At USF, Kelly Eyes A Leap Forward

While Central Florida complains, USF’s Michael Kelly forms a plan

“The stronger that the conference is—let’s just say in the sport of football—the higher that the selection committee ultimately looks at it and the higher respect that our champion can [have] on the national stage.”

Tampa Bay sees what you did there, Michael Kelly.

Kelly comes from the College Football Playoff, where he was the Chief Operating Officer before taking the USF athletic director position.  This was not a coincidence.

The American Athletic Conference is in a tough position at the moment in terms of collegiate football.  There is some understandable frustration that their undefeated champion, Central Florida, should have been placed in the playoff.  However, their preferred manner of protest—declaring themselves national champions as the country’s only undefeated squad—has been upsetting to many.  Wherever one falls on UCF’s insistence that they won a championship that nobody agrees they hold, the question remains as to whether any team outside of the Power Five Plus Notre Dame is even really eligible for the playoff.

That question haunts college football for Alabama fans and USF fans alike.  It is the constantly raising bar, a sign that college football might never come to a truly satisfying conclusion.  Growing the playoff always sounds ideal, but we already know the massive toll that football takes on both the human body and the academic career, adding more football makes “student athlete” look even closer to the oxymoron it is often jokingly said to be.  Guaranteeing spots in a four team playoff to any school who meets a certain requirement will never be fair, even if for once it might be unfair in the little guy’s favor.

In short, answers on a college football playoff that really satisfies the masses are short in coming.  They might not actually exist.  Therefore, a school like South Florida has but two options:

1:  Try their level best to make themselves attractive to one of the big conferences, thereby eliminating the problem.

2:  Help elevate the conference so that an undefeated champion in the future will not be denied nationally.

There is, after all, a case against last year’s undefeated Knights making the playoff.  Their schedule did not come off as strong as the four playoff teams.  They simply did not play enough potent opponents to make their undefeated record more impressive than the record of the teams that made it in.  Yes, they ran the table and looked impressive against their high-ranked Peach Bowl opponent, but it requires quite the leap in logic to make any case that Central Florida would have beaten Alabama.

For USF, as relieving as it might be that The Rival did not end up getting the biggest of the biggest prizes, the same problem applies to them.  What if, Bulls fans might catch themselves thinking.  What if the Bulls ran the table and got left out? 

Enter Michael Kelly.  Kelly’s background with the CFP gives him intricate knowledge of just how a team gets themselves into the tournament.  There would be few if any more qualified out there to tell USF how they could make it through.  His comments, as heard on Sports Talk 1040’s Rock Riley Show, give fans a strong hint as to how the South Florida Bulls are going to protect against what happened to UCF happening to them.

The statement at the beginning of this article is pretty easy to interpret.  The AAC got shut out of the college football playoff.  How do the schools of that conference ensure that this doesn’t happen again?  How about elevating the AAC?

The conferences, after all, are fluid entities.  One that may be seen as “minor” can become a bigger and bigger conference, and just because one of the established is a “power conference” now does not guarantee that they will always be such a thing.  Remember, after all, that the Big East was considered a power conference at one point.  ACC Football used to not have a particularly high status in the national eye, but a resurgent Miami and a couple of recent national champions have restored the luster.

South Florida’s new AD understands this, and rather than simply looking for the nearest exit he is looking to perhaps build up the AAC into something more formidable.

Of course there is more to the new athletic director than the football possibilities.  Michael Kelly is going to be the latest in a long line of USF athletic directors that have taken a good, long look at the men’s basketball program in the newly-named Yuengling Center and tried to figure out how to elevate it.  South Florida basketball should have an opportunity for some real growth, as there is no real competition in Tampa Bay’s market for a basketball team of any form.  The Orlando Magic are an hour east, and their G-League affiliate plays in Lakeland, but things end there.  No other local school is routinely competitive in the NCAA Tournament, and unlike with football the AAC is considered a very tough basketball conference with powerhouse Connecticut involved.

With a partnership alongside the operations staff of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a renewed commitment to the former Sun Dome, the Lightning putting a lot of effort into expanding their Brandon practice facility, and a growing number of hockey prospects from the west coast of Florida, it’s possible that South Florida could eventually begin exploring the possibility of a division I hockey program years down the road.  This is a long, arduous process that has not even begun, but South Florida is marginally closer today to fielding a program in that sport than they were two weeks ago.

This, naturally, is just the tip of the iceberg.  While the “money sports” get all the attention, a college athletics department also has to manage all the supposedly “minor” sports.  Everything that falls under the athletics department falls on Kelly’s desk now.  In addition to future NFL players, he will be in charge of a number of Olympic hopefuls, students with a love of a sport they simply can’t kick, and a whole lot of people playing a competitive game on the highest level they will ever hope to reach.  This is to say that the vast majority of Michael Kelly’s new responsibilities are going to happen quietly, behind the scenes, away from scrutiny for the most part.

Still, the big questions around football are front and center with USF’s new athletic director.  Rest assured, the man they hired from the College Football Playoff has a plan to get USF to those January showdowns.

The full clip is below.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.