“You want the whole story, right?”
We were only a minute into the interview, and Ed Kelly already thought he might be losing me. He described his childhood in Ireland as we walked over to the visitor’s bench at Newton Campus Soccer Field and took a seat. But I had time. And the winningest soccer coach in Boston College history had a damn good story.
Kelly is a soccer guru—and always has been. Growing up in Dublin post-World War II, he was raised with six siblings in a crowded home on the edge of the congested Irish city. They were blue-collar, like all the other families in the community. With Kelly’s parents busy at work, he became fiercely independent. Eight-year old Eddie would spend his Sunday mornings at church and the afternoons playing in the streets, where swarms of neighborhood kids would gather for 10-on-10 scrimmages. He thrived in the freedom that the low-income, blue-collar atmosphere provided.
“You could do things by yourself,” Kelly said. He glanced around at his current players running through light drills a day before the team’s Friday night matchup with No. 3 Clemson. “A lot of these guys are coached. My father never saw me play on a regular team until I actually played pro.”
He didn’t have a coach, but he certainly had a passion. He spent most of his time with a soccer ball, competing in local church leagues or just kicking it around outside with friends. It didn’t stop in the house, either. Marks from tennis balls peppered the walls and ceiling of his bedroom like giant freckles, a product of Kelly’s constant diving headers. He likened it to the kid shooting hoops outside by himself, envisioning a raucous crowd, and counting down 3… 2… 1…
Kelly’s path to professional soccer was tougher than most. Before the midfielder played his first full season in the North American Soccer League (NASL), Kelly had immigrated to New Jersey, moved back to Dublin after nine months, returned to the States again, and served four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. His military service helped him adjust to, among many things, the lack of humor in American culture compared to Dublin at the time.
He was accustomed to hanging on the corner with his buddies, entertaining themselves with a steady stream of jokes.
“Rich people don’t have senses of humor,” Kelly said with a laugh.
So how did the wisecracking, brash, and occasionally foul-mouthed Irishman end up at BC?
“When there’s nothing there, it’s easy to build a house. If you have to tear the house down, that’s another thing.” -Ed Kelly
When Kelly returned from the war, he picked up right where he left off on the pitch and started training with Manfred Schellscheidt. The German coach treated soccer as an art, not a science, an approach that earned him the first “A” license awarded by the U.S. Soccer Federation. After stints in the American Soccer League (ASL) and NASL, Schellscheidt was chosen to lead the U.S. National Team in 1975. He brought Kelly with him.
Kelly, known by teammates as the “Silver Fox” (presumably because of his gray mane), made two appearances with the national team. Representing the U.S. a total of five times in international play, he once faced a Mexican national team that featured future Real Madrid star Hugo Sanchez, arguably the best player in the country’s history.
His transition to the coaching sphere was largely accidental. In his veteran years, Kelly played for a coach who also managed a group of younger college kids. The coach couldn’t attend one of the team’s indoor tournaments, so he turned to Kelly for a favor.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ So I took the kids in and they liked it and we won the tournament and whatever bulls—t,” Kelly said. “One kid goes to me, ‘You know, Eddie, I go to school at Fairleigh Dickinson and they’re looking for an assistant coach up there. Would you be interested?’
Kelly took the assistant post at FDU and immediately changed the culture surrounding the program. The head coach of the team took a hands-off approach, leaving Kelly to recruit and run practices—responsibilities that he said were a blessing and a curse. With the Silver Fox at the helm, the Knights won the most games in the country (21) and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, one of three tournament berths Kelly would earn in his five years at the university.
“I was fortunate enough to be left to do everything,” Kelly said. “Which, at one stage, kinda pissed me off because I was doing all the work but I was the assistant.”
There was another issue, too: supporting a family on a $2,400 part-time salary. Unless you had a full-time gig, coaching collegiate soccer was “financial suicide,” as he told The New York Times in 1986. He pursued opportunities in construction and carpentry in his free time away from the field. Despite his success at FDU, his financial situation threatened his ability to do what he loved for the first time in his life.
Then he got a call from a sports information director in the area.
“You know Seton Hall just opened up?”
Kelly paused for a second. “Where’s Seton Hall?”
“About 15 minutes from your house in South Orange, [N.J.],” the SID said. “And they’re getting a new AD.”
By the end of the night, the job was his. The Pirates named Larry Keating their new director of athletics, and tasked Kelly with rebuilding their struggling soccer program. The year before Kelly took the reins, the Pirates had a co-ed roster, forfeited a match against Rutgers because they didn’t have enough players, and lost 13 of 14 games. Expectations were so low that the team celebrated a 4-0 loss to Army like a victory.
But after only one season, Seton Hall was barely recognizable. Kelly transformed the Big East cellar-dweller into one of the best teams in the nation and the Pirates won a program-best 18 games in 1986, earning Kelly Division I Coach of the Year honors. During his three-year tenure, Kelly led the Pirates to a 40-13-6 record, with two regular-season conference and tournament titles to show for it.
“I had a bit of a resume going,” Kelly said. “It made me look like I was a miracle worker. Really, to be quite honest, it was easy enough. When there’s nothing there, it’s easy to build a house. If you have to tear the house down, that’s another thing.”
Men’s soccer wasn’t the only program on the rise at Seton Hall at the time, either. Kelly’s close friend, P.J. Carlesimo, coached the men’s basketball team to its first-ever NCAA Tournament in 1988 and, one year later, came one basket shy of winning a national championship against Michigan.
