Signing day was in the books for more than a week. For most casual fans, that’s when recruiting ends and time to look forward to the basketball stretch run and spring football.
OU head coach Bob Stoops was playing a charity golf event at Pebble Beach last weekend when someone from the gallery screamed, “Hey, you’re Caleb Kelly’s new coach.”
Stoops’ reply with a smile?
“Yes, I am.”
That’s the type of impact Kelly has in California, and that’s the type of impact that gives you an inclination Kelly is not just any other five-star recruit headed to Norman.
It was going to be OU or Notre Dame for the Fresno (Calif.) Clovis West linebacker ranked No. 17 in the Scout 100.
So how did it become the Sooners?
His mother, Valerie Kelly, remembers it well. She remembers the stress other parents had felt during the recruiting process. With Caleb being her first child to go through the process, she had no idea what to expect.
She didn’t know how stressful it would really get, but she had a warning. Other parents told her the truth back when Caleb was a freshman and sophomore, “it’s only going to get worse from here.”
There’s always something about that first offer. Every recruit remembers the initial one that got the ball rolling. You might not remember offer No. 17 or No. 23, but you know the first.
For Caleb Kelly, it was OU nearly two years ago. Again, just the sign of the times in recruiting where you do have to offer recruits as early as that and some schools aren’t afraid to offer even earlier in someone’s high school career.
For OU, though, offering someone before they’re even a junior remains a pretty big deal and was pretty unheard of just a mere two years ago.
“It just happened to be that OU was his first offer,” Valerie Kelly said. “That was really cool. How many people can say OU was their first offer?”
Caleb Kelly visited for the OU spring game back in 2014. And ever since that visit, the countdown was on. The Sooners were in the lead. But a 22-month countdown was going to be something to watch unfold.
Would OU fall out of favor? Would another school earn his interest? Would coaching changes blow up the whole process?
Through the first 12 months of the process, all was good. Another unofficial visit to OU for the spring game in 2015 only solidified what everybody felt they knew. Caleb Kelly, the U.S. Army All-American, was going to OU.
(Caleb Kelly at U.S. Army All-American Bowl practices)
Other schools shied away, believing it would be a futile attempt to change his mind. But a few stayed after him. Michigan made an incredible charge in the summer and became the first legitimate threat to the Sooners.
Kelly had a great visit to Ann Arbor in the fall and then things just sort of dropped off. No ill will on either side, just something that happens from time-to-time in recruiting. Lines of communication got crossed, perhaps, and eventually both sides went their separate ways.
OU could cross off the Wolverines. Everything seemed to be decided following an outstanding official visit to OU for the Sooners 30-29 win against TCU in November.
“That was the most fun trip I had out of all of them,” Valerie Kelly said. “We just had a really good time. We went to ‘Bob’s castle,’ and everybody was so nice. That was the only school to show the parents the dorm. I’d like to see where they live, too.”
Even though OU coaches Bob Stoops, Mike Stoops, Chip Viney, Tim Kish had all gotten to know Kelly and his family, there were still some lingering questions to be asked.
Valerie wasn’t afraid to do it.
“I wanted to know why he never looked at the NFL, and he said his family time is so much more important to him than that,” Valerie Kelly said. “Things like that do matter. Is Mike going anywhere? One thing about Caleb is he gets very attached to his position coach.”
The coaches were saying all the right things to the Caleb and his family. If Caleb really wanted to get the information 100 percent correct, though, there was another avenue.
Michiah Quick was very much like in Caleb’s spot two years prior as a Scout 100 prospect also from Fresno, Calif. So far, Quick’s career hasn’t been as stellar as he and OU fans had hoped so there was some worry among the fans about Quick getting into Kelly’s ear.
It had to happen, though. Quick and Kelly are both a product of the “DBGuru” himself, Tony Perry. Perry’s relationship with the OU staff goes back a long ways, especially with Mike Stoops and Tim Kish and more recently with Chip Viney.
A lot of people view Perry as the “OU guy,” but that’s not true. Perry has good contacts at other schools so it makes zero sense to just guide the kids he helps develop to Norman. Perry didn’t push guys like Quick and Hatari Byrd to OU, it just happened.
Quick was somebody Perry was, for the lack of a better term, quick to point out to the OU coaches back in 2012. And now with two seasons under his belt in Norman, Quick was qualified to tell Caleb and his family how things are in Norman.
“Caleb talked to Michiah a lot,” Valerie Kelly said. “We’re family. Of course we’re going to talk to him. We’re hearing all the good stuff, but now I need to know the bad stuff.”
The good news for OU was Quick didn’t have any legit bad stuff. He mentioned that if you don’t like severe weather/tornadoes, then don’t come to OU. But as for the program itself, Quick was very complimentary, and Valerie said she could tell he really does love it in Norman.
All the answers were the right ones, and everybody felt confident the Sooners had the five-star prospect in the bag.
Until Notre Dame came calling.
