Sometimes, the long and winding road takes serendipitous turns. Just ask Longhorns' wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy.
Joe Paterno made his way to Austin on Wednesday to speak at the annual High School Scholar Athlete Banquet of the Greater Austin Chapter of the College Football Foundation. Although on the recruiting trail and unable to take part in Paterno's visit, somewhere Kennedy was saying a quick "thank you" for those turns in the road.
The year was 1991, and John Mackovic had just been hired as the new head coach at The University of Texas. On his staff at Illinois was a bright young graduate assistant named Bobby Kennedy. At that time, the NCAA was in a window of indecision about the status of a position called "limited earnings coach."
Pending NCAA rulings based on coach challenges of the legality of the position, Kennedy thought he might have a chance to join several members of Mackovic's Illinois staff in their trek to Texas.
But at that time, getting a job, any job, was more important than gambling on the outcome of the "might be."
"It was really a situation where it was unsure whether they were going to bring me or another guy, and the position was probably going to be a graduate assistant," Kennedy said. "I started calling guys in the business that I knew, and I asked Lou Tepper (the new Illinois head coach) to call Penn State for me."
As fate would have it, the Nittany Lions were looking for a graduate assistant to coach tight ends.
"They said 'yeah, we're looking for a guy with experience, a guy who can coach tight ends,'" Kennedy recalled. "I had never coached tight ends before except for one spring, so when that opportunity came about I said 'I can either go with a staff that I know, with the same contacts and everything, or I can go work for a legend in Joe Paterno, and I can coach my own position.'"
And that is how Bobby Kennedy, the son of a professor at The University of Colorado, hooked up with one of the greatest names in college football.
"It was awesome," Kennedy says. "I was not only working with Coach Paterno, who is a fabulous person, I had the opportunity to coach the position I had played, and I had two really good guys to work with who both went on to play in the NFL."
It was a perfect fit. He was involved in the offensive line with blocking schemes, and he was also involved in a position that caught passes. It was the beginning of a foundation that has allowed him to work with offenses at Wyoming, Wake Forest, Arizona, Washington and now, 13 years after his first flirtation with the Longhorns, Texas.
His odyssey has taken him from the Flat Iron country of his native Boulder, Colo., to the Hill Country of Texas. It was a journey, from the beginning, he wasn't sure he would take.
"I really started getting into football when Chuck Fairbanks came to CU from the New England Patriots," Kennedy said. "That's the first time I remember being interested in college football. My Dad would take me to the games all the time. As I got older, after Coach Fairbanks left, I became friends with Tom McCartney, whose Dad Bill became the Colorado coach."
As a kid, Kennedy had ridden his bike to his fathers office on the Colorado campus, and had hung out at the practice field shagging footballs. Now, as a teenager, he was hanging out in the football offices with his new friend.
"I always wanted to be a Buff and play quarterback for them," he says. "But as my high school days went on, I started for two years and my senior year I was supposedly the top quarterback in the state. I threw for a ton of yards, and I thought it was a no-brainer that I would go to Colorado."
But that year, Colorado went to the Wishbone offense.
"I was a drop back guy who was not known for my running ability, and they didn't recruit me," he recalled. "I took a couple of recruiting trips, and nobody offered me a scholarship except Northern Colorado."
Injuries short-circuited what might have been a spectacular career, and when his college days and playing time ended, Bobby Kennedy had a decision to make.
"I was a political science major, and I always really loved football," Kennedy said. "I had always dreamed of being a Division I quarterback, and wanted to find out what big time Division I football was all about. I had continued to work Colorado camps, and always enjoyed coaching. I had an opportunity to go to Washington and be an intern in a Congressman's office and get into politics, or go try to be a football coach." When two roads appear, you have to take one, and Kennedy chose.
"I decided I would get a GA (graduate assistant job)," he said.
And again, Colorado would be his first choice.
