The first time Jon Kelley came to Chicago, he was a 25-year-old rookie sportscaster at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 who became known more for his handsome face and Armani wardrobe than for his reporting or anchoring skills.
Now, more than two decades later, it looks like he may be returning to host “Good Day Chicago” on WFLD-Channel 32. Nothing's confirmed, but Kelley's recent visit to the Fox-owned station has insiders convinced he's close to a deal.
How his hiring would affect the show's four current anchors — Anna Davlantes, Corey McPherrin, Dawn Hasbrouck and newcomer Natalie Bomke — is unknown. But considering the rock-bottom ratings they're getting from 4:30 to 10 a.m. five days a week, there's certainly nothing to lose by shaking things up.
Kelley, 48, most recently has been morning co-anchor at KNTV-TV, the NBC station in San Francisco. He previously was weekend anchor and correspondent for the syndicated show-biz magazine “Extra” and an anchor for Fox Sports Network.
A star running back for the University of Nebraska in his hometown of Lincoln, Kelley held on-air jobs in Omaha, Sioux City, Iowa, and Kansas City, Missouri, before Chicago beckoned in 1991 with weekend sports anchor offers from both NBC 5 and CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2. He accepted the former. When Mark Giangreco jumped to ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 in 1995, Kelley moved up to the top sports job at NBC 5. Over the years, his on-air performance improved, but he never overcame the harsh, early assessment of critics:
- Bob Susnjara of the Waukegan News-Sun called Kelley “an absolute embarrassment,” adding: “When Kelley performed a standup at a Blackhawks playoff game, it was clear the closest he'd ever been to ice was when he stuck his hand in a refrigerator freezer. . . . He can best help the Channel 5 sports crew by making coffee for Mark Giangreco and Tom Shaer.”
- Brian Hewitt of the Sun-Times said Kelley “continues to stumble on the air,” adding: “In a short period of time, Kelley has threatened to achieve the impossible: Make WLS-TV's Jim Rose look good by comparison.”
- Steve Nidetz of the Tribune said Kelley “has gotten off to a rocky start, fumbling his way through interviews and on-site reports. It's questionable whether such an inexperienced talent is ready for the ad-lib dangers of anchoring, even on the weekends.”
- Barry Cronin of the Sun-Times, whose column was headlined “Ch. 5's Kelley in over his head,” wrote: “He's the one stumbling over his words, giving incorrect scores, calling Cubs manager Jim Essian by the name “Esiason” (in honor of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer, no doubt) and forgetting the name of former Indiana Pacers head coach Dick Versace, who only happened to be his cohort on the Bulls' postgame reports during the NBA playoffs. One day, Kelley even forgot what channel he was on.”
Kelley had defenders in the press, too. Jim Warren of the Tribune took the Sun-Times to task for beating up on him. “Instead, why not wonder about the managers who took an earnest, perhaps talented but inexperienced fellow and thrust him into a spotlight?” he wrote.
In 1995, a sympathetic profile by Maureen Jenkins in the Sun-Times portrayed Kelley as a hard-working, conscientious professional who was never fazed by any of the criticism.
“If you judge yourself on what other people think of you, you'll never be happy with yourself,” Kelley told Jenkins. “I'm harder on myself that anybody can possibly be. I'm comfortable enough with myself to know I'm not perfect. No matter what you do, there are going to be a lot of people rooting against you out of jealousy, or because they have nothing better to do in their own lives. I can't control the ratings; I can't control what people think of me. I can only control what I do.”
By the time Kelley secured an early release from his contract in 1998 to join Fox Sports Network, Jim O'Donnell of the Sun-Times said local fans would lament his leaving. “His Chicago media detractors also will be sorry, mainly because with Kelley's departure, they now have to find a new knee-jerk bull's-eye to brickbat away at,” he wrote. “After his exit, any honest retrospective on Kelley's run at Channel 5 must include a thorough examination of the motives of the critics who habitually summoned such ferocious — and often rather personal — disdain for the man and his work.”
But the final word on Kelley's tenure here came from Steve Johnson, the Tribune's TV critic, who dug out this quote from Kelley's standup at Disneyland just before Northwestern University's appearance in the 1996 Rose Bowl: “We had a ball from start to finish, but anybody who thinks that a day here is just some day of rest and relaxation — well, any parent who's brought their child here will tell you that four-hour waiting lines and wall-to-wall kids with cotton candy is no walk in the park. But also the Wildcats, they enjoy that kind of stuff. They like to bang bodies, so they made full adventures out of making a day at the park their Disney adventure.”
Concluded Johnson: “Now Kelley is off making his own Disney adventure, working for Fox Sports out of Los Angeles, a perfect match of talent, town and TV outlet. I wanted to wish him all the success he deserves, and I wanted to plead for WMAQ-Ch. 5 to do the thinking person's thing and, for the sake of all of us who have endured years of Kelley's perky effusions, try to hire as the lead sports guy Bruce Wolf, who is smart and funny and sly enough that he might even keep the sports haters tuned in during his segments.”