The Irish had been in pursuit of Kelly for a while, and the Kelly family knew they were going to give South Bend a chance. They did in December, and that’s when the chaos first began to full go into effect.
“Caleb had always liked OU,” Perry said. “But the thing was, after that first trip to Notre Dame, he loved it. He really loved it.”
As the calendar year turned to 2016, the race was on. Oregon was in the mix, but it seemed pretty obvious to just about everybody it was the Sooners or Irish.
Then things got heated. Social media became a place neither Valerie nor Caleb wanted to approach any more. Fans cheering their school was one thing, but fans getting into arguments with opposing fans or negative recruiting the other school – it just became too much. Nobody looked good in the situation.
“It was real tough,” Perry said. “It was to the point he felt like he was doing both schools wrong. You have to do what you feel and be comfortable with it. He was comfortable with both schools. It was really hard for him.”
Around the middle of January, things seem to be getting clear. OU’s near two-year stranglehold on Caleb Kelly was over. He was going to pick the Irish.
In-home visits from Bob Stoops and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly were both in the books. Kelly took his Jan. 26, eight days from signing day, while Stoops was in the week before.
OU was going to take its last stand with Caleb on Jan. 28 with the coach who had known him longer than anybody among the two programs, Mike Stoops.
“Before Mike went there the last time, he (Caleb) was all Notre Dame,” Perry said. “They (OU fans) should be thanking Mike for Caleb coming to OU. If Mike wouldn’t have come down that night, he wouldn’t be a Sooner.”
Valerie Kelly remembers the visit well, and she echoes Perry’s sentiments that indeed her son was favoring Notre Dame heading into the visit.
It was a question asked. Not by Caleb. Not by Valerie but by her sister that might be the thing remembered for turning it all around.
“Why do you think OU is the best place for Caleb?” was the question.
Simple enough. You have to imagine the Kelly family had asked that a few times before to coaches at OU and Notre Dame and other programs. So it wasn’t the question that was so out of left field as it was more the answer from Mike Stoops.
“He looked at me, but he looked at Caleb more,” Valerie Kelly said. “He said I don’t know what those other programs do. I know what we do. I know what OU does. I know we want him. We know he’s a great kid. He’s going to have a home. We love him.”
Valerie said she truly believed the words Stoops was saying at that moment. That visit, that answer is a huge reason why Valerie feels so comfortable in seeing her son travel halfway across the country to play football.
The chaos was back. Once thought to be an OU lock for months and months, Notre Dame had closed the gap. Once thought to be the Irish winning in the end, the Sooners had made their last stand.
Valerie Kelly loves her son, but it was time. The process had gone on long enough. It was time to figure it out.
(The first Caleb Kelly photo taken by Scout back in 2014)
“I told him to go get a big piece of paper and start writing all the pros and cons,” Valerie Kelly said. “See what works for you. I wanted him to make a decision. There are good things about both. There are bad things about both.
“He looked so stressed out. I told him you have to decide tonight. Wherever you decide, we’re going to support you and be so psyched up about it.”
The story that came out after signing day was about Caleb Kelly literally making his choice by picking a name out of a hat. That’s just a mis-interpretation of what actually happened.
There were two hats with a piece of paper under each one with no way of knowing whether or not which one was OU and Notre Dame. That part is true. The point of the exercise was for Caleb Kelly to trust his instinct and go where he his heart is.
Valerie Kelly compared it to having a child having to pick between two toys. They’re both great toys, but the child, deep down, knows what toy they want to be the selection.
“Mama, we’re going to Oklahoma,” was the message from Caleb Kelly to his mother. She said when he thought it might be Notre Dame, his heart dropped. That realization came on his own and was exactly what she was hoping for. He would come to the decision on his own.
Now it was time for signing day and the final wrinkle. Caleb Kelly was up there with his mother and younger brother, Jeremiah. When he announced where he was playing, he broke out a Dallas Cowboys hat.
“We had talked about that a year ago,” Valerie Kelly said. “Something to make it fun. Jeremiah is a huge 49ers fan so it meant a lot and was tough for him to put on the Cowboys hat.”
There were no tricks after that. Kelly put on the OU hat, and the celebration was on in Fresno and in Norman.
(The Kelly family on signing day)
The Sooners had experienced and up-and-down signing day to that point but all is well that ends well. And it couldn’t have ended any better.
“Caleb has exceptional size and exceptional athletic ability for an outside linebacker,” said Bob Stoops after the signing day announcement. “He can really run, can change direction and has great power, strength and quickness. He’s just a powerful impact guy who makes big plays. Caleb is really strong academically as well.”
Everybody is happy. Perry is happy, believing it’s a great fit for Caleb Kelly. Valerie Kelly is happy, believing she knows her son will be taken care of. OU is happy, believing it just hit the jackpot with a real difference maker to the defense. Fresno is happy to see one of its favorite sons succeed.
There’s only one thing left to do.
“Now I have to buy OU gear,” Valerie Kelly said.