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Kevin Kelley, football coach that never punts, returning to Arkansas high school sidelines

Sheridan hires Kelley, who won nine state championships with Pulaski Academy

The 2023 prep football season ended less than a week ago and a splashy head coaching hire has already been approved for 2024. 

Former Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley, one of the most successful and innovative coaches to ever roam the sidelines in Arkansas high school football, was announced for the same position at Sheridan during a school board meeting Monday evening. He will be the program's third head coach in the past three seasons. 

"We are very excited to hire someone with Coach Kelley's incredible record of success," Sheridan School District superintendent Dr. Karla Neathery said in a press release. "Coach Kelley's unique approach and vast knowledge of the game have led to many great achievements. This is certainly a home-run hire, and we look forward to a bright future for the Yellowjacket football program under Coach Kelley's leadership." 

Kelley takes over a Sheridan program that has struggled immensely, achieving only two winning regular seasons in the 21st century (2000 and 2007). The Yellowjackets finished 3-7 this past season, including 3-6 in the 6A-East conference. 

Kelley gained attention throughout the country during his 18 seasons leading the Bruins for consistently onside kicking and never (or rarely) punting. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – an eight-time Super Bowl champion – referred to Kelley as “probably the top high school coach in the country.”

After six seasons as offensive coordinator at PA under Kirby Norwood from 1997-2002, Kelley took over and became the fastest head coach in state history to eclipse 200 wins, earning the feat in just 230 games.

The Bruins won their first state title in 2003, Kelley’s inaugural season, defeating Rivercrest 64-32. Their next championship came in 2008 after moving up to Class 5A, inching past Helena-West Helena, 35-32, followed by the program’s third in 2011, when they took down Malvern 63-28 in the 4A championship game.

It was 2014 when Pulaski Academy went from a highly successful program to a juggernaut as it won six of the next seven Class 5A state championships through 2020.

Along with the nine state championships, each one tattooed on the inside of his right bicep, Kelley’s Bruins appeared in the state final 12 times, along with 18 trips to the quarterfinals and 15 to the semifinals while compiling an overall record of 216-29-1. Among his long list of accolades, Kelley was awarded the USA Today National Football Coach of the Year in 2016 and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2021.

Kelley received college interest throughout his high school coaching tenure but finally decided to make the leap in May of 2021 when he was hired by Division I FCS Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., as head coach, along with coaching quarterbacks. He mentioned that being able to make his own decisions played a major factor in the move.

“I was here (at PA) for 24 years and the school was awesome to my family,” Kelley said in a 2021 interview with SBLive’s ‘Gridiron Icons: Arkansas Greatest High School Coaches’ podcast. 

“I wanted to be in charge (at the next level). I have interviewed for some head coaching jobs in college and it has ended up being ‘how about a coordinator position?’ or ‘how about a position coach?’ Nobody is going to play and coach the game the way I believe it should be and that would have been hard for me to do, especially since I have been in charge.”

Kelley’s tenure at Presbyterian started off with a bang as the Blue Hose began the season 2-0, making history along the way.

In a season-opening 84-43 win over St. Andrews (N.C.) University on September 4, 2021, Presbyterian quarterback and Bryant alum Ren Hefley broke the single game record for passing touchdowns (10) and yards (576). Other national records set were 56 points in the first half and 84 points in a single game.

The Blue Hose dropped their remaining nine games, most of them in lopsided fashion. Kelley resigned from Presbyterian two weeks after the season concluded.

Since last year, Kelley has worked with a Little Rock developer and his son, Zack, managing a children's gym called Kid Champion. The gym, located in West Little Rock, is for younger children and promotes coordination and confidence as the children begin school activities and sports later on. 

Kelly briefly worked on the Patriots' staff under Belichick following his departure from Presbyterian in early 2022. After working with the offensive staff for a few months, he decided he needed to be with his family in Little Rock and his daughter Kara, who was preparing to graduate from PA in May.

He returned to Little Rock with no plans, and that is when he was contacted about the gym idea. Instead of franchising an existing business, Kelley researched the concept and created the curriculum for Kid Champion. The doors opened early last winter and at that time he mentioned opening other locations across Arkansas. 

(Photo by Jaison Sterling)

– Kyle Sutherland | @k_sutherlandAR

Nate Olson contributed to this story.