Michael Kelly’s old constituency was a dozen relatively aligned schools and their bowl partners as a senior associate commissioner in charge of football at the ACC. In his new job, he has to wrangle the divergent needs of the five power conferences, five other FBS conferences, Notre Dame, six different bowls and ESPN on what has become college football’s most visible stage.
After running three Super Bowls and a Final Four before joining the ACC in 2007, Kelly was put in control of college football’s newest, biggest game when he was named chief operating officer of the new College Football Playoff in November 2012, the first full-time employee.
This season represents the end of the beginning for Kelly, who turned 44 last month. Having moved to Dallas his wife and two daughters, 12 and 10, the first championship under the new system will be the culmination of two years of hard work behind the scenes.
“It’s very exciting,” Kelly said. “You feel a sense of history – just the newness of it, the excitement that people have about this whole playoff.”
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Kelly comes to the job with the ACC in his DNA. He grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., and attended Wake Forest, where he worked in the athletic department before moving to Florida. There, he helped run Super Bowls in South Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville, and the Final Four in St. Petersburg before joining the ACC office.
At that point, Kelly took charge of the nascent ACC championship game, including its eventual and fruitful move to Charlotte. Later in his tenure, he took on new responsibilities in broadcasting and communications. That additional experience made him a natural to handle the nuts and bolts of the first college football playoff.
“To go run the playoff, they needed somebody with tremendous experience,” said Belk Bowl executive director Will Webb, the ACC’s local liaison for the title game. “Michael had the unusual resume of having worked on the NFL level on Super Bowls and the college level on championship games. He’s really good at it, well liked and respected. He could be tough on some issues, but very fair.”
Former BCS chief Bill Hancock is still in charge as executive director, but it’s Kelly’s job to make everything work. In many ways, the tough parts are finished. The six-bowl semifinal rotation is set. The first three championship sites have been selected. The selection committee has been named.
From the outside, other than some questions over the makeup of the committee and the selection criteria, the process appears to have run smoothly. That isn’t always the case given the money, the power and the egos involved, which is why it took so long to get from the BCS to an actual playoff in the first place. Kelly’s work behind the scenes deserves some of the credit for that.
“When we, the commissioners, left the BCS and moved into the college football playoff thing, for that particular position, I thought Michael was a natural for it,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “I thought it was a good next step for him career-wise on a personal level, and thought he would be perfect for the job.”
Kelly grew up with the ACC and remains tied personally to the ACC. It’s not hard to envision him back in Greensboro at some point in the future. For now, he’s entirely focused on the future of college football, something he’ll play an important role in determining.
“No one looks to leave the ACC,” Kelly said. “It’s one of the greatest conferences in the country. And it proved to be a great opportunity. If it wasn’t for the uniqueness of something like this, at this level, I’d imagine I’d still be there today.”