Like most football fans in northern Indiana, Micah Staley is keeping a close eye on the Notre Dame coaching search.
But he's more than a casual observer.
Staley, a Concord High School graduate, played football for two seasons at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., under coach Brian Kelly, who is now at Cincinnati and is considered the leading candidate to take over at Notre Dame. Staley said Wednesday that Kelly is a can't-miss choice for the Irish.
"If he does end up at Notre Dame, I honestly, truly feel that he will 100 percent turn the program around," Staley said.
Staley, who now works as a salesman at Open Range RV Company in Shipshewana, redshirted at Grand Valley because of an injury in 2002, but led the Lakers in receiving yards and touchdown catches in 2003, when they won their second consecutive NCAA Division II title. Kelly departed after that season for Central Michigan, where he stayed for three seasons before moving on to Cincinnati.
Kelly's players were successful, Staley said, in part because they feared the coach's wrath.
"He was a great coach and I really liked him, but he scares the piss out of you, that's for sure," Staley said, adding, "You played just so you didn't get yelled at. It was a good thing, because everyone would step up to the level that he expected because of his expectations."
The players were never confused about who was in charge at Grand Valley, Staley said. During the '03 season, Staley was interviewed by the campus newspaper -- about "something really minor," he said -- and Kelly spoke to him about it afterward.
"He knew about it and he was there," Staley said, "and I don't know if he was listening or what, but I remember after the conversation I was walking back to the locker room and he passed me and he grabs me by the shirt and kind of pulls me up to him so we were eye to eye, and he said, 'Staley, I want you to remember one thing.' He goes, 'You have four touchdowns. You could have 10 if I wanted you to.' And then he walked away.
"I was like, 'What the heck?' He wanted to make sure that every player knew he was in control. That's really what it comes down to. And everybody knew that and everybody had respect for him and he was a phenomenal coach."
Once during practice, Staley missed a signal on a "hot route" and was out of position to catch a pass. As punishment, Kelly made him stand underneath the goalpost with his helmet between his knees for the remainder of practice -- about 20 minutes, Staley said. When Staley's backup, current Detroit Lions receiver Eric Fowler, missed the same signal a couple plays later, he joined Staley under the goalpost.
"I guarantee you, I made sure I never even came close to missing a hot call again," Staley said. "That was the kind of coach he was."
Staley called Kelly "brutally honest," a characteristic he said made Kelly a good coach.
Former Concord running back Spencer Calhoun, who arrived at Grand Valley in 1991 -- the same year Kelly did -- agreed.
"You want him to be up front and honest with you, no matter what the circumstances are," Calhoun said. "You'll appreciate that when it's all said and done, regardless of whatever happens, because you know you can count on someone always telling you the truth whether you like to hear it or not."
"He really challenges you to perform," Calhoun added. "He encourages you enough, but at the same time, he's challenging you to step your game up to the level that he sees the potential at, and the coaching staff saw the potential in you to play."
Seeing potential in players has been one of Kelly's strengths at Cincinnati, where his undefeated, Sugar Bowl-bound team is made up mostly of players who were passed over by the traditional college football powerhouses.
It was the same at Grand Valley. Kelly noticed Calhoun, who was then a senior at Concord, when he came to recruit some junior players. Calhoun went on to rush for more than 2,000 yards -- averaging 6.7 yards per carry -- during his career with the Lakers.
"They always find good players from all around the country. It was that way even when I first got to Grand Valley," said Calhoun, who now lives in Indianapolis. "Their staff does a great job of finding guys that can play that might have gotten overlooked sometimes."
Staley said that because of Kelly, he "performed even better than what I thought was possible."
Calhoun said Kelly's influence went beyond the field.
"I think I was (a better player), and I think more importantly, I was a much better person," Calhoun said. "I think he really helped complete me as a man, with being a tough-minded individual. That's one thing he always talked about, was mental toughness and being able to see things and not get down after one little mistake or one bad play, anything like that.
"You could always tell, deep down in his veins, that he was going to turn out to be a good coach -- or a great coach, which is what he's turning out to be."