Oddly, Kelly left Seton Hall after the 1987 season to coach the New Jersey Eagles, with whom he had won an ASL title as a player 10 years prior. Kelly oversaw a talented lineup that included future coaches Ken Lolla (Louisville), George Gelnovatch (Virginia), Dan Donigan (Rutgers), Dave Masur (St. John’s), and Tab Ramos (United States U-20 team). Kelly’s coaching tree has many, many branches.
But his brief hiatus from college soccer would be cut short by another phone call.
“Eddie, the coach from Boston College got fired.”
“Oh really?” Kelly replied. “That’s interesting.”
“You know P.J. [Carlesimo]’s godfather is the AD?”
“No, I f—king didn’t,” Kelly quipped.
Carlesimo contacted Bill Flynn, the legendary former AD at BC (and namesake of the Plex), and the rest is history.
It took only two years for Kelly to claim a Big East Tournament title at BC, and since the turn of the century, he has been even better. Kelly raked in three Big East Coach of the Year honors along with an ACC Coach of the Year award in 2007 after the Eagles won the ACC regular season and tournament titles. BC remains the only school in the conference since 2000 to capture both crowns in the same year, and the characters on that team have supplied Kelly with enough fond memories to last a lifetime. With 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, including six straight from 2007-2012, Kelly hasn’t just established himself as the most decorated coach in program history—he is making a case to be the greatest men’s coach in BC history not named Jerry York.
“It feels like it’s been a journey I was supposed to be on. I don’t know how to explain it in any other way.” -Ed Kelly
There was a third phone call that Kelly distinctly recalled. Seven years ago to the date, he was sitting in his home when he heard a buzz. It was his dear friend Bob Bradley, then head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Something was wrong. He could sense it in Bradley’s voice.
Charlie Davies, a former BC standout from 2004-06 who was then playing for Bradley’s USMNT, had gotten into a car with two women he didn’t know after a night out in Washington, D.C. At around 3:15 a.m., a collision with a guardrail on the George Washington Parkway split the vehicle in half. One woman died, the other was sentenced to two years in prison, and Davies underwent surgery that made his right leg one and a half inches shorter than his left.
It’s far from the only obstacle Davies has faced on his road to professional soccer: during his childhood, his dad struggled with drug addiction and his mom suffered from mental illness; his newborn twins needed two months in neonatal intensive care before heading home; and in July, he was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
None of this has stopped Davies, who is back on the MLS scene with the Philadelphia Union. His cancer is in remission and he’s at peace with his past, living happily with his wife in a quiet Boston suburb.
“He’s such a wonderful human being,” Kelly said, rattling off story after story about Davies in his BC days. “He’s been through a lot with his family, which I witnessed and was a part of, so I knew all the details about what was going on. Charlie’s been tested a lot. He’s been challenged in life.”
It’s a story like Davies’s that makes coaching so worthwhile for Kelly. After more than three decades of coaching college soccer, he said the players, not the hardware, have had the lasting impacts on him. In particular, the acclaimed 2006 and 2007 teams stand out.
Kelly smirked as he remembered the faces that made those years so enjoyable. Alejandro Bedoya anchored the midfield, tallying 26 points and garnering ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Since graduating, Bedoya has been a staple for the USMNT, seeing action in all four games of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and winning the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the first for the U.S. in six years. Now, he plays beside his old friend, Davies, on the Philadelphia Union.
Sherron Manswell showed serious pro potential in his senior season, enough to land him on the All-American list at the end of the year. When Kelly pressed him about a possible future in the MLS, Manswell replied, “No, I think I’ll stick with God,” and returned home to his native Trinidad.
Nor will the head coach forget Jamen Amato, a defensive stalwart who gave opposing attackers nightmares in the midfield. Only days after Kelly received news of Davies’s car accident, he was blindsided by another piece of tragic news. Amato had passed away after a long battle with cancer, just two years after he graduated from BC.
Throughout the heartbreak and happiness, the head coach has kept one thing consistent: the connection with his players. If you play for Ed, you are family—it’s apparent in every postgame interview that gets interrupted by former players visiting from out of town and greeting him with a bear hug. They know exactly where to find him.
“I easily fell in love with this school,” Kelly said. “My three kids went here. And, 29 years later, I’m sitting here talking to you.”
Lend Kelly your ear, and he’ll give you hours worth of entertaining stories packed with clever one-liners. Lend him your soccer talents, though, and he might just turn you into the next great player—or coach, for that matter. His resume speaks volumes: while he may not be a magic miracle worker, he does work his ass off until his guys perform up to his standards.
“It feels like it’s been a journey I was supposed to be on,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it in any other way. It’s always felt like that to me—that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe it’s just because I love it, you know what I mean? I can’t imagine my life doing anything else.”
It’s difficult to picture BC men’s soccer without Ed Kelly at the helm, as well. There’s no rush to pick a successor, but he has an idea.
“Sooner or later, I can envision [Davies] becoming an assistant coach or taking over,” Kelly said. “Something like that.”
As he gazed out at the banner commemorating the accomplishments of the 2007 squad, remembering Davies, Bedoya, and all the unforgettable moments from those years, he noticed his newest banner—one for last year’s team that made a surprise run to the Elite Eight. Now it’s a question of what he’ll add this year—another season, another family, another chance to be around the game he fell in love with as an 8-year-old. Will it be another banner? Or another set of memories to tell a sports editor 10 years from now?
Oh, don’t worry about his age. Trust me, by then, he’ll still be here. And there’ll be plenty more stories to tell.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor
Graphic by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor
Photo Courtesy of Ed Kelly