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USF’s athletic director remains calm amid calls for change

USF fans unfurl a sign during the second half of the Bulls' 38-10 loss to UCF on Nov. 23, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
USF fans unfurl a sign during the second half of the Bulls' 38-10 loss to UCF on Nov. 23, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Nov. 30, 2018
Updated Dec. 1, 2018

TAMPA — First-year USF athletic director Michael Kelly sat in his office Thursday afternoon and pointed to a sign behind his desk

Keep calm and play to your strengths.

Kelly, 47, has done just that during a top-flight administrative career that has seen him organize Super Bowls and the College Football Playoff as its COO. He never got anywhere jumping the gun. He remains a measured man.

But USF is a tough nut to crack, even for the can-do Kelly. He returns to his motto.

"It's about playing to your strengths," he said.

And Kelly said USF football coach Charlie Strong is one of those strengths.

"I just believe he's a good, good fit for us," Kelly said. "He's had a great career. Relates well to student-athletes. He recruits Florida well. As I came here, I was excited that he was here. I've only been here four months, but I think it's a great fit to build the program with. I think we're really fortunate to have him."

There is noise, at least outside the system, after Strong's second season at USF went from 7-0 to its current five-game losing slide. It makes people wonder if Strong is long for here, by his own hand, as in leaving, or perhaps being asked to leave. People wonder If Kelly and USF wouldn't be better off by parting ways with Strong, despite his 17-7 record at USF.

Strong's annual salary will more than double in 2019, to $2.5 million. Can USF really afford to pay someone that much money to go 7-5 and not win the conference?

It's a reasonable question. It might seem to call for an audacious move from Kelly, to push on from Strong and look to make a fresh hire.

"It would be if you didn't believe in the coach that you have, if you didn't think you had someone who had what it takes," Kelly said.

"I think we do. I have confidence in my ability to find people, but I also like to build things with people who want to be here. … I think it's irrational to make a wholesale change. I get disappointed when we lose five in a row, but, no, it's all a matter of how you work forward."

Plus, Kelly thinks Strong wants to stay at USF.

"I could look at silly at any time, but I really believe he wants to be here," Kelly said.

Kelly has a lot on his plate. He is working toward building a dedicated football facility at USF. Price tag: $40 million. Fundraising is up on his watch. The athletic program boasts more monied boosters — "Iron Bulls" — than it ever has. Attendance for football was at its highest since 2012.

Beyond that football facility, far beyond, is an on-campus stadium, that distant dream. And there is the big enchilada. None of this — zero percent — matters if Kelly doesn't have USF in the right place when the music starts again on conference expansion. That's the whole ballgame right there.

"We want to be a top 25 program," Kelly said. "We haven't done that. We want to win the American conference. We haven't done that. We haven't won any of the conferences we've been in. We want to do that. The closest we came was last year.

"We've been looking at a lot of things. No, 7-5 isn't what we want. But Charlie Strong is also the only coach to play for a division title in our history, too. We have to build the football facility first. I would say that if Charlie went somewhere else, we'd still have to do it for any coach."

So, Charlie will be back if he wants back.

"As long as people are looking for ways to improve and wanting to be here, why wouldn't I build on it with someone who is a proven success, who has great contacts in the state of Florida?" Kelly said. "My goal coming in here was to build a perennial top-25 CFP program. I've been here four months, Charlie has been here 22."

USF isn't helped by the juxtapose with that team down the road, seventh-ranked UCF. USF might needs to partner with UCF at one point in conference jumping. Kelly will be all in. He will  have USF positioned. It's what he does.

Kelly says he hears USF fans wanting more.

"It's great. That's a hell of a lot better than apathy."

Expect changes to Strong's staff and a general shift, but the new athletic director says moving on from Strong is the height of makes no sense.

"I think it' so easy to jump ahead in a society where everything is so instantaneous, everyone's reaction, and judgment. But I still believe in Charlie. I think we're a good team. I think we have great potential. I think it's a good combo. You don't think a Strong-Kelly team can get better?

He smiled and pointed to the sign on the wall.

Calm comes easy to Michael Kelly.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or 813-731-8029