By Dr. Ken 


Though some major college football programs go through periods where they are “used” or viewed by the public as stepping stones to bigger and better jobs, the University of Cincinnati has perhaps earned the reputation of a perennial stepping stone. For the HELMET HUT readers who recall the major college programs of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, schools like Wyoming, East Carolina, and Washington State fairly or otherwise earned the reputation as a place for a head football coach to spend the shortest possible time before launching themselves into a better known program. In rapid succession, Duke great Mike McGee parlayed the East Carolina head coaching job in 1970 into the same office at his alma mater. Retired St. Louis Cardinals receiver Ulmo “Sonny” Randle succeeded McGee, spent two years at the Pirates helm, and jumped to the University Of Virginia. Pat Dye was next to lead the program and though he stayed for six seasons, certainly a “legitimate” tenure, and was successful from ’74 through ’79 before heading to Wyoming, there was no doubt that ECU was not going to be long time headquarters for him. After but one year at Wyoming, Dye began his successful long term run at Auburn.


Though best known as Auburn’s head mentor and coach of Bo Jackson, Pat Dye earned his stripes as a long time aide to Bear Bryant and was head coach at East Carolina University and Wyoming


Wyoming had already been on the list for places to enhance a resume. Most quickly associated with Nebraska football, Bob Devaney filled Wyoming’s head coaching office from 1957 through ’61 before becoming a Husker. After a relatively lengthy tenure by Loyd Eaton and “normal” coaching stints by Fritz Shurmer, among others, the coaching carousel included Fred Akers, Bill Lewis, Pat Dye, and Dennis Erickson, all of whom proved to be short term residents who vaulted into big time positions. There was a brief flurry of one or two year coaching activity at Washington State that had Jackie Sherrill as the Cougars head man in 1976 before leaving for Pitt, Warren Powers replacing him only for ’77 before going to Missouri, and after Jim Walden’s stabilizing nine year reign, Dennis Erickson, after his one year run in Wyoming, coming to WSU for only 1987 and ’88 before replacing Jimmy Johnson at Miami. One can certainly understand a coaching perspective that plunks a man and his family onto the frontier of Laramie, Wyoming with a desire to become the head coach of multiple conference champion Texas, for example, a path that Fred Akers took in the mid-1970’s, but once a university football program was marked as a way-station, it often became difficult to attract and keep coaching talent.


Perhaps the “King Of Stepping Stones” was the University Of Cincinnati and from the perspective of many, it has remained this way to the present day. Despite putting the Bearcats onto the football map with his innovative offense and a coaching staff that included a majority of men who would positively influence the game in the college or pro ranks, Sid Gillman initiated UC’s dubious distinction of being the place to enhance one’s career before going on to bigger and better things.



Headed by Sid Gillman who was one of the game’s great innovators, the 1950 University of Cincinnati coaching staff included Paul Dietzel who would win the 1958 National Championship at LSU; Jack Faulkner, head coach of the Denver Broncos and long time L.A. and St. Louis Rams administrator; George Blackburn Miami (OH) and future Cincinnati head coach; Joe Madro, Gillman offensive line coach at the Rams and Chargers and seventeen year scout with the Oakland Raiders; and Bill Schwarberg, who would serve UC as head golf and baseball coach, and Athletic Director.   


Through the late 1960’s to the present, one can note Homer Rice, Tony Mason, Mike Gottfried, Watson Brown, Tim Murphy, Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, and Butch Jones as prominent names who served as the UC head football coach, some for no more than one or two seasons, before hitting what would be considered “big time” schools. The one constant for the Bearcats however, and a man who proved to always have his door open for the best and worst member of the team through the coaching tenures of five head coaches, spanning 1960 through 1976, was Jim Kelly.



The Elder High School 1945 football squad. Co-Captain Jim Kelly is in front row, number 50.


Kelly was a Cincinnati native who served as co-captain at Elder High School and was named to the 1945 All City team. He led the Panthers in scoring with eight touchdowns and a conversion and entered the University Of Cincinnati in the fall of 1946. He was a freshman member of the Sun Bowl team and made the trip to El Paso only because an African American end on the Bearcats squad was not allowed to play in the game. He blossomed after that, earning All Mid America Conference honors in both 1949 and ’50 on Coach Gillman’s MAC Championship teams, and becoming the first UC receiver to tally 100 yards in a single game. When his gridiron career ended at UC, he held eight school records and distinguished himself on the Bearcats baseball squad.


Kelly would become a successful coach at Cincinnati’s Deer Park High School after a two year hitch in the United States Army. In 1960 he returned to UC as an assistant to George Blackburn and was retained in ’61 by new head coach Chuck Studley. As a collegiate coach Kelly was soft spoken but firm, demanded discipline but never seemed stern or harsh in his manner. His players quickly realized that he had exceptional teaching skills and was on the field only to help them improve.



Studley left after the 1966 season and became a highly respected defensive coach in the National Football League, eventually serving as the defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, Miami Dolphins, and San Francisco Forty Niners. Jim Kelly stayed at Cincinnati and as the football program became a way station for coaches who were moving up in the profession, he served Homer Rice, Ray Callahan, and Tony Mason. Not yet done with his service to the university, Coach Kelly moved into athletic administration in 1977 where he remained, working tirelessly until he finally retired in 1994. During his tenure in a variety of roles, he was the prime mover in the development of the University Of Cincinnati Athletics Hall Of Fame, the growth of the lettermen’s association, and the various construction projects that brought the UC facilities and on-campus Nippert Stadium up to the highest national levels. Kelly was an excellent X’s and O’s coach, a wonderful teacher, and an effective role model. He was dedicated to the university and served well in every capacity he was asked to fulfill. However, Jim Kelly’s true gift was one of compassion and understanding.


Jim Kelly Senior and Junior, two Bearcats icons


I would predict that every high school and college football player was told numerous times by most of his coaches that “my door is always open to you.” For some, this was true but when Jim Kelly told his freshman teams this simple statement, he meant it. Doubling up as both frosh team head coach and varsity receivers coach, he was most effective because he initiated the young players into the system of both playing and living in a college environment. He was also a rock, a steadying influence that players flocked to for advice and direction, and as a logical, patient sounding board. In short, he was every player’s father-away-from-home. This role of mentor and advisor did not change when he left coaching. Visible on campus and in the athletic offices, Coach Kelly was sought out by multiple generations of players who needed his sage advice while they were students, or by those who returned to campus as visitors or to specifically find him and talk with him. Six decades of marriage and six children, including Jim, Jr. who followed in his father’s footsteps as a team leading Bearcats receiver while being coached by his dad, did not distract him from his responsibilities to the young athletes at UC and his work at UC never distracted him from his responsibilities as a husband and father.   


When Jim Kelly passed away on January 12, 2009, the entire UC community was saddened but none more than those fortunate former players who had benefited from his teaching and mentoring. I recall writing to Jim, Jr., for many years the radio voice of Cincinnati Bearcats football, and telling him and his family that among all of his father’s wonderful traits, in every way, “he was a man. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. He was reliable, steady, demanded your best and gave you his best.” He was one of the all time great players in Cincinnati football history, an excellent coach, but most importantly, he was the most positive influence on campus for many decades.