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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Veteran sports broadcaster brings lessons from year one into UF’s 2023-2024 athletic year

Sean Kelley became the fourth ever voice of the Florida Gators July 6, 2022

Settling into his new home in Gainesville last August, veteran play-by-play broadcaster Sean Kelley sat down on a call listening to an iconic Gators noise.

It was the sound of the former voice of the Florida Gators, Mick Hubert, welcoming him to the city, but the call wasn’t filled with guidelines for Kelley's new position.

The phone call from Hubert was an act of moving on from 33 years on the job for UF. He gave Kelley a debrief on the weight of becoming just the fourth ever voice of the Gators.

“He said sometimes there are rough moments with that, but for most times it's fulfilling and rewarding,” Kelley said. “Go be you. That was plenty of advice and great advice. I was grateful to get it.”

Becoming the voice of a team is an opportunity in sports sought out by thousands. For Kelley, this opportunity came last year with the Florida Gators. Now, he takes his experience with him from year one into year two.

Kelley came into the Florida job with a diverse resume. The St. Louis, Missouri, native found his first job calling play-by-play for the Missouri Tigers baseball in the late 1990s after graduating from Southern Illinois University.

His start in baseball led to a career that included becoming the voice of the Tulane Green Wave, the radio play-by-play voice of the New Orleans Pelicans for 14 years, and hundreds of college football calls for ESPN Radio.

While living in New Orleans, Kelley also served as a firefighter with the St. Tammy Parish Fire District 13 from 2012 to 2017.

Kelley’s prior experiences didn’t calm his nerves going into his first year replacing Hubert, Kelly said.

“I was nervous for sure and I felt that was good, it was healthy,” Kelley said.

Kelley, over the years, has strayed from the broadcast booth and gone into grade school classrooms to discuss the difference between being nervous and scared. Being nervous is a healthy emotion and helps you keep sharp, Kelley said.

Kelley embraced this emotion through Florida football’s 2022 campaign in places he only dreamed about calling. One of them was in Jacksonville at TIAA Bank Stadium when the Gators faced the Georgia Bulldogs.

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The venue and atmosphere of the rivalry clash were something he never experienced in person as a broadcaster. He got to mark the game off his broadcasting call-list, Kelley said.

The veteran crossing over the St. Johns River that day found a scene exploding with color going into the stadium. The atmosphere was a totally new experience.

“I’ve never — and I’ve been to most every great venue in college football — I’ve never seen a scene like that before outside of the stadium,” Kelley said. “I think that it makes it one of the more unique weekends in college football.”

The game he remembers the most from last year was when Hubert came back to be honored at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. UF lost to Louisiana State that day, but Kelley was still grateful to have Hubert there.

“In a lot of ways it felt like there was a bit of a bridge there between Mick and myself, and mostly anything else I wanted him to be able to come here and just get that giant hug that so many people wanted to give him after 33 years on this job,” Kelley said.

Kelley's schedule heading into the holiday season is usually his busiest time of the year. 

The former firefighter covered UF versus Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl Game in Las Vegas Dec. 17. He then flew across the country to Boston to call an NBA Christmas Day game. 

He then trekked south to cover the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans.

Traveling is all part of the job for Kelley. Balancing different games while also focusing on Florida men’s basketball during December was made easy for him with one simple rule: stay ahead as much as possible, but focus only on what’s in front of you, Kelley said.

“You may not serve the thing that’s going on that week without looking too far ahead,” Kelley said.

Kelley describes himself as a process guy. The veteran walks into work on gameday early, calls his wife Kimberly and works his schedule around when the coach is available for an interview. During the men’s basketball season, however, he brought back an old ritual of his.

Back in his NBA days with the Pelicans, radio analysts John DeShazier and David Wesley would join Kelley pregame in trick-shot shootarounds after the team warmed up and left the floor.

Kelley revived the tradition last season with Gators Men’s Basketball Analyst, and former player, Lee Humprey. The two challenged each other with hook shots throughout the season, but never in an actual shoot-around. Humphrey’s still got it, Kelley said, referring to the former shooters routine before games.

The shootaround before games for Kelley wasn’t about just getting a shot up for fun, but to build a connection.

“It was my way of doing something with them,” Kelley said. “I’m big into building bonds with coworkers and who's on your team. So, a lot of times if I’m with former players that’s kind of their world, their comfort zone. I participate in it in my own little way.”

The connections he built throughout his first season went beyond his broadcasting coworkers and into the programs he represented. Kelley called the first games of both Football Head Coach Billy Napier and Men’s Basketball Head Coach Todd Golden.

Kelley loved watching the pair of first-year head coaches begin to build a program. Having some part of that journey is something he privileges, Kelley said.

“When you transition from that first season to the next you start to build some familiarity with them as people, as players, and how a team and a roster evolves,” Kelley said. “That’ll be the next thing that I’ll be looking forward to.”

Kelley was exposed to the bug of broadcasting while growing up in St. Louis. He listened to his idols Jake Buck and Mike Shannon call St. Louis Cardinals games from Busch Stadium. That bug, which latched onto the 51-year-old throughout his career, followed him back to baseball when he began preparation for the Gators 2023 baseball season. 

Kelley kept a close eye on UF’s baseball program and realized early on that the group was special. The anticipation of calling baseball again grew for Kelley. He was excited to get to the season with his analyst Jeff Cardozo, he said.

That excitement gushed even more when the Gators advanced to the 2023 College Baseball World Series — an event Kelley hadn’t called since 2005 back when the venue in Omaha, Nebraska, was called Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.

The competition at the CWS that year was remarkable, Kelley said.

“The whole town, and everybody there, is there for one reason, and that’s to enjoy college baseball, which is uniquely its own experience,” Kelley said. “To see that again in my career, but to do it again in my new job — moments from my first year, that’s as important as anything else.”

The feeling of being welcomed by the Gator nation and his coworkers is something Kelley can’t stop thinking about, he said. The broadcaster's first year as the Gators’ voice was reinvigorating to his life and career. The feeling of freshness is something he expects going into year two on the job.

“Not everybody gets to step into a great situation and work with people that they really enjoy being around,” Kelley said. “I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that’s not always the normal, but it was for me last year.”

Kelley looks forward to calling the 2023 Florida football team, who he believes is better than what most people think. He believes we’ll see tangible signs of Napier's first-year jump into this season, he said.

“Where do you find that sweet spot in watching the evolution of a program and being patient while doing that?,” Kelley said. “I think that’s something to think about for not just me, but for all of (UF’s) fans and I'm looking forward to new road games and new experiences.”

Kelley continues his work after UF’s underdog 29-16 victory over No. 11 Tennessee Sept. 16 by preparing his notes for the Gators’ next game against the Charlotte 49ers at The Swamp at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Contact Brandon Hernandez at bhernandez@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.

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Brandon Hernandez

Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.


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