By JOHN GORALSKI
The air raid alarm sounded in regular intervals as the Blue Knights chipped away at the fourth quarter deficit in November 2001. Bristol Central was enjoying a big fourth quarter lead on the back of future Syracuse player Tim Washington’s five touchdowns, but Jude Kelly’s offense was built for the comeback.
Southington quarterback Doug Fink managed six touchdown throws as the Knights took to the air. Ryan Glaspar scored his third touchdown during a two-minute stretch where Southington scored three times. Jon Esmail added two touchdown catches in a 171 yard performance, and the Blue Knight running backs and linemen formed a wall to protect their thrower.
When Nick Wright intercepted a Ram pass in Southington’s end zone, it was the final knockout blow for Southington’s 52-50 comeback victory. The Knights toppled the No. 4 team in the state, and the game proved that Southington’s high octane offense was always in striking distance.
For Southington fans, it just proved exciting.
“That’s one of the things I really liked about him,” former Southington athletic director Dr. Robert Lehr said about his former football coach. “Jude brought an excitement to the team, and I think it rejuvenated the whole program.”
Few coaches could switch gears as well as Kelly, and few coaches could get as much out of a high school player. Whether it was a complex running attack early in his career, a multifaceted air attack in the middle, or an outnumbered underdog battle in recent years, Kelly seems to change his style like a runway model changes clothes.
He has a knack for making the impossible possible.
“One of the strengths I think I have in coaching is simplifying things,” said the coach. “You have to make things simple for people.”
Kelly doesn’t look like a typical football coach. He looks more like a college professor. His gentle speech and philosophy almost seems out of place in a brutal competition charged by testosterone collisions, but don’t let his appearance fool you. Kelly is as fierce a competitor as you can find, and football has always been his only focus.
It began when he was 10, and the future coach joined Wethersfield’s first midget football team. Kelly shifted from lineman to defensive back, from offense to linebacker. As a sophomore in high school, he battled his way onto the varsity roster. His desk is littered with memorabilia from his 43-year coaching career, but Kelly grabs a framed obituary of his high school coach and tells a visitor how football changed his life.
“I loved practice. I loved going out there on the scout team and trying to make the juniors and seniors look bad,” he said, staring at the frame. “I think the juniors and seniors really took a liking to me because I put in such an effort at practice.”
Kelly still gets choked up when he talks about a knee injury in his junior season that led to surgery and some devastating news. His playing career was over just as it was getting started.
“That was tough. I can remember my high school coach coming up to the hospital after the surgery, and my doctor telling me that my playing career was over,” Kelly said, and he fell into a long silence. “That was a tough day.”
Of course, when one door closes, another opens. Kelly’s playing days were over, but his presence on the sidelines continued. As a high school senior, his coach enlisted him to take game film for the team. At Southern Connecticut State College, he showed up at the first practice to offer his services as a team manager. In his sophomore year, coaches moved him up to the varsity field. Kelly became a student of the game.
All the while, he worked out with the team, trained during the off-season, and tried to rehabilitate his knee. “I knew that there wasn’t anything that they could do to fix my knee, but I still worked at it,” he said. “I did everything that they did except for strapping on the pads and playing.”
So when Kelly showed up one spring to tryout for the team as a player, coaches welcomed him to the practice. Kelly earned a spot on the roster and worked his way into the lineup. Kelly hadn’t played in years, but he managed to work his way into the starting roster by sheer determination.
He credits the work he did off the field, and that’s a lesson that he still drives home to his players. His love of football goes well beyond the final whistle. It’s the work that you do between games that really matters…and truly lasts.
“On the field has very little to do with football. Very little,” he said. “When you look at the time you spend getting ready—from learning the game, getting in shape for the game, practicing the game, and studying the game. You spend so much time with your teammates, and playing time is such a small part of that.”
His total commitment to the game was one reason why coaches kept him on after graduation as a graduate assistant coach. When a new coach took over in 1976, one of his first moves was to promote Kelly to a full time assistant. For five years, Kelly honed the skills that made him a top contender for an open position at East Catholic High School in Manchester in 1979.
His love of the game and his ability to break down complex schemes made him the perfect choice for the small high school program.
“I like people. I like coaching, and I thought that I could have a bigger impact with kids at the high school level, on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It’s a year round thing. You get to know what’s going on with them with everything. It’s not the same connection in college.”
