, not just for this season, but for the future.
Notre Dame's defense, strong in an opening win against Purdue, must contain shifty Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The Wolverines' defense, especially the secondary that will be missing injured defensive back Carvin Johnson, must control Notre Dame's talented receivers and stop a running game that offered a 1-2 punch last week with Armando Allen and Cierre Wood.
Robinson, meanwhile, set a Michigan record for quarterback with 383 yards of total offense, that included 197 yards rushing on 29 carries.
Kelly and Rodriguez are acquainted, share the same financial adviser and are very aware of the each others' accomplishments.
"I have respect for Rich for the work that he's done. We don't get a chance to see each other in the offseason. We've both got young families that we're chasing around," Kelly said.
"I kind of followed his path, so to speak," Rodriguez said, lauding Kelly's ability to build a program. "Now we're both at great institutions with great traditions, great fan following and great interest. Speaking for myself, and I'm sure Brian feels the same, we're fortunate to be in the positions we're at."
(This version CORRECTS editing typo in Elston in 8th paragraph.)