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Michael Kelly’s journey: From selling Marlins tickets to USF athletic director

It's a dream come true for what the new USF AD envisioned a quarter century ago
New USF athletic director Michael Kelly, center, shows school spirit with USF President Judy Genshaft and mascot Rocky at his introductory news  conference at the Yuengling Center on Friday. (BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times)
New USF athletic director Michael Kelly, center, shows school spirit with USF President Judy Genshaft and mascot Rocky at his introductory news conference at the Yuengling Center on Friday. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
Published Jun. 29, 2018
Updated Jun. 30, 2018

TAMPA — Michael Kelly had just graduated from Wake Forest a quarter-century ago when he packed his belongings into his car and left his parents' Washington, D.C., home.

He was on his way to Miami and drove straight there because his little Honda Civic could handle only so much. But before he got to graduate school at St. Thomas University, Kelly stopped at Joe Robbie Stadium. The Marlins were about to embark on their inaugural season, and he wanted to see if there was anything an aspiring sports administrator could do to help.

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"So I answered the phones to sell tickets, first thing," Kelly said. "That's where I got my start in sports. Here we are today."

Where he is now is USF's new vice president of athletics, a position he formally assumed Friday. He won't be receiving calls about a startup franchise; he'll be making the calls that shape a growing athletic department's future.

"We've had some good success," Kelly, 47, said at his introductory news conference at the Yuengling Center (formerly the Sun Dome). "I think the appetite right now is for even more. We plan to figure out the way to get that done."

Kelly has ties to the Tampa Bay area. He was an associate athletic director under Lee Roy Selmon in 2001-02 at USF and was involved in the area's 1999 Final Four, Super Bowl XXXV and College Football Playoff national title game for the 2016 season. But he plans to spend the next few months learning everything about his department and figuring out how to engage the community.

He already knows some of the pressing issues that will define how successful he is in replacing Mark Harlan, who left to become the athletic director at Utah.

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Kelly's first call after being hired Tuesday was to talk facilities with football coach Charlie Strong. Their opinions are aligned, starting with the need for an indoor practice facility, Kelly said.

"We've got to get this USF football center built," said Kelly, whose five-year contract will pay him $625,000 annually. "That's what's going to build not only our football program, but all our departments can benefit from that. And that's going to make our football program stronger and more sustainable."

Kelly said he was "very optimistic" the Bulls could break ground on that facility in the next year or so. As Kelly and his staff try to raise money for it, he expects to continue to explore the possibility of an on-campus stadium.

The biggest issue of Kelly's tenure will be the potential for conference realignment. The search committee that helped hire Kelly openly discussed USF's desire to jump from the American Athletic Conference to a power conference if realignment occurs in the next decade.

Kelly, also a former ACC associate commissioner, said the way to prepare for that is to maximize the present.

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"Frankly, right now, we want to make sure what we focus on is being the very best we can be," he said. "We're in a great league right now. How do we dominate that league to the best of our ability? That's got to be the goal right now.

"When we do that, when we build the tradition one champion at a time … we'll be the best-positioned school of anyone in the country if anything else ever happens (in realignment). That's our goal."

It might not be the exact goal Kelly had in mind when he steered his Civic south to Florida more than 25 years ago. But it meshes with what his goal has always been, to be involved in the excitement and passion of college sports.

"When I witnessed it in my early college career, I knew that was something I'd like to experience," he said.

Now he has his chance, with a chance to lead USF athletics into its next era.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.