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If college football had a dating service, Jeff Scott and USF were bound to hook up

John Romano | South Florida is a program with little history and loads of potential, and Scott is a hotshot young coach looking to make a name for himself.
The first time they met, Jeff Scott was a 14-year-old following his father's footsteps and Michael Kelly was fresh out of college. A quarter-century later, Kelly has entrusted Scott to take the USF football program to a new level. "I knew instinctively this day would come for him, but I never knew it would align for the two of us to be together,'' Kelly said.
The first time they met, Jeff Scott was a 14-year-old following his father's footsteps and Michael Kelly was fresh out of college. A quarter-century later, Kelly has entrusted Scott to take the USF football program to a new level. "I knew instinctively this day would come for him, but I never knew it would align for the two of us to be together,'' Kelly said. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 12, 2019

TAMPA — It didn’t take long for the world to find Michael Kelly’s phone number. Hours after football coach Charlie Strong had been dismissed, the parade of calls began for the University of South Florida athletic director. Dozens and dozens in the first day or two.

Head coaches who wanted to recommend someone for the job. Assistant coaches who wanted to apply for the job. Old friends and administrators offering advice for the job.

Kelly listened to them all. This was a critical hire, and he didn’t want to overlook anyone. But he also knew the kind of coach he wanted.

And he had a feeling about someone he had first met 25 years ago at the Carquest Bowl in Miami.

* * *

Jeff Scott had gotten calls and feelers before. That’s bound to happen when you’re a co-coordinator at the epicenter of college football.

And yet Scott had rebuffed them all. He was making good money at Clemson, and the program was on a roll.

More importantly, he had learned the lesson of his father. Take the wrong job at the wrong time, and your career may never recover.

So Scott, 38, was working late one night last week, preparing for the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, when Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney called. Someone wants to talk to you about another job, Swinney told him. And this one could be a game-changer.

* * *

It’s not quite a marriage. No one goes into a marriage expecting it to one day end.

This is more of a collaboration. Each side with visions of something grander down the road, and hoping the other can help achieve it.

No one wants to say it on the day of a sparkling new hire, but if Jeff Scott turns out to be the right man for the job at USF then he’ll be somewhere else in a few years and Bulls officials will be introducing another hotshot coaching hire.

And that’s alright. Each will have gotten what they wanted from the other. Scott will have his springboard, and USF will have raised its profile and reputation. At this point in the program’s growth, USF shouldn’t want a coach who is ready to spend the rest of his career in the American Athletic Conference.

“We definitely want to be here together and build a legacy but, yeah, if he does his job then people are going to be interested in him and it’s going to be my job to try to keep him here,’’ Kelly said. “That’s a conversation I’m looking forward to having.’’

At least for now, they are perfect for each other.

* * *

He’s spent a lifetime around the game and understands the significance of timing. Like a quarterback throwing a pass before a receiver makes his cut, a coach has to know when to move on and when to stay put.

Scott put in two years as an assistant at a South Carolina high school before taking the head coaching position at another school with a brand new football team. Blythewood High played a jayvee schedule in 2005 and then had its first varsity season in 2006. Scott was 25 at the time.

Blythewood lost the very first varsity game in school history and then tore off 14 consecutive victories and won the South Carolina 3A state championship.

Two weeks after that, Scott accepted a job as an assistant coach at Presbyterian College and, a year later, took a pay cut to return to Clemson, his alma mater, as a graduate assistant. And there he remained for 12 years.

Until USF called.

“He’d had other opportunities, but we’d been very careful to make sure the next step we made was the right one,’’ his wife Sara said. “We’d had long conversations about different situations. ‘What if this job was available?’ or ‘How good is that opportunity?’ The USF job was always on his radar. And the more we talked about it, I told him this was one I could get behind.’’

USF reached out to Clemson administrators early in the week, learned of Scott’s interest by mid-week and was in his living room the afternoon after the ACC Championship.

* * *

Kelly was fresh off out of grad school and working PR at that Carquest Bowl in December 1994.

Brad Scott was fresh off an 11-year stint as one of Bobby Bowden’s most trusted assistant coaches at Florida State, and in his first season as a head coach at South Carolina. The Gamecocks were a pleasant surprise in ’94, reaching a bowl game for the first time in a half-dozen seasons.

And Jeff Scott was a 14-year-old carrying the cords for his father’s headsets at the Carquest Bowl when he first came on Kelly’s radar.

“That was my first exposure to him,’’ Kelly said “After that, I always watched that family and followed their careers.’’

As it turns out, that was Brad Scott’s only bowl game as a head coach. South Carolina had recently joined the Southeastern Conference and was struggling to keep up with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the East division.

In his five years in Columbia, Scott put up a 23-32-1 record. In retrospect, it was a difficult situation for any coach to take on. In fact, Lou Holtz followed Scott and went 33-37 in his six seasons at South Carolina.

Even so, it would be the last head coaching job of Brad Scott’s career. And that lesson wasn’t lost on the son.

“I really learned from my dad’s experience,’’ Jeff Scott said. “He was in a very similar situation at Florida State as an offensive coordinator and winning a national championship. And he ended up taking the job at South Carolina just when they were going into the SEC. So I was able to learn from some of those decisions and heard that kind of messaging from my dad and coach Swinney. It’s all about the right fit, and it’s about the right program, a place where you can win with the right people.’’

* * *

Is Jeff Scott the next Scott Frost or Mike Norvell? A promising young coordinator who comes to the American Athletic Conference to make a name for himself before moving on?

Only if USF is lucky.

But for now, they are made for each other.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

Watch: USF coach Jeff Scott’s introductory press conference