By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – When former Catholic University point guard Aaron Kelly began his coaching career in 2006, he had no idea that just two short years later he'd be on the staff of a Division I basketball team.
Kelly is an assistant coach at Bucknell University, which won the Patriot League championship on March 11 and is preparing to meet Connecticut on Thursday night at Verizon Center in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"A lot of it has to do with timing and just being in the right place at the right time," Kelly said. "Then once you get that opportunity, you do your best to take advantage of it. All you can do is just work your hardest and hope that it eventually pays off."
It paid off in a big way for Kelly, who played two years for current Vermont Coach Mike Lonergan and two for Lonergan's CUA successor, Steve Howes. Kelly was a member of two Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) championship teams and four who posted at least 20 victories. A reserve for most of his career, he started 10 games as a senior captain. During his four years (2002-06), the Cardinals were 89-28 (76.1 percent).
"Aaron was as hard-nosed a competitor as you could find," Howes said. "His will and determination led us to great success. When he first brought up the idea of coaching, I knew he had the capacity to be a very good coach."
Lonergan, who led Vermont to the 2010 NCAA Tournament and the America East regular-season title this year, also saw Kelly's coaching potential.
"I always felt that Aaron would be a great coach because he had a high basketball IQ and truly loved basketball," Lonergan said. "Aaron was one of the toughest players I ever coached. He was an excellent defender and a winner."
The Bison (25-8) enter the NCAAs having won 10 straight and 19 of their past 20. They captured the Patriot League regular-season crown with a 13-1 mark.
"This is a very special March Madness because Aaron Kelly is in the tournament and his team is playing in D.C.," Howes said. "He is the first former player I've had to coach in the Big Dance, so I'm certainly going to be watching and rooting for their success."
Getting His Start
Even before he graduated with a degree in history – which ironically is the same degree Howes and Lonergan hold – Kelly had an assistant coaching position lined up with Division III Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Following the 2006-07 season, he took a job under Coach Dave Paulsen at Williams College. It turned out to be a great move.
Following his one season in Williamstown, Mass., Paulsen – who guided Williams to the 2003 Division III National Championship – was named head coach at Bucknell. He brought Kelly with him to serve in the administrative position of director of basketball operations.
"Because I went to Williams when I did, I was one of the few lucky guys who got to jump from Division III to Division I with a transitioning head coach," Kelly said. "It's a real credit to Coach Paulsen for taking me with him because I know that he didn't have to. There were certainly a number of candidates that were more qualified than I was that wanted the position that I got, but because he was loyal to me, I was fortunate enough to go with him."
At both Clarkson and Williams, Kelly's coaching salary was less than $7,000, which is typical for an assistant at Division III. But that's better than a lot of people, who work for free.
"I was getting paid; I just wasn't getting paid a lot," said Kelly, who took a pay cut to go to Williams. To make ends meet at both schools, he worked as a long-term substitute teacher and practically lived out of his car working summer basketball camps.
"At Bucknell, I make a respectable amount of money, I guess you could say," Kelly said. "But certainly if money is the driving force, then college coaching might not be the avenue to pursue. But you do what you have to do to make it work, you do it because you love it and eventually with enough hard work and a little bit of luck, you can make a living out of it."
Kelly, who's originally from Syracuse, N.Y., was promoted to assistant coach in 2009. His primary duties are recruiting, preparing scouting reports on upcoming opponents and coaching the Bison big men. He loves coaching at Division I.
"What I like most about it is, for the most part, it's all basketball," he said. "A lot of the Division III jobs, because you don't make a lot of money, you end up doing other things. … But at Bucknell, you can just be a basketball coach, and you can do that all year round, which is nice because that's what you want to be doing."
Kelly played in three NCAA Division III Tournaments at CUA (2003, 2004 and 2006), the latter two after winning the league tournament. In 2004, the Cards left at least one Mary Washington player in tears after defeating the Eagles on their home court, 81-72. Kelly scored four points, including two free throws to give CUA a 55-51 lead with 9:31 left.
Two years later, he didn't score but teammates Pat Satalin (25 points) and Patrick Dwyer (24 points, 16 rebounds) lit up the scoreboard in the Cardinals' 79-70 victory over Salisbury for the 2006 CAC championship. Last Friday, Kelly experienced the thrill of winning another conference championship when the home standing Bison downed Lafayette, 72-57. Many in the crowd of 4,271 stormed the court to celebrate.
He said the feeling of winning last week and capturing two titles at CUA were "similar and different. It's similar because the satisfaction of winning a championship on whatever level is always going to be there. The difference now, being a coach, you have a little bit of a different perspective than you did as a player. I may have been a little more happy for our players than for myself, where as a player you really didn't think about it in those terms.
"So it's equally as gratifying. I would just say it's a little bit different."
Kelly, who has two brothers (including Sean, who also played for the Cards), a sister and some former Cardinal teammates who are going to see his team play in Washington, knows Bucknell faces a tall order in trying to advance past Connecticut (26-9). The Huskies are fresh off five straight victories in their run to the Big East Tournament championship.
"The difference between UConn and 98 percent of the other teams that we see is the athleticism, the strength and the size that they have," he said. "Even Marquette and Villanova that we played this year, I'm not sure if they are as athletic or as big as the UConn team we're going to be seeing on Thursday. It's a different challenge and we just have to approach the game a little bit differently than we would a Patriot League game, but our core principles stay the same.
"We do what we do; we just tweak the game plan a little bit for a group like UConn."
Maybe some of the luck of St. Patrick's Day will help the Bison. It's also the 10th anniversary of CUA's 2001 National Championship.
"Aaron was one of the leaders on our team, even as a freshman," Lonergan said. "He had the respect of his teammates and coaches because of his tremendous work ethic. I'm very happy to see Aaron participating in the NCAA Tournament now as a coach.
"He has a bright future in the coaching profession."
Chris McManes is a former CUA sports information director.
Photo provided by Bucknell University