Track star Larry Kelly dies at 75

Marvin Westwestwords

Larry Kelly, one of Tennessee’s best-ever half-milers, has died at 75. Funeral service will be Tuesday in Chicago. Old Vol Coppley Vickers says old Vols will be there.

Kelly was three times an all-American in the outdoor 880 (1967) and mile relays (1969). He won five Southeastern Conference individual titles.

Larry Kelly

He was the national record-holder as a high school junior. He lost count of how many schools recruited him. His best estimate was 50. He chose Tennessee because of Chuck Rohe or …

Old Vol Bob Barber has a clue.

“When Larry came down for his recruiting visit, Coach Rohe had rented a ‘Welcome to Knoxville’ billboard on Alcoa Highway.  Since I was from his neighboring high school in Illinois, I was asked to spend some time with him.

“My help was not needed (or wanted). Coach Rohe had arranged a beautiful ‘Vol Hostess’ to be tour guide.”

Kelly was very perceptive. After a few minutes of looking around, he asked a historic question: Where is the track?

There’s wasn’t one. Tom Black Track was at the coming-soon stage. Talent was ahead of the Tartan.

Kelly overcame that shock and became a really good Volunteer.

Teammate Henry Rose smiles at the thought of a freshman haircut.

“Mike Juras, Stan Barbado and Larry decided to shave their heads. Larry went first. The others backed out. Everyone on the team had a good laugh when Larry showed up bald at practice.”

At a cross-country meet on a golf course, Larry picked up a ball and started to peel the cover off with a knife. When he got near the center, compressed liquid sprayed into Larry’s eyes.

“Coach Rohe was mad, but not at Larry,” said Rose. “He wanted to know who gave Larry the ball. In the coach’s mind, Larry could do no wrong.”

Kelly became anchor for the mile relay, a very good quarter-miler and the school’s best half-miler of his time. Strangely enough, his unforgettable race was the SEC cross-country championship of 1966.

All the Vols knew cross-country wasn’t Kelly’s thing. Rohe had middle-distance runners in the long-distance training program for conditioning and mental toughness. Kelly had a natural supply. He was also smart.

As Barber tells it, Kelly found a way to escape some of Rohe’s famous morning runs, always before breakfast, rain or sunrise coming, sleet or a snowstorm adding to the fun.

Larry would come out early and park his car a short distance from Gibbs Hall, the athletic dorm, starting place for runners. He would join the team for the start of the seven-mile adventures, run a few strides at the back of the pack, jog back to his car and get another hour of sleep.

The clamor of the squad racing to breakfast always woke him in time for the finish and food. Teammates thought it was wisdom personified.

When it came to training for his races, the 880 and 440, he was one of the hardest workers. He and others were absolutely certain he wasn’t a cross-country runner – but it turned out he was.

“Our 1966 team was not real strong and if ever there was a chance for another SEC team to beat us, this was it,” said Barber.

“A week before the meet I begged Larry to run, stressing the importance of our fifth man in the scoring. I told him I didn’t want to be the first Rohe captain to lose an SEC meet. All week I reinforced his importance as our fifth man.”

At the finish, Barber was in the chute in fourth place. He was looking for Mike Tomasello, back about 10th.

Barber yelled: “Do you see Larry anywhere? He figures to be our fifth scorer.”

Just then, a very faint voice gasped: “I’m right here, Bobby.”

It was Kelly.

“I turned around and there he was. Talk about ‘having your back,’ it was unbelievable.”

Spectators said Larry Kelly passed six or seven runners in the last quarter mile. Tennessee won that 1966 SEC championship to keep the Rohe streak alive. The coach won 21 consecutive SEC events – outdoor and indoor track titles and this cross-country race in Birmingham.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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