It didn’t take long for East Catholic to become competitive. Kelly managed a winning season in his first year at the helm, but it would take a whole new approach before the small Class M team became a competitive force against some of the bigger programs.
Kelly rolled out a wishbone attack with a strong running component and complex options with handoffs and reads. Four years after he arrived, Kelly’s team won his first state championship. During his 10-year career, he led the Eagles to a 61-33-2 record and state titles in 1983, 1986, and 1987. Kelly’s wishbone offense was hard to stop at the high school level even though critics told him that he’d never get his complex version off the ground.
“People told me that you couldn’t run option football at the high school level,” he said. “I said maybe not the same was as the colleges, but you can tweak it. I spent a lot of time studying the book and taking my notes, and we did it.”
After a decade with the Eagles, Kelly was beginning to feel the itch to try something new. That’s when Southington—a program that never looked out of town for coaches—posted a job for a new gridiron leader. Kelly leapt at the opportunity.
Soon, the “outsider” was winning over players, parents, and the press. SHS graduate Bryant Carpenter, a local sports reporter, editor, and author, said that Friday night football games began to feel like family reunions.
“Being around Jude’s team was like being around family,” said Carpenter. “One big sprawling family with Jude at the head and yet somehow at a remove all at the same time. He set the parameters, then let his coaches coach and his players play.”
The heavy running wishbone offense seemed to bog down his giant roster. So once again Kelly rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He and his assistant coach, Frank Stamilio, began researching offenses, attending seminars as far away as Massachusetts trying to find a better system.
Soon, the offense began to evolve from the wishbone into an I-formation. The complex ground game transformed into a mix of passing and running. The tight ends were pushed into the open field. The wide receivers were sent on long sprints, and a small army of receivers began to infiltrate secondaries in a tightly choreographed blitzkrieg.
While the rest of the state was still mired in plodding running attacks, Kelly’s teams took to the air.
“We went to the high-speed, fast tempo, no huddle game with no tight ends, just wide-outs, and spread out the ball,” he said. “It was the antithesis of the wishbone where we wouldn’t throw the ball unless we had to. Now, we were going to throw the ball every time we can.”
Kelly’s team’s rallied for three state championship game appearances and the town’s first victory in a CIAC championship game in 1998. The state never knew what hit them.
“That’s the thing I liked about Jude is that he was able to make changes when he needed to,” said Lehr. “He was able to adapt and change systems when he thought it was important to do that. Of course, the program really took off when he did that.”
Under Kelly, Southington rallied to a 115-62-2 record (.648), and his 17-year career is the third longest in program history, second only to Jay Fontana (23 years) and Dom D’Angelo (21). Still, it was surprising when Kelly—at the height of success—announced his departure from Southington to take on the challenge of St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol.
“At the time, I felt like I did everything that I could do in Southington,” he said. “St. Paul was about ready to close their doors. Their enrollment was down. They were ready to stop the football program.”
The Falcons hadn’t won a game in two years. They didn’t even have enough players to field a team, and the school was flirting with closure. “If that’s not a challenge, what is?” he said with a laugh.
Once again, Kelly set to work, trying to find the best scheme to be successful. With fewer players, the air raid attack was out of the question. With the growth of the passing game in high school sports, the wishbone was no longer an option.
Kelly said he didn’t care. It was about sharing his love of football.
“We may not be the fastest or the strongest. [Our players] might not have all the accolades from the youth programs, but we get good kids with great work ethics,” he said.
Within four years, Kelly had built the St. Paul program into a competitive co-op. The team reached the Class MM playoffs in 2009 before striking out on their own. Now, despite a small roster of about 30 to 36 players, Kelly’s program has posted four consecutive seasons over .500.
“Jude is exactly the type of coach educators and parents should want coaching high school athletes,” said Carpenter. “Win or lose, he is the same coach, the same man, and his message does not waver.”
“He set the standard for coaches at Southington High School and in the Southington school system. Period,” said Lehr. “If a young coach wants to emulate someone, they should just look at Jude. I’ve always held him on a pedestal, and he belongs there.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Kelly will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
“It’s such a large community with so many outstanding athletes and people that have come through the town. It’s an honor to even be thought of as someone that can represent the town,” said Kelly. “Thank you.”
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.