"In working the five years at the Colorado football camps, I was told that I would have a position at Colorado being a grad assistant. In an ironic twist, I met with Coach McCartney and Gerry DiNardo, and they had one position, and were holding for my old friend Tom. And he wasn't sure he was going to get into coaching or not."
So Kennedy departed the meeting thinking "I know I wanted to be a coach, and I'd always wanted to be a Buff, but right now I'm going to go find a GA job somewhere else."
The Colorado camps opened the doors, however, for opportunity as he called his contacts with whom he had worked. He talked to Bobby Bowden at Florida State, even Fred Akers in his final years at Purdue. But the best opportunity came at Illinois, where John Mackovic's team was coming off a Big Ten Championship.
Fifteen football seasons later, Kennedy has coached some of the best players in the country, and comes to Texas after a successful run at Washington where he tutored All-American receiver and NFL first-round draft pick Reggie Williams.
Along the way, he began to learn more than just the love of coaching, he learned the science of it.
"If you apply yourself and work at it," he says. "You can probably coach any position. You can go get with people who are going to teach you different techniques and schemes."
From running backs who led their league in rushing to receivers who became All-Americans, Bobby Kennedy applied the most important of all coaching premises: The mark of a coach isn't what he knows, it is what his players have learned.
When he landed in Seattle for the 2002 season, he thought he had found a home.
"My wife and I loved Seattle, and I had no plans to leave Washington," he said. "We had a great lifestyle there. The football fans were great. Huskie fans are passionate about football. I had just been named recruiting coordinator and I felt like I was progressing in my career. But it was funny. My wife and I were talking about living in Seattle, and I said 'if you had a chance to move somewhere (excluding back home in North Carolina) where would you like to live?'
The answer was prophetic.
"Somewhere in Texas, preferably Austin."
A week after that conversation, I got a call from Pete Carroll to interview for the running backs job at USC. But I knew my wife had no interest in living in LA, but she's a wonderful person and would have gone if that was best for us I knew I didn't want to coach running backs again, but it was USC, and if you are the running backs coach at USC, that's one of the premier positions in the country.
"I interviewed, and thought I had a shot at it. I flew home and went to dinner with some friends, and Cleve Bryant called. Cleve and I had gotten close when he was on the staff at Illinois, and I trusted him. He said 'Mack wants to talk to you about being the receivers coach at Texas.' My response was 'when can I move down?'
For Kennedy, the equation was simple.
"I had always wanted to work with Mack, and I had a great friend in Cleve who was here. I knew Austin was a great place, and I said 'this is something I will do.'"
The whirlwind ride that had begun with an interview at USC had ended.
"When Texas called, I knew this was something I had to do," Kennedy said.
The decision that weighed politics versus football had come full circle.
"What I like about coaching is being around the kids, it keeps you young," Kennedy said. "You have a chance to make an impact on guys' lives. They might not come from the best situation family-wise, and you have a chance to be a positive influence on those kids' lives. I enjoy football, and this is a good profession. The people you have a chance to meet makes a tough profession worthwhile."
The son of a biology professor and a home-maker-turned nurse had begun his association watching practice and tossing footballs with Colorado Buffaloes. His outgoing personality has made him one of the top recruiters in the country, and one of the best liked guys in his profession.
"We all make mistakes, but I love being around people," he said. "I love sitting at the airport and watching people. Seeing people who feel good about themselves, and those who don't. What I really have enjoyed is seeing how different people respond to different situations. Every head coach I have worked for has been unique.
"As I stay in this business, I want to be myself, but I think you can take positives from each one."
And as Kennedy works with young wide receivers at Texas, he seems the perfect fit at the right time. Contagious enthusiasm, coupled with a caring kind of warmth, all mixed together with a fierce competitiveness. It comes naturally. He grew up as the youngest of eight kids, and was the only one of the eight who was adopted.
As he continues his journey through the coaching profession, roots are really important to Bobby Kennedy. And what he knows about that is people, like plants, are nurtured. And at the top of Bobby Kennedy's list of those who have helped him along the way are guys like Joe Paterno.