WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – There are advantages to being the football coach at a university where basketball is clearly the revenue sport. Kevin Kelly went 5-38 during his first four seasons at Georgetown, bottoming out with an 0-11 record in 2009, but he kept his job.
“At Georgetown, it’s education first, football second, and our kids were doing a good job with their academics,” said Kelly, who arrived in 2006 after stints as an assistant for championship-winning programs at Syracuse, Marshall, Navy and Dartmouth. “They also recognized that it takes time to turn a program around, especially at a place where the academic standards are high. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward and that’s kind of what happened my first four years. It was probably harder than I expected, but I wanted to be a head coach. It was a renovation project and I wanted to put my mark on it.”
Good thing that the powers that be at Georgetown stuck by Kelly. The Hoyas improved to 4-7 in 2010, then to 8-3 and a spot in the 2011 Patriot League title game before slipping to 5-6 last year after losing top quarterback Isaiah Kempf to a season-ending concussion in the opener.
Now Kempf is back for a red-shirt year along with 23 true seniors. Georgetown, which gave up big-time football after the 1950 season, has 14 returning starters and might have its best team since 1999.
“When I was a freshman, people on campus would say things like, ‘You’re on the football team? I didn’t know we had one,” recalled senior defensive end Sean Campbell, one of the Hoyas’ four co-captains. “Now, people are asking, ‘How’s the team looking? How are you guys going to be this year?’ People are pretty excited about football which is awesome. Our field is right in the middle of campus. Hopefully we’ll have some pretty good turnouts.”
Given that the stands only seat 3,500, that shouldn’t be too much to ask. Besides Kempf and Co., the Hoyas boast a quick defense featuring returning All-Patriot League linebacker Dustin Wharton and his roommate and fellow co-captain Campbell, who has been given the honor of wearing 1995 captain Joe Eacobacci’s No. 35. Eacobacci died in the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
“Dustin’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around on and off the field,” the 6-3, 238-pound Campbell said in what could have been a self-description. “He has all of the program records in the weight room. He basically works 24-7 in the offseason, no joking, no talking. On the field, he’s always running around, always high-energy.”
During Tuesday’s practice, the 6-foot, 213-pound Wharton lined up at times on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary of what he termed a “really aggressive, really tough” defense.
Led by now-graduated Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Robert McCabe, the Hoyas had that in 2012, too. However, the Kempf-less offense scored 20 or fewer points in six of 11 games.
“When you have a different quarterback every week with a different cadence and different plays, you don’t get into a rhythm, you don’t get better,” Kelly lamented.
But with Kempf stronger physically and sharper mentally after a season under a headset learning the scheme from a coach’s perspective, the offense, which also features second-team All-Patriot League running back Nick Campanella and tight end Daniel Sprotte, should be better.
“Isaiah’s a special guy,” said Kelly, who worked with future NFL starting quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington at Marshall. “He came in great shape, better than I’ve ever seen him. He’s throwing the ball extremely well. He’s a very smart football player. We’re a quarterback-driven offense and he’s the engine.”
The 6-3, 208-pound Kempf, the only link to the 0-11 team besides Kelly and defensive coordinator Rob Sgarlata, accepts that responsibility in what he called “a quarterback-driven league.”
The co-captain is pumped for the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schedule. The Hoyas open on Aug. 31 at Wagner, a 2012 victim as was Week 2 foe Davidson. After games with Marist (4-7 last year) and Ivy League schools Brown and Princeton, Georgetown has an off week before facing its five Patriot League rivals: Fordham, Lehigh, defending champion/preseason favorite Colgate, Lafayette, Bucknell and Holy Cross. The last two are at home after another off week so the Hoyas don’t play on the road after Oct. 27.
Yet another reason why Wharton believes this is Georgetown’s year.
“We have a tight-knit group that has stayed together,” he said. “We’re like a family, brothers that motivate you and push you. I loved the guys before us, but they were still kind of like, ‘It’s all right if you lose.’ We have some leaders who aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than winning. That’s what gonna take us over the top.”
Over the top on the Hilltop. Sounds like a theme, doesn’t it?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin