First-year Auburn coach Sunny Golloway called out names in the locker room after a 3-2 loss to East Tennessee State on Sunday. Those players met with the coach individually in his office.
When it was over, Kelley was among three players no longer with the team.
“When I came back to the locker room, I had six players crying in my arms,” he said. “It was hard. It was like somebody cut my heart out. I’ve played ball my whole life.”
Kelley, a senior outfielder and returning starter from 2013, was the one player dismissed from the team. Senior first baseman Patrick Savage and junior pitcher Chase Williamson apparently took Golloway’s offer to quit.
“When I got in there,” Kelley said, “he just started off by saying, ‘Hunter, I don’t think you’ll be able to help this program this year. I just don’t think your attitude should be in this program.’
“Me, of course, I was devastated. I didn’t know what he was talking about. It just kind of blew me away because, these are my brothers, and I’ve played ball all my life. I’ve never heard anybody tell me that.”
Coaching transitions often bring player attrition. After fall baseball and preseason workouts, Kelley and two others were let go seven games into Golloway’s first season.
Hired over the summer after Auburn made John Pawlowski the third straight head baseball coach to be fired by the school, Golloway has said the moves were part of necessary team building.
“Players have to understand that we are just a part of something that is much greater than we are individually,” Golloway told AuburnTigers.com on Monday. “We are going to play for what is on the front of our jerseys and not on the back. Be proud of your name, but play for Auburn. Play the way we ask you to play.
“We were brought here to try to turn the program around and play the game the right way. That comes back to team chemistry, caring about one another and not making it about yourself.”
Kelley, not known as a problematic player through his time at Alexandria, said he could only speculate as to how that translated to him. He said he and Golloway never had a cross word before Sunday.
“I never really ever talked to him, and he don’t know me,” Kelley said. “I’ve never been the type of ‘hoorah’ guy that just tries to say my word and everything else. I just try to do my job and, ‘let your actions be louder than words,’ and that’s just what I’ve always been taught to do, and that’s the type of leader I am.
“Now, this happens, and the hard part is not really that it’s over with. The hard part is it’s making me look bad in front of everybody -- my friends, my family and people that don’t know me but follow me.”
According to AuburnUndercover.com, Golloway criticized Kelley's play Sunday against East Tennessee State. In the 10th inning, Kelley dove for a hard hit ball to left field, and it got by him for a triple. The runner eventually scored the winning run.
“You can’t dive for a single and turn it into a triple in a tie ballgame. That’s just a cardinal rule,” Golloway told reporters, according to AuburnUndercover.com.
Kelley was an all-state pick and The Anniston Star’s player of the year for Calhoun County in 2010, after helping Alexandria to the Class 4A state-title series. He signed with Auburn out of Calhoun Community College, after hitting .350 with 24 RBIs as a sophomore.
As a junior at Auburn, he played in 41 games with 30 starts, all but two in right field. He batted .246 with 13 extra-base hits among his 28 total hits.
His biggest moments came in the field, where he robbed Ole Miss’ Sikes Orvis of a would-be three-run homer in the third inning and Austin Anderson of a solo shot in the seventh. Auburn came back to win 5-4.
This season, he appeared in four games with no starts and had no hits in two at bats.
The other two players let go had similar numbers. Savage was batting .167 in three games, including two starts. Williamson had not appeared in a game