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John Kelley announces his resignation as University High football coach, led school to 1994 state title game

MORGANTOWN — John Kelley ended an era of high school football coaching that covered two states and nearly 50 years Thursday, as he announced his resignation as University High’s head coach.

“I’ve been doing this for 49 years and 41 of them (at UHS), 37 as the head coach,” Kelley said while fighting back raw emotion. “It’s hard to walk away. It’s difficult. It’s been my whole life. Maybe I’m made up different from everyone else, but this has been my life. This is the greatest school I’ve ever been involved with.”

In 37 years as the Hawks’ head coach, Kelley saw the school transform from a middle-of-the pack Class AA school into one of the larger Class AAAA schools in the state.

He won 254 games in those 37 seasons, including a trip to the 1994 Class AAA state championship game, as well as 22 other trips to the state playoffs.

The Hawks played in six state semifinals under Kelley and had three perfect 10-0 regular seasons.

“Some of you may think I’m resigning because of age,” said Kelley, who is 72 years old. “Age has nothing to do with it. I could go out there and coach and be on that field with someone who is 20 years old, and I could run them into the ground.”

As to why now, Kelley noted there are changes that appear to be coming down the road directed at changing the face of high school athletics in this state and he was not as interested coaching in that atmosphere.

Senate Bill 813 was recently passed by a 24-9 vote and sent to the House of Delegates for approval.

The bill — if it becomes a law — would allow school athletes to compete in non-school competitive activities on a year-round basis.

Essentially, a high school football player in the state would be able to compete on an AAU basketball team while football season was still in play or an athlete could play both travel baseball and high school baseball at the same time without being ruled ineligible.

“I want to try and stay positive, but there are a lot of things I can’t deal with anymore,” Kelley began. “One of which is the West Virginia legislature getting involved in sports and having roles that are just destroying our game.

“Some of the changes that have come in the West Virginia (Secondary School Activities Commission), like going to four classes, those are things that we’re not doing the right thing by kids anymore. That sticks in your craw. That makes you wonder where we’re going with stuff.”

Kelley said he would have no role in choosing his replacement, although he did mention longtime assistant Eric Snyder as a qualified candidate.

UHS athletic director Jeff Bailey said the opening would be posted with the Monongalia County Board of Education on Monday.

He added school officials are debating on whether the opening will be posted for five or 10 days.

At the conclusion of the posting, the school will look at the applicants and begin the interviewing process.

Snyder said he was going to be one of the applicants, and if he was chosen, “To follow in coach Kelley’s footsteps would be amazing,” Snyder said. “It’s definitely going to be a tall mountain to climb, because he has set the bar pretty high.”

It was a bar Kelley began to set as an assistant coach at UHS beginning in 1983.

A graduate of Oak Glen High School, Kelley first moved to Morgantown after living for a year in Louisiana. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach at Hopewell (Alaquippa, Pa.) Area High School beginning in 1974, the year after Tony Dorsett had graduated there and moved on to become a star at Pitt.

Kelley attended a career day at the WVU Mountainlair, where he heard about a teaching and coaching opening at UHS.

“I didn’t know a soul,” in Morgantown, Kelley said. “But that’s where it all started.”

Leaving a tradition-rich school such as Hopewell in football-crazed western Pennsylvania for West Virginia probably seemed crazy at the time.

“What was said to me was you’re coming from the penthouse and going to the outhouse,” Kelley remembered.

He took over as the head coach in 1987 and had the Hawks in the Class AA playoffs in his first season.

Just seven years later, the Hawks were in the Class AAA state championship game, a 27-7 loss against South Charleston.

“I’m both happy and sad for John,” said Lance Hoover, the quarterback of the 1994 team. “I’m sad for him, because he never got a state championship, which I know he wanted to win one for the school so much. I’m happy for him for being able to go out his way and on his terms.

“I think what you really have to give him credit for is he built and established one of the most consistent programs in the state. There may have been a couple of bad years, but he usually had UHS right there in the playoffs year after year.”

The Hawks were 5-5 in Kelley’s final season, but from 1998-2005, UHS qualified for the state playoffs every season. He had just nine losing seasons in 37 years as a head coach.

“Coach Kelley had a significant impact on my life,” said Cody Phillips, an all-state quarterback on the 1998 team. “His unwavering support, guidance, and belief in my abilities transformed my approach to sports and life.

“His retirement marks the end of an era filled with unforgettable memories and invaluable lessons.”

Four former UHS players under Kelley went on to an NFL experience, highlighted by Rich Braham, who now serves as an assistant coach at UHS.

Braham walked on at WVU, where he developed into an All-American in 1993 and became a third-round pick of the Phoenix Cardinals in 1994. After getting released by the Cardinals, Braham spent a 13-year career playing for the Cincinnati Bengals.

“John has great value to me as a coach,” Braham said. “A lot of people may say, well, he was just a high school coach, but he turned us into young men and prepared us for the next stage in life.

“John would do anything to help anyone, not just the stars of the team. If anyone wanted to go on to play in college, he tried to find an opportunity for everyone.”

In all, Kelley coached 44 first-team all-state players and eight who won conference player of the year honors.

As to what is the next step for Kelley, he said he wasn’t exactly sure.

“I walked out here today, and for the first time in 49 years, I’m not a football coach,” he said. “People say now you can go out and travel. I don’t want to do that. I’m not ready. I’ll take it a day at a time.

“I don’t anticipate coming back as an assistant, but there’s still some football left in me. What’s the new term now, analyst? Maybe I can be an analyst. I’ll be around every Friday night. I’ll see you.”