Pat Kelly always knew he wanted to be a teacher and basketball coach.
Those careers have dovetailed nicely during a 40-year odyssey that has taken the Pittsburgh-bred, former gym rat to eight high schools in three states.
Now in his second season as Treasure Coast’s boys coach, the 63-year-old basketball lifer collected his 500th career win five days ago when the Titans defeated South Fork 81-68 at Tropical Farms.
“When you reach that (milestone), you do look back and realize all of the people you worked with,” Kelly said. “All of those years, all of those people. You connect with a lot of different lives.”
When he wasn’t teaching the finer points of American history, U.S. government or geography, he was going over spacing, ball movement and the fundamentals of defense on the basketball court.
You see, attention to detail matters whether it’s in the classroom or the gymnasium.
“That part of it, I still enjoy, teaching kids how to play and seeing all the kids on my team get better,” Kelly said. “When you look at the whole picture of where your kids are and where they’re going, a lot of them can get disheartened because they don’t play as much or this or that.
“But if you keep in mind that you’re continuously trying to improve them and make sure they’re doing well in the classroom, I take gratification from that.”
Kelly will be on the bench for the 810th time as a head coach Friday when Treasure Coast plays Santaluces in the Lake Worth Christian Thanksgiving Shootout.
Over 34 seasons, Kelly’s teams have produced 501 wins, nine conference divisional titles, five conference crowns, three district titles, 11 state tournament berths, four final fours and two state championship games.
Musical tastes, hair styles and wardrobes have changed often since Kelly’s debut as a junior varsity coach in 1976 at Redbank Valley High School in Pennsylvania, but some things are timeless.
Start with the team concept.
“I always say the whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts,” Kelly said. “You want to put the group out there that’s going to function the best in unison. That’s what we’re all striving to do. That’s the bottom line.
The proof, in part, is in his four Final Four teams, including single-class Delaware state semifinalists at Indian River High in 1990 and ’91, and a state runner-up at nearby Dover in 2003.
Kelly, who still has a home in Delaware, made a 997-mile move to Springstead — located in Spring Hill, 35 miles north Tampa — and led the Eagles to the Class 4A state final in his second season in 2009. The 31-1 finish was the best in Hernando County history.
After five years at Jensen Beach, including district titles in 2012 and 2014, Kelly made the 10-mile move last season to Class 8A Treasure Coast.
The Titans are off to the 10-year program’s second-fastest start. The 2013-14 squad won its first nine games.
“The tough part is ahead,” said Kelly, whose District 8-8A schedule includes traditionally strong Vero Beach and Martin County. “We’ll try to be ready for that.”
Kelly lives in a condominium on North Hutchinson Island, with the Atlantic Ocean as a cool backdrop.
That’s fitting given that Kelly patrolled similar beaches in Delaware as a lifeguard for 22 summers.
“I think you get salt water in your veins,” he said.
Kelly worked six years at the private Sussex Shores, where single-family homes go well into seven figures, then spent 16 more with Delaware State Parks. He rose to captain before closing that chapter in 2006 at age 54.
Basketball has been Kelly’s passion since his childhood days in the Steel City. He was a fixture on city playgrounds, listened to Duquesne University games on the radio and attended Catholic League tripleheaders on Sundays at the Pitt Fieldhouse.
“I always dreamed about basketball,” Kelly said.
Kelly was a forward at South Hills Catholic in the 1960s — “I wasn’t a superstar,” he said, slowed by a knee injury as an eighth-grader in 1965 — and walked on for one season at Duquesne, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“My professors wanted me to go for a doctorate in history,” Kelly recalled. “I wanted to teach and coach basketball. I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Basketball is not his only love. He met his wife Mary, a pharmacist, at Duquesne. The Kellys have been married for 41 years and have three children — two daughters, one son — and five grandchildren.
Besides his work on the hardwood, Kelly spent seven years as an assistant football coach. When Indian River’s head coach was sidelined by illness in 1998, Kelly took over and went 8-6 over two seasons.
Late in 1999, Kelly inherited a two-win girls basketball team and guided it to a 15-8 record and conference divisional title.
“I tried to help along the way, when I could,” Kelly said.
Inducted into the Delaware Legends Basketball Hall of Fame in November 2010, Kelly keeps chugging along despite a hip replacement in 2008, a second procedure in 2012 and knee replacement surgery in July.
And why not? He still loves the game that has played such a big role in his life.
There remains a game plan to prepare, a lesson to teach, a team to mold, a goal to chase.
“I just keep going,” Kelly said. “I don’t plan that far ahead. I just keep doing what I do.”
Dennis Jacob is a digital sports reporter for Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-221-4211, [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @DennisJacob80.
THE KELLY FILE
ASSISTANT BASKETBALL COACH
1976-78: Redbank Valley (Pennsylvania) (JV)
1983-85: West Allegheny (Pennsylvania)
2000-01: Sussex Tech (Delaware)
HEAD BASKETBALL COACH
(501-308, 34 seasons)
1978-82: Canon McMillan (Pennsylvania) (48-78)
1985-98: Indian River (Delaware) (198-102)
2001-04: Dover (Delaware) (56-18)
2004-07: Indian River (Delaware) (35-33)
2007-09: Springstead (53-6)
2009-14: Jensen Beach (77-53)
2014-present: Treasure Coast (19-10)
HEAD GIRLS BASKETBALL COACH
1999-2000: Indian River (Pennsylvania) (15-8)
Henlopen Conference champion (5): 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996
Conference divisional champion (9): 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000
Florida district titles (3): 2009, 2012, 2014
State tournaments (11): 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2009
State finals (2): 2003 (with Dover, lost 72-62 to Glasgow), 2009 (with Springstead, lost 75-60 to Cocoa)
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW
While at Redbank Valley, Kelly coached against an East Brady team that included Jim Kelly, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers and NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
At West Allegheny, Kelly worked with Tom Donahoe, who went on to serve as general manager with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.