DOVER — Initially, tough love can be a turnoff.
When structure and sternness barge in, complacency and mediocrity don’t normally rise to attention. They look at each other, shrug, then slowly stand in a dual display of nonchalance and nonconformity.
Which makes the story of Strawberry Crest all the more astounding.
In the wake of an abysmal 2011 season, in which players say discipline lagged and indifference grew, arrived John Kelly. A former soldier with a demand for accountability and disdain for profanity, he immediately began constructing a program in his image. Which is to say, he put up barracks where a frat house had been.
“They just needed somebody to believe in them and push them to get out what was already inside of them,” said Kelly, the Chargers’ third head coach in as many years and first offensive coordinator when the program started in 2009. “And I firmly believe that.”
But here’s the surprising part: When Kelly pushed, no one pushed back. Instead of transitioning, the Chargers (2-1) have triumphed. Entering Week 4, Strawberry Crest has doubled its 2011 win total, and is two points from an undefeated season.
“Much improved and will fight for four quarters,” Terriers coach Earl Garcia said of the Chargers. “I’m impressed with the job coach Kelly and his staff are doing there.”
Why were these Chargers so quick to embrace Kelly? Because he first embraced them, veteran players say. To hear the seniors tell it, when you’ve been neglected, any kind of love — even the tough kind — will do.
“It’s a lot different because we’ve got stability,” senior linebacker Mikey Mitchell said.
“It’s just that last year, you could get away with a lot of things,” added leading receiver Karel Hamilton (14 catches, 310 yards), among those who trudged their way through a 1-9 season last fall.
“Coach Kelly, he actually walks around school to make sure on game days everybody has a shirt and tie … or even checks to see attendance through the computer to see who’s here. … He just cares about us a lot more.”
Indeed, Kelly is a 33-year-old embodiment of discipline, from his crew cut down to his toes on the proverbial line.
Upon his hiring in January, he requested — and received — permission to gain access to his players’ academic records; teachers normally have access only to their own students’ files. “Just a little bit more accountability, I guess,” he said.
His dress code stretches far beyond game days. During padless practices, each Charger must wear black shorts and white Crest T-shirts. When exiting or entering the field during games, the team forms two ruler-straight lines (one for offense, one for defense).
And anyone who uses profanity has, well, heck to pay.
“No cussing from players or coaches,” Hamilton said. “He absolutely hates that.”
But therein lies the brilliant paradox surrounding this 1997 Armwood graduate, an earnest Christian who spent four years in the U.S. Army. Whereas many of his requirements might bear a whiff of drill instructor, the flexibility of his playbook is all yoga instructor.
Though Kelly cut his coaching teeth on the Armwood triple option that yielded two state titles a decade ago, he has allowed Chargers offensive coordinator Isaac Anderson to open things up because of the team’s profusion of receivers and a line that pass blocks effectively.
In last week’s 21-14 victory against Steinbrenner, sophomore quarterback Tristan Hyde threw 43 times (for 246 yards, three TDs and three interceptions). Meantime, Kelly delegates defensive authority to coordinator Keith Newman, a former Jefferson High star and NFL alumnus.
“Good guys like Isaac and Keith, it’s just letting them do their thing,” said Kelly, a married father of two girls (with a boy on the way).
“It’s something I learned from (Armwood) coach (Sean) Callahan. I always thought he did a really good job of managing his personnel as far as assistants. You hired them for a reason, you know?”
Will the Chargers be so quick to conform once adversity strikes? Hillsborough (2-0) enters as a favorite tonight, and a series of heavyweights (Armwood, Sickles, Jefferson) remain on the schedule. Will toes stay on the line?
More than that, the veterans insist. They’re putting it all on the line for their new coach.
“He’s like, a fatherly figure,” Hamilton said. “He’s somebody you can actually look up to, and just to know that he’s always going to be there … if you have anything to ask him, if you have any problems, you know you can go to him without any problem.”
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.