Michael Kelly won’t use search firm in pursuit of new USF coach

The Bulls’ second-year athletic director plans to move briskly to find a replacement for Charlie Strong.
Second-year USF athletic director Michael Kelly is seeking the fifth football coach in school history.
Second-year USF athletic director Michael Kelly is seeking the fifth football coach in school history. [ Octavio Jones ]
Published Dec. 2, 2019|Updated Dec. 2, 2019

TAMPA — Mindful of the NCAA’s looming early signing period, USF athletic director Michael Kelly said Monday he plans to move briskly ― and mostly on his own ― in the search for the program’s fifth football coach.

“We do not intend to use a search firm,” Kelly told reporters inside a Selmon Center conference room Monday, less than 24 hours after dismissing Charlie Strong in the wake of a 4-8 season. “Michael Kelly and associates will be the search firm.”

Third-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary will serve as interim coach during this period of transition, with the rest of Strong’s staff continuing to recruit. The NCAA’s contact period began Sunday; the three-day early signing period starts Dec. 18.

“We understand the urgency of it,” Kelly said.

“Obviously an early signing period … creates urgency, so we’re not blind to that. But we also don’t want to pin ourselves in on that. We’re gonna work fast. If we get it done faster, great. If we don’t, we don’t.”

MORE BULLS: Who replaces Charlie Strong at USF? Here’s our list of possible (and impossible) candidates

No prerequisites for the new coach were specified Monday. In fact, Kelly urged Bulls fans ― many of whom have clamored for the return of inaugural coach Jim Leavitt or Strong predecessor Willie Taggart ― to keep an open mind going forward.

“No, I don’t have a profile in mind as it relates to a coordinator versus a head coach by any means,” Kelly said.

"But what I am most committed to is someone that embraces the USF football opportunity, who wants to make their mark here, who can best align with my vision for the future of USF football.”

Kelly said the buyout due Strong, which he called “considerable,” won’t hamper USF’s pursuit of a high-quality replacement.

Specifics of Strong’s buyout deal with the USF Foundation (a direct-support organization) are confidential, but it’s believed he will be owed approximately $5 million on the way out. Kelly said the figure isn’t paid out in a lump sum, but acknowledged it will require additional private funding.

The hefty buyout figure may or may not explain Kelly’s decision to bypass a search firm, which almost certainly would’ve charged a six-figure sum to facilitate USF’s pursuit of a new coach. The school paid a Texas-based firm a total of $160,000 in 2014 to help in its search for a new athletic director (Mark Harlan) and new men’s basketball coach (Orlando Antigua).

“I don’t think (Strong’s buyout) will deter us," Kelly said. "We’re safely planted in the top half of the American (Athletic) Conference in terms of what we have in our salaries, and we’ll be prepared to go to the marketplace with a competitive salary offer.”

Kelly acknowledged meeting with Strong on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Bulls’ 34-7 season-ending loss at UCF, to gauge his assessment of the 2019 season and hear his plans for ’20. He then informed Strong of his decision around 2 p.m. Sunday before meeting with the assistants, players and football support staff within a 90-minute window.

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Then, he immediately began working the phones in the search for one of the more pivotal hires in his athletic program’s history.

“We will move forward with necessary urgency that we need to, but a favorite quote of mine from John Wooden is to be quick but don’t hurry,” Kelly said. "We’re gonna work with the speed we need to, but we’re gonna do whatever it takes to find the best fit for the next chapter of USF football.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls