TAMPA — Odds are, USF's new athletic director can intelligently discuss Tupac and tariff acts with equal zeal. His thesis at Wake Forest: Rap Music as a Political Communicator.
"I'll let him get into the music with you," former colleague Reid Sigmon, now chief operating officer for University of Tennessee athletics, said with a chuckle. "And it's evolved over time."
These days, Michael Kelly's downloads may include anything from classic rock to U2 to '80s and '90s hip-hop. Pop-jazz siren Sade (of the '80s hit Smooth Operator) remains a guilty pleasure; friends say he can recite the lyrics to darn near all her songs.
He's equally well-versed on current events.
"He's a junkie for what happens in the world," said College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock, Kelly's boss the past 5-1/2 years. "He keeps up with the news — all the news — very closely."
Toss in a passion for pizza, a good burger (no cheese), movies, daily walks and Washington, D.C., sports teams (he was raised in Gaithersburg, Md., and went to high school in D.C.), and you've got the nuances in the portrait of USF's new vice president of athletics.
But the broad strokes are what compelled the school to bring Kelly back to Tampa. Peers and former bosses insist this 47-year-old married dad of two girls — who helped run a bay area Super Bowl and Final Four — warrants a sequence of titles befitting a college leader.
Consensus builder. Devoted husband and father. Visionary. Listener. Organizer.
Not to mention proprietor of a most coveted cell-phone directory.
"No one has more extensive, positive contacts than Michael," said former Bulls AD Paul Griffin, who hired Kelly as a USF associate AD in 2001.
"If those (Power Five) opportunities don't provide themselves in the industry, it won't be because of a lack of his ability to network with the decision makers."
The ability to pick up his iPhone and scroll through a directory of names such as Saban, Swinney and Swofford was a huge reason Kelly found himself grinning for cameras — in dark suit, dark-green tie and small Bulls logo pinned on his left lapel — Friday afternoon.
From the outset of its AD search, USF made no secret it wanted someone with the clout and contacts to help the school get into a Power Five league when the next wave of conference realignment arrives.
If that prerequisite helped propel Kelly to the top of USF’s wish list, a lack of personal or professional baggage may have sealed the deal.
"We were looking for a high level of integrity and strong moral character," Dr. Judy Genshaft said Friday. "For us, these qualities were non-negotiable."
Unlike other names mentioned for the USF job, Kelly's figurative closet appears empty. A routine Tampa Bay Times background search uncovered only three traffic/driving tickets, all more than a decade old.
The only potential source of embarrassment upon his return Friday to Tampa was from the shameless plaudits heaped upon him by colleagues.
"The two words I think for me that come to mind are organization and relationships," said Sigmon, who worked for Kelly in Wake Forest's athletic department in the late 1990s.
"He has great ability from a vision standpoint of how things should be organized, and the process that you need to go through to be ready and to accomplish whatever the goal is."
That quarter-century administrative odyssey included stints in athletic departments at Wake Forest (where he met wife Lisa, and where Maya Angelou was among their professors) and USF, where he served as Lee Roy Selmon's associate AD for external affairs from 2001-02.
It extended to three Super Bowls and a Final Four (where Kelly presided over local organizing committees), to the ACC (an associate commissioner overseeing football and broadcasting), to the College Football Playoff, where he spent five years as COO.
“He’ll talk to everyone,” said Jack Heilig, CEO of the public-relations firm that puts on the Gasparilla Bowl, and a Kelly acquaintance for 25 years. “He doesn’t come across as you would expect most executives; he’s very easy to talk to.”
Kelly first appeared on Hancock's radar while he was helping run an NCAA Tournament first- and second-round weekend in Winston-Salem in the 1990s. When St. Petersburg was considering people to head its local organizing committee for the 1999 Final Four at Tropicana Field, Kelly's name was floated to Hancock, then Final Four director.
"And I thought, wow, that's a home run," Hancock said.
Hancock watched Kelly spend the better part of a year efficiently juggle the nuts and bolts of the operation: transportation planning, mobilizing community volunteers, handling the logistics of the massive coaches convention (which coincides with the Final Four), and game management.
"And then he and I just stayed in touch," Hancock said. "And when it was time to hire our COO here (at the College Football Playoff), Michael was No. 1 on my list."
“Almost nothing happens in the business without Michael being aware of it within about five minutes,” Hancock added. “People will really like Michael. He likes people, and therefore people like him. And obviously, he’s been very instrumental in the success that we’ve had with the College Football Playoff.”
Now comes perhaps his most challenging operation: to try and usher the Bulls into a place at the Power Five table.
It will call for organization, networking, engagement, creativity, and perhaps even some smooth operating. Soundtrack optional.
"We're in a great league (American Athletic Conference) right now. How do we dominate that league to the best of our ability?" Kelly said. "That's got to be our goal right now. And when we do that… we'll be the best-positioned school of anyone in the country for if anything else happens."
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.