Last Saturday was supposed to be a day of celebration for Dennis Gilbert. The St. Joe’s football coach had traveled to South Carolina with his two teenage sons to watch his former star quarterback, Chad Kelly, play in the spring game at Clemson.
The weather was glorious, the setting almost surreal. A Clemson assistant gave Gilbert a tour of the place, which seemed more like a pro franchise. There was a huge crowd for a glorified practice. It was even on ESPNU.
So you can imagine how horrified Gilbert was to see Kelly, the 2011 Buffalo News Player of the Year, get involved in a verbal altercation with his coaches over a decision to punt on fourth-and-3 in the first half.
“I tell you, one of his best attributes is the fact that he’s so competitive,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “I think that’s what gives him a big edge on the field, that he’s so competitive in everything he does. At times, that can get in your way, too.”
It got in Kelly’s way this time. It helped get him booted off the team. Gilbert had a feeling that Kelly was done for the day after arguing with his coaches. According to reporters on the scene, Kelly continued to squawk at his coaches on the sideline during the second half.
On Monday, Clemson announced that Kelly, the nephew of Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, had been dismissed from the team. Coach Dabo Swinney said Kelly was being let go for “conduct detrimental to our program.
“He has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program,” Swinney said.
Gilbert spoke with Kelly after the incident Saturday and again on Monday and Tuesday. He said Kelly was upset at the finality of the situation. Gilbert told Kelly the important thing was to finish the semester and complete his academics.
“I have talked to him extensively,” Gilbert said. “He’s one of us, you know. Regardless of what happens, as a coach you’ve always got to be there for your kids and support them. It’s easy to stand with them during the good times; you got to help them through the tough times, too.
“One of the first things Chad said to me after everything played out Monday was, ‘Well, coach, we always said it’s not the mistakes you make, it’s how you answer them. We’re in answering mode now.’ ”
Kelly has much to answer for. On Wednesday, he issued an apology through Jim Kelly Inc. It began with a sentence from his uncle, Dan Kelly, saying Chad was “humble and optimistic” about his future.
“Humble” is the appropriate word here. Humility has never come easy for Chad. He is, after all, a Kelly. With that comes a fierce, competitive spirit and a hubris bordering on arrogance. Jim Kelly was renowned for those qualities early in his career.
Of course, if you want to act like the Big Man on Campus, you might wait until you’ve achieved it. Kelly, a redshirt sophomore, was in a three-way fight for the starting QB job with senior Cole Stoudt and freshman Deshaun Watson.
It had to be humbling for Kelly, who was the top quarterback in New York as a senior as St. Joe’s, the first QB from Western New York to commit to a major college since Malik Campbell in 1996.
But when you heard the words “pattern of behavior,” you were reminded of Kelly’s difficult early high school years in York, Pa.
As a freshman, he was suspended for the final seven games “for undisclosed reasons.” As a sophomore, he was dismissed from the team after starting five games. No reason was given. Kevin Kelly moved his family back to Western New York, and Chad enrolled at St. Joe’s.
There were suggestions that Kelly was somehow a victim in Pennsylvania, the object of jealousy in a football-mad community. Five years later, you wonder if the pattern Swinney spoke of was manifesting itself then.
As Swinney suggested, Kelly’s problems didn’t surface overnight. It’s hard to imagine a major-college coach compromising his depth at the game’s most vital position over an isolated incident. The situation must have become untenable for the Tigers’ coaches.
Kelly has been called “a bit of an enigma” at Clemson. He wrote a rap song about himself. He was a presence on social media. Before he was out of high school, after his final visit to Clemson in the winter of 2012, Kelly called out Stoudt on Twitter:
“Your on the bench of a reason. And i come soon! Just letting you know,” Kelly tweeted at Stoudt. He said the coaches should prefer him because of his ability to run and throw, and said Stoudt lacked the “oomph” to push starter Tajh Boyd in practice.
A Twitter war ensued. Stoudt, the son of former NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt, said “I hate those that talk like their the (bleep) when they haven’t done anything yet.”
“I’m coming to Clemson to Play my Freshman year I ain’t going just to sit on the bench,” Kelly tweeted back. “Everyday im coming to work and be the best!”
The coaches put a stop to it – and not because of bad spelling and punctuation. Kelly and Stoudt settled their issues, at least publicly. But recent events show that Kelly never accepted the idea that Stoudt was the better quarterback.
Kelly was redshirted as a freshman in 2012. Last season, he was pushing Stoudt for the backup job when he hurt his knee in the spring game. He worked to get back just four months after ACL surgery, and there was speculation that he felt he didn’t get a fair shake.
It came to a head last weekend. Kelly threw two interceptions in the first half. According to Aaron Brenner, a reporter in Charleston, S.C., Kelly spent the second half “fuming on the sideline – even sniping into the fourth quarter at nearby coaches.”
Swinney said Kelly had stepped over the line and failed to behave like a leader. Making matters worse, he learned of an incident from the previous Thursday, when Kelly was involved in a fender-bender with former Miss South Carolina Ali Rogers, an intern in the football office.
Rogers explained later on Twitter that Kelly had been a passenger in a car that backed into her vehicle near her apartment. She said Kelly tried to talk her out of filing a police report and became “very agitated and extremely disrespectful.”
In his apology, Kelly said he had let down Clemson and the fans. Most of all, he said, he let down himself and his family.
His uncle Jim is lying in a hospital bed, battling for his life against cancer. It should be plain that life is a precious thing, and that your athletic gifts are rare and fleeting. You don’t throw them away.
Chad Kelly should think long and hard about that. People at Clemson thought he might transfer if he didn’t win the starting job this year. Now he has no choice. He can sit out a year and transfer to another Division I school, or drop down a level and play right away.
Gilbert says he never had a problem with Kelly at St. Joe’s. He said Kelly was a model teammate. His work ethic was flawless. Of course, he was The Man, not a backup. Gilbert says Kelly still has what it takes to make it big.
“Am I still confident?” Gilbert said. “Absolutely. As I said to him, ‘Chad, you’re still a young man; you’re still growing; you’re still learning. You have big-league skills, for sure. But there’s lot more than just running and throwing and jumping.”
The point was obvious. The kid needs to grow up.