Tom Kelly dies at 88; broadcast USC football and basketball games for decades

Tom Kelly, a sports broadcaster who made USC football and basketball games “bigger than life” for more than four decades, died Monday in Encino of cancer. He was 88.

Kelly, a former football player, started calling USC football and basketball games on the radio in 1961 and later made the move to television.

His “rich, deep” voice became “identifiable with USC athletics,” said Tim Tessalone, USC sports information director, and a colleague of Kelly’s.

“You knew it was Tom Kelly the second you heard the first syllable,” Tessalone said.

That “bigger-than-life” intonation was tempered by attention to basics, Tessalone said. Kelly never neglected to place his listeners in “down, distance and score,” he said.

Even after retirement in 2003, Kelly was a regular in the press box at USC games, Tessalone said.

For his part, Kelly told The Times in 1985 that, "when you get wrapped up with a team, with a university, as I have for so long, you begin to live or die with them."

Kelly was born in Minneapolis in 1927 to May Cosgrove and Lester Kelly, a railroad worker, said Kelly’s wife, Danusia. His mother was widowed when Kelly was 10, she said. He joined the Army at the close of World War II and was assigned to cook bacon on a Liberty ship.

Injured in the shoulder playing football at Northland College in Ashland, Wisc., he started broadcasting in college. He worked in radio markets in the Midwest, including Peoria, Ill., where he met and became friends with Chick Hearn and worked alongside him in 1954.

He would work with Hearn again when they both came to Los Angeles, where Kelly’s career took off, starting at KNX-AM (1070).

He called Trojan games on the radio through the early 1960s, then moved to KCBS-TV and returned to do Trojan radio broadcasts from 1973 to 1988.

In 1980, he moved again to television where he remained until he retired. He called games for five USC national championship football teams. 

Football and basketball were his specialties, but Kelly was also “incredibly versatile,” Tessalone said. “He could call any sport as if he had called it all his life.”

Kelly married Danusia in 1995 “He was a very happy man,” she said. “Very engaging, very easy-going.”

In addition to his USC work, Kelly hosted a sports magazine show, called games for the San Diego Chargers, the Lakers, the Clippers and he worked for CBS radio and ESPN. He called boxing matches for years, and hosted a golf program for Fox Sports West, his wife said. He also announced games for Michael Jordan Flight School, a basketball camp for underprivileged children to help with fundraising.

He won numerous broadcasting awards and was inducted into the USC athletic hall of fame in 2001 and the Southern California Sports Broadcaster Hall of Fame in 2005.

In addition to his wife,  he is survived by four children, a stepson and six grandchildren.

jill.leovy@latimes.com


UPDATES:

6:37 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Kelly’s wife.

This post was originally published at 5:34 p.m.

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