Florida's new Voice of the Gators Sean Kelley sounds up to the challenge| David Whitley
The unprecedented Gator makeover is complete. After the final piece was put in place, he asked his new boss what he thought about the overhaul.
“You have a new basketball coach, a new football coach and a new announcer,” Sean Kelley said. “You want to do this again sometime soon?”
“I don’t ever want to do it again,” Scott Stricklin said.
Nobody was itching for his predecessor to go. Now Kelley has to replace Mick Hubert in arguably the most significant sports job on campus.
Florida has had 11 basketball coaches in the past 82 years. It’s had 14 football coaches, not counting interims.
It’s had three Voices.
Otis Boggs, David Steele and Mick Hubert
Otis Boggs began doing radio play-by-play in 1940. David Steele had the microphone from 1982-88. Then came Hubert, who retired two months ago.
The last two had tough acts to follow. Being the “Voice of the Gators” makes you a family member to the faithful, providing the soundtrack to countless memories.
So how did a guy who’d never stepped foot in Gainesville before last week become the vocal cords of Gator Nation?
It was almost happenstance. UF had a stack of about 200 applicants but wanted to make sure it wasn’t overlooking anyone. The search committee called Kelley, just looking for names.
He’s been ESPN’s lead play-by-play announcer for college football the past three years. Before that, he was the New Orleans Pelicans voice for almost 15 years. Kelley’s also been a prominent voice on ESPN’s college basketball, Major League Baseball and NBA broadcasts.
Bouncing around from Fenway Park, Cameron Indoor Stadium to the Rose Bowl is pretty much a dream gig. But after tossing around a few candidates, the UF search committee rep had a thought for Kelley.
“Hey, you wouldn’t be interested in the job, would you?” he asked.
Kelley’s brain suddenly went, “Hmm.”
As much as he liked swooping in and covering big events, it was like speed dating. The 50-year-old Kelley kind of missed being in a long-term relationship with one team.
Sean Kelley will still work ESPN games
The conversation quickly evolved, and a deal was struck. Kelley will be UF’s voice, but he’ll also work some ESPN games during down times.
“Florida will be my priority,” he said.
What kind of Voice will Kelley be?
That’s largely in the ears of the beholder, but Kelley obviously knows his craft. He immerses himself in preparation but doesn’t come off as overly programmed. A good example came when an interloper dressed as Santa Claus ran onto the field during a Texas game.
The guy circled the Longhorns’ huddle and headed up-field. Kelley turned it into a play-by-play call.
“Santa’s turning the corner. … The 20, to the 25, and to the 30. … He’s lost his hat and being chased by Johnny Big Lunch in a security outfit. … 30, 25, 20, to the 15, to the 10. … Here comes some help. … Santa eludes him. … Touchdown, Santa Claus!”
Johnny Big Lunch? That line alone would make me want to hire Kelley.
Radio broadcasting is as much art as science. Kelley’s originally from St. Louis, which has been home to many play-by-play maestros. He grew up listening to legends like Jack Buck doing Cardinals games and Dan Kelly doing the Blues.
“I just enjoyed listening to games and the storytelling that went along with it,” he said.
He's a trained firefighter
One thing that stuck with him was how guys like Buck became part of the community fabric. Kelley took that to an extreme in 2012 when he showed up at a St. Tammany Parish Fire District station and volunteered for duty.
He liked it so much that he took the training and became a full-fledged firefighter, working flex shifts around his day job. Not many NBA play-by-play announcers have moonlighted at the local fire station.
“The other guys always wanted to talk about basketball,” Kelley said. “I always wanted to talk about firefighting.”
Those jobs weren’t totally dissimilar. Success depends on preparation and teamwork, then performing under pressure.
“When the tone goes off at 1:45 or 2 o’clock in the morning and you’ve got 90 seconds to be out of the bay with lights and sirens, that’s a little beyond normal adrenaline,” Kelley said. “That’s a little nutty at times.”
So is SEC football. Nothing usually goes up in flames, but announcers become emotional conduits for highly charged audiences. Some calls live forever.
“I’ve been told the ‘Doering Call’ was Mick’s arrival moment,” Kelley said of the 1992 Kentucky game, when Chris Doering caught the winning TD pass in the final seconds. “I’m not going to go hoping or hunting for that kind of moment. I just hope that fans will feel I’m doing right by their team.”
That’s going to require adaptability. Boggs, Steele and Hubert came along when radio was preeminent. Kelley now needs to reach people like his 22-year-old son.
“Radio is viable,” Kelley said. “But I just know my son and others his age aren’t necessarily going to consume games on the radio on a regular basis. So how do I become the Voice of the Gators for them?”
Kelley will try with podcasts and other social media platforms Boggs never dreamed of. It’s all part of the Big Adjustment at UF.
Last year’s football coach, basketball coach and announcer are history. The wrinkle is that fans weren’t clamoring for the last one to go. After 33 years of Hubert, any replacement will sound strange at first.
“I would expect nothing less,” Kelley said, “with Mick’s talent and his tenure and his association with iconic Florida moments.”
Fear not, Gator fans, there are more on the way. That’s why Napier and Golden are here.
As for the Kelley, if history and Santa Claus are any indication, fans will soon learn to love the sound of his voice.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley