By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
As has been noted here several times over the years, there’s a coaching carousel that lives at Queen of Peace High School.
One coach leaves, another arrives. There’s never a lot of time for a coach to feel comfortable.
Take for instance, the head football coaching position. Ever since Andy Cerco led the Golden Griffins to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 state championship in 2004, there have been four different head coaches, all trying to duplicate what Cerco did.
In fact, the year after the Golden Griffins won their lone state title, Cerco brought the team back to the state title game once again, but this time fell short to St. Joseph’s of Hammonton.
However, in those two glorious seasons, the Griffins were 21-2, records that were never to be seen again.
There were high profiled coaches like Ed Stinson. That didn’t work. There were alums like Bob Kearns. That didn’t work.
Here’s an incredible stat. Since the Griffins lost in the state title game in 2005, they have gone a collective 30-62. Not exactly a successful run.
But there’s another change in administration, with John Tonero taking over as principal and Ed Abromaitis returning once again as athletic director. The school vows that they are moving in the right direction.
Sure seems like QP is trying, especially since the school hired Jim Kelly to be the new head football coach.
Kelly has an impressive resume, having turned around a totally moribund Clifton program in 1992 and led the Mustangs to the NJSIAA Group IV playoffs, when no one thought that was even fathomable.
“You look how competitive we were, playing in the NNJIL with schools like Ridgewood and Montclair,” Kelly said. “We made strides both on and off the field.”
Kelly then left Clifton after five successful seasons and moved to Nutley, where Kelly was and still is a teacher. Kelly had a nice seven-year stay at Nutley, but stepped away for family reasons, turning the program over to Nutley alum in Steve DiGregorio in 2004.
So Kelly has great success in leading two noted high school programs like Clifton and Nutley. In recent years, Kelly was an assistant coach at Montclair State, coaching the tight ends, wide receivers and running backs.
For the last two years, Kelly was away from coaching, doing clinics and such in Nutley. Now 55 years old, Kelly felt like he was missing the game too much and wanted a return.
When his good friend, Scot Weaver, the current QP wrestling coach, called Kelly to see if he would be interested in the position at QP, Kelly’s ears perked up.
“It was simply an opportunity that presented itself,” said Kelly, who met with his new players for the first time last Wednesday at the school. “I was definitely intrigued. I had some conversations and it turned out to be the right spot, the right place. I always had the passion to coach again. I just wanted to go someplace where I could make a difference.”
Kelly knows that he’s not inheriting a great program. After all, the Golden Griffins were a miserable 1-9 last season in Kearns’ second year.
“There are things that need to be addressed,” Kelly said. “There has to be accountability and discipline. If you can develop a mutual trust between your players and your staff, that’s the first step. I feel like I have a lot to offer here.”
But Kelly realizes that he has his work cut out for him.
“I realize it’s a challenge,” Kelly said. “A lot of people have asked me why would I want to do this. I’m drawing on my own experience. There is a lot of similarity to what I had to go through in Clifton. When people get to know who I am and what I stand for, then they’ll realize this is a good fit.”
From a personal standpoint, I have worked with Kelly in both of his prior head coaching positions, going back to Clifton in 1992 and then in Nutley. He is an excellent football coach, a great offensive mind who has the ability to turn things around.
But can he? That remains to be seen. However, Kelly certainly is eager enough and believes he can with the help of the new administrative team at the school.
“I’m always excited to get a good opportunity like this,” Kelly said. “With the help of the administration, I feel like I can do something positive and make a difference. I think we all have the same vision and understanding.”
Kelly said that he was encouraged after meeting with the players Wednesday.
“I was interested in hearing their perception of the program and the questions they asked of me,” Kelly said. “They seem to be players who want to get better and want to have the right product. They want to be a part of something special. That’s how I felt by the questions they asked of me.”
One thing is for sure. There’s only one direction that Kelly can go – and that’s up. The program can’t get much lower than it is. Here’s to hoping that Kelly gives the program some much needed stability and leadership – and here’s to hoping that the school’s administration gives Kelly the support he most definitely needs.