Growing up in St. Louis, Sean Kelley’s future was a matter of destiny. Seems the stars were aligned.
Not the celestial kind, mind you, but the stars who narrated St. Louis sports over the radio.
“Sport was the fabric of the community, and the announcers had a relationship with everyone,” said Kelley, the newest member of the Voices of the SEC brotherhood. “Growing up, you had Jack Buck, Dan Kelly and Mike Shannon – the guys doing the Cardinals and the Blues. Bill Wilkerson was doing Missouri football. I was influenced by legends.”
Now he’s replacing a legend as the voice of the Florida Gators, filling the booth Mick Hubert manned for 33 years. It’s a formidable task, but one Kelley has prepared for his whole life.
“I was really enjoying my work at ESPN so much that we were beginning negotiations for my next contract,” Kelley said. “Then I saw Mick Hubert was retiring, and my reaction was, ‘What an incredible career.’ I was so pleased Mick went out on his own terms. But I didn’t give it much more thought than that.”
Kelley loved working for ESPN Radio. Who wouldn’t? He had his pick of college football, the NBA and Major League Baseball games – often the biggest showdowns of the week.
His reputation and experience prompted a member of the Florida search committee looking for Hubert’s replacement to reach out, seeking advice on where to turn next. It was a logical move.
Then, thinking about it for a moment, Kelley took a logical step.
“What about me?” Suddenly, he went from advisor to frontrunner to heir apparent.
When Kelley let ESPN know he might be leaving, the suits were supportive. Their only request: could he still work for them when the schedule allowed? That made the decision to become the new voice of the Gators a no-brainer.
“Sometimes we pray for the doors to be opened, and in this case the doors were blown off the hinges,” Kelley said. “This was so obvious, that you have to have faith.”
Before coming to the SEC, Kelley paid his dues with prime gigs all over the country. A one-time finance major at Southern Illinois University before switching to journalism, he got his start covering college baseball games when the Missouri Tigers were a member of the Big 12, also hosting the pre- and postgame football coverage while honing his skill on high school football and basketball broadcasts.
His work there led him to New Orleans in 2002 as the voice of the Tulane Green Wave. Three years into his NOLA tenure, he was asked to take over play-by-play for the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans), where he spent the next 14 seasons.
Sometimes we pray for the doors to be opened, and in this case the doors were blown off the hinges.
There are fewer gigs more grueling than calling NBA games, what with the nonstop travel bouncing across the country.
“It’s 82 regular-season games, plus the preseason and postseason schedule,” he said. “The sheer volume is daunting over a six-month period. At the same time, you’re traveling with the team, which takes the edge off. For me, it was a chance to get a lot of reps in a hurry. I thrived in that. I liked the rhythm. It ended up becoming the longest run of any stop in my career.”
But the six months of furious work also meant he had six months of downtime. So, to fill up the schedule during the offseason, he returned to his childhood roots for inspiration.
What child doesn’t dream of becoming a firefighter?
“I was looking for something else to do because I can’t sit still,” Kelley said. “The fire department near me in Madisonville was a mix of volunteer and paid firefighters. I poked around and signed up in 2012 for volunteer firefighter training. Then, I added certification and, after a year, became a member of the paid staff.”
For the next six years, he did double duty – NBA broadcaster from October to June and firefighter when the renamed Pelicans were idle.
For the past three years, he worked behind the mic for ESPN Radio, getting prime assignments across the gamut of competition. That meant not only knowing the teams and rosters intimately, but the rules and history from college football’s pageantry to baseball’s idiosyncrasies.
“With ESPN Radio, most every game I did was a big, high-impact game,” he said. “It also meant the NBA was still a part of my life, so I got the best games. Same with Major League Baseball. I got to go to some of the most iconic venues in all of sports, and meet the greatest coaches and players alive.”
That meant a visit to historic Fenway Park this summer, calling a national game from the sport’s most iconic venue.
But then, Florida called with a Godfather offer he couldn’t refuse.
He’ll still do NBA and MLB games on the side. But he has the chance to chronicle the fortunes of a blueblood college athletics program, where new football coach Billy Napier and first-year basketball coach Todd Golden try to return the Gators to glory.
Needless to say, his new venture went off with a bang.
Kelley’s debut coincided with Napier’s first game on the Florida sideline as the Gators opened the season with a stunning upset in The Swamp of then-seventh ranked Utah.
“I went in with a new (radio) crew and a new fanbase, realizing I was going to be the first new voice at Florida in 33 years,” Kelley said thoughtfully.
“Obviously, my years in the NBA and with ESPN prepared me for big moments. Yet, going into that first game for Florida, I was nervous. And appreciative. I hadn’t been nervous in a long time. It was a good feeling.”