Notre Dame Coach’s Jewish Past
In 1987, Brian Kelly was Jedd Fisch’s camp counselor. Now they’re both big-shot college football coaches.
The 1987 yearbook of Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, an all-boys sleep-away camp in the Berkshires, commemorates the best summer of everyone’s lives. There are stories about the production of Guys and Dolls, a trip to Cooperstown, and how the Olympics broke out. There’s also a brief clip introducing one of the camp’s new head counselors, a recent graduate of Assumption College, a Catholic school in Worcester, Mass., who was about to start as a football coach at Grand Valley State College. The byline on that piece belonged to “Jedd Fisch, Navajo 21.” The counselor’s name was Brian Kelly.
Twenty-five years later, Brian Kelly is the head football coach for the University of Notre Dame, the most prominent Catholic institution this side of Vatican City, which plays its games under the shadow of a mural called Touchdown Jesus. And Jedd Fisch, his former camper, is the offensive coordinator for the University of Miami—perhaps the most accomplished Jew in football today outside of the owner’s box. So, when the two embraced after their teams played each other on Oct. 6, their old Mah-Kee-Nac friends watching the game on NBC realized they were witnessing one of the unlikeliest events in recent football history: a primetime college game that was also a miniature camp reunion.
The latest entry to the annals of Jewish sports trivia began in March 1987 when Mah-Kee-Nac needed a new head counselor. This was a camp that was almost 100 percent Jewish, with optional Friday-night services. Mostly, though, this was a camp that was in a pickle: The directors were running out of time to hire someone who would be in charge of 34 counselors and 120 campers from places like Short Hills, N.J., and Great Neck, N.Y.
They turned to Jay Toporoff for help. Toporoff was a Mah-Kee-Nac lifer—he now owns Camp Danbee, Mah-Kee-Nac’s sister camp—and worked during the year in Assumption College’s residential-life office. One of his colleagues there was Brian Kelly, the school’s assistant football coach and head softball coach. When Toporoff was asked if anyone at Assumption was a fit for Mah-Kee-Nac, Kelly was the first person who came to mind. “I had a lot of people on my staff,” Toporoff said, “and wouldn’t have chosen anyone but him.”
Kelly arrived knowing as much about Mah-Kee-Nac, a camp founded by a University of Michigan football alumnus but with nothing resembling tackle football, as a British counselor might have. The son of a Massachusetts politician, Kelly was not Jewish, nor had he ever attended a sleep-away camp. “I said, ‘Hey, buddy, you’re going to be this Catholic boy coming to this Jewish camp,’ ” Toporoff said. And yet Toporoff sensed something vaguely Jewish in the future coach of Notre Dame’s football team. “Brian,” Toporoff told me, “is a schmoozer.”
This week, a few days before Notre Dame’s biggest game of the season on Saturday against the University of Oklahoma, Kelly answered questions about his long-ago summer at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac. “As a guy from the East Coast in Boston, Mass., camping out wasn’t one of the things that I did regularly,” he said. “But the beauty of the Berkshires, the quality of the kids that I got a chance to interact with at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, was a great, great experience.”
One of Kelly’s kids that summer was Fisch, a camper in Bunk 21, whose father and brother went to Mah-Kee-Nac, as well. Fisch spent nine years at camp, including a stint as a counselor. “If I had boys, my boys would go there,” Fisch said this week. “People don’t recognize the relationships you can build at camp and how much camp means to people.”
While at camp, Fisch was a good tennis player and wrote for the newspaper. Dean Loventhal, a friend of Fisch’s, described his buddy as “an ordinary Jewish kid from Livingston.” But there was something else extraordinary about him: He aspired to be a coach more than a player. “Jedd was the kind of kid who would come to my house and play basketball and show up with a marker board to design plays,” Loventhal said. Fisch even invited the charismatic North Carolina State University basketball coach Jim Valvano to his bar mitzvah. (Valvano sent his regrets, along with an autographed basketball, poster, and four tickets to a game.)
There was no way Fisch was going to be able to play basketball or football in college. But he chose to attend the University of Florida for the same reason a future NFL player does: Steve Spurrier, one of college football’s most successful and colorful coaches. “My father asked who I thought was the best coach in the country, and I said him,” Fisch said. “He said, ‘Then you should go to school there.’ ” Kelly joked about it this way all these years later: “I knew for a fact that Jedd would end up being a coach, because he was a lousy athlete at camp.”
Fisch got his foot in the door as a student assistant. He coached high-school football in Florida for two seasons while in college and was eventually hired as a graduate assistant coach under Spurrier. He soon moved to the coaching staff of the NFL’s Houston Texans, then to the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos. After a stop at the University of Minnesota, Fisch returned to the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. Miami came calling one year later.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s career was off and running. By 1991, when Fisch’s bunkmates were in high school, Kelly was Grand Valley State’s head coach. After 13 years there, he decamped in 2004 for Central Michigan. A breakout 2006 season earned Kelly the job at Cincinnati, where he eventually had his pick of coaching jobs in late 2009. He ended up choosing Notre Dame, which is the coaching job in college football.
At that point, Fisch and Kelly already had reminisced about their mutual camping days at a convention in which Kelly was being honored as college football’s coach of the year. Fisch walked up to the dais, where Kelly was sitting. “He said, ‘You’re not going to remember me, but I was one of your campers,’ ” Kelly said.
It was around this time when Loventhal, a lawyer in New Jersey, went looking for proof of farfetched connection to Kelly in his old camp keepsakes, stashed at his parents’ house. “I’m flipping through the yearbook, and all of a sudden, I came across the article,” Loventhal said. “And then all of a sudden, I noticed that it was written by Jedd Fisch. What are the chances that our 25-year-old counselor would go on to be the head coach of Notre Dame? But what are really the chances that the 11-year-old camper who wrote the article would go on to be the offensive coordinator for Miami?” Loventhal still talks with Fisch—they saw each other last weekend in Florida—and he sent him the clipping from the camp newspaper before Miami’s game against Notre Dame. “I had no recollection of it whatsoever,” Fisch said.
The Fighting Irish, a top-10 team enjoying their best season yet under Kelly, wound up cruising past Miami, 41-3. After the game, Kelly shook the Miami head coach’s hand and beelined off as if he were looking for someone else. Fisch found him first. They hugged and were still chatting when the NBC cameras panned away. “Jedd was yapping away in his ear,” Toporoff said. “We said, ‘They’ve gotta be talking about camp.’ ”
In fact, they had talked about it 15 minutes before kickoff. “We were making a joke on the field about coaching young players and how hard it is to get them to listen,” Fisch said.
“Yeah,” Kelly said, “just like you at camp.”
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