Thomas Kelley, FSU athletic director and head football coach, always knew he would come back to his alma mater after graduating in 1976.
He became assistant coach in 1978, athletic director for FSU in 1994 and has been head coach for the team for the past 10 years.
Now, as head coach of FSU football, Kelley reflects on the journey to become coach and being a part of the first team.
In 1972, just a few years after Framingham State became co-ed, 17-year-old Kelley from Adams, Massachusetts was recruited to Framingham State’s first football team as a defensive lineman, where he was starter for the next four years.
Like all athletic teams at FSU, football was first offered as a club sport. The team did not reach varsity status until two years later in 1974.
Kelley said several Vietnam War veterans started a petition for a football team to be established.
He recalled the early ’70s as a “liberal time,” with long hair, thick beards and colorful clothes.
The athletic director at the time, Steve Ryder, wanted to “pump up the male population” by adding football as an option, according to Kelley.
The school had already offered hockey, baseball and basketball, but Ryder believed a football team would increase male interest.
“The team consisted of about 48 to 50 students,” whose ages range from age 17 up to their mid-20s, according to Kelly.
Gary Niland, linebacker for the ’72 team, said the range of ages was unique because while 17-year-olds “don’t know anything, the vets on the team have already been through so much.”
Kevin Burke, defensive tackle in ’72, said, “It was like playing with your big brothers. … They helped and guided us not only in football, but in life.”
The first head coach was Dean of Students (later Vice President of Student Services) Dennis Golden. He was assisted by now High School Hall of Fame Football Coach Tommy Lamb.
Golden was head coach for nine years and ended with a record of 47-35.
Burke admitted Lamb was his favorite. “He remembers every player. He makes you feel like his favorite.”
The locker room was an old house on Maple Road, called the Boke House, said Niland.
He said the bedrooms were converted into locker rooms, so the players were separated into different rooms.
Kelley said, “The living room was turned into the shower room. The shower head was next to a boarded fireplace. It was like the ‘Longest Yard.’”
Burke said, “We used to turn the water cold while others were showering, so you would have to shower at your own risk. It was like a fraternity – lots of pranks and craziness.”
Niland said the condition of the locker room “didn’t matter to us. We had the opportunity to play.”
Practice would be held at the Mary Dennison Park, which is on the opposite side of the city. The team would share the field with other local teams. The park is 15 miles from campus and consists of a baseball field and patches of grass.
According to Burke, the field did not have any lights. “We used our cars’ headlights to light the field.”
“We would cram into someone’s car, drive to the opposite side of town, practice until it was dark, drive all the way back, shower and then rush to dinner,” said Niland.
Burke recalled times when the dining hall would be closed by the time the team would get back, so they would eat at O’Connor Hall, which was an all-women’s dorm with its own dining room.
“The ladies hated it because we would practically kick them out of their dining hall with our ‘Animal House’ behavior,” he said.
“It was funny because it was not how you would imagine college football, which is why I think we are still so close. … It was a lot of characters with a lot of character,” added Burke.
Kelley said the first season was so memorable because “we were a close-knit group. We stay close to this day. We always check up on one another.”
Kelley still considers that first season to be “magical.”
Niland said he and Kelley met the first week of training and have remained close ever since. “Kelley got the crap beaten out of him, but he always came back. He was a hard worker. … He hit me in the back more than I would have liked,” he joked.
Kelley responded by calling Burke “a character. He has a great memory.”
Niland added current players should “appreciate the opportunity you have to play for Kelley. … He really cares about his players.”
The team went undefeated that first year, even though they played only five games.
Burke said, “We couldn’t get fields because we were a club sport,”.
Fields were mainly reserved for varsity teams. Framingham State did not have its own field, the team played only away games. The team did not play a home game until 1982, according to Kelley.
One of the football team’s rivals both then and now, is Bridgewater State University. “We would play, kill each other and then party with one another afterwards,” said Kelley.
Niland said, “I wouldn’t trade one thing about that experience. … It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I consider myself lucky to play with the best people I could ask for.”
For the past 37 years, Niland has been working as vice president of sales for Schutt Sports.
Burke has been working as purchasing director for the Four Seasons for the past 45 years.
Kelley was assistant coach of the football team starting in 1978, became head coach in 1982, left the position after three years and returned as head coach in 2006.
Kelley was encouraged to return to the position of head coach by then President Timothy Flanagan in 2006.
According to Kelley, Flanagan wanted “a winning team” and supported the development of the program on a competitive level.
“No one cared about the team. … Some looked at athletics as an unnecessary evil,” said Kelley.
From 1987 to 2010, the football team did not have a single winning season.
In 2010, the football team had a 10-1 season and has been improving every year.
Kelley’s current record is 82-52-1.
When referring to his strategy, Kelley said, “I’ve always had a formula. It’s all about recruiting student athletes with good character. … If we have a weakness, we go out and fix it.”
Kelley said he always tells his assistant coaches, “Players win games. Coaches lose them.
“It was more fun climbing to the top. It is hard work to stay on the top. We didn’t know how to win. We were beating teams we had never beaten before. We win those games because that’s what we do,” he said.
“Since my return, we have only had one losing team,” Kelley added.
His most memorable game was in 2008 against Coast Guard.
The team’s season record in 2008 was 4-5. It was the last game of the season. The team was losing and 14 seconds were left when suddenly, the team turned it around and won, making it the first non-losing season since 1987.
“The place erupted even though we were away. President Flanagan was there with his wife,” Kelley recalled.
“That was the turnaround game for us. It was up, up and away after that,” he said.
Today, the football team is playing at the Division III level at Bowditch Field. Eight assistant coaches and four athletic trainers have joined the coaching staff. The football team also has a proper locker room in the Athletic Center and a roster of almost 100 players.
In 2013, the football team joined the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) and has maintained a top spot in the league ever since.
The current record, not including this year, is 30-2, including a winning streak of eight in the first three years.
According to MASCAC Made, a series dedicated to student athletes who become coaches, Kelley won Champion’s Choice Coach of the Year in 2014 and again in 2015.
Kelley said, “We have played teams at the 16th and 5th rank in the country. We want to be in the national spotlight.”
Team captain and defensive lineman, and junior Darian Belizaire, said, “Framingham State football has always had a winning mentality. We are just more put together. … We’re brothers too. … We hang out on and off the field and will fight for each other any given day.”
He added Kelley “is the best coach I’ve had. He knows his players better than anyone else. … He’s all about winning. … We’re all here because we want to win.”
Senior team captain and offensive lineman Joe Wilder, said, “We practice four days a week and watch film three days a week. Fridays are a walk-through and Coach Kelley ‘closes the barn door on Fridays’ – signifying the end to the work week and the start of game-time.”
Junior Right guard Rodney Thomas said, “Coach Kelley is a role model. Every day he puts on his work hat on and gets to work. He makes me want to be a hard worker.”
Thomas Kelley does not have plans to slow down. In his years as both a player and a coach, Kelley still does not have a favorite season. “The best season is yet to come.”
This summer, Framingham State football was named the best college football program in the state of Massachusetts regardless of division by HERO Sports.
The team is currently 8-1 and eyeing its second consecutive bowl game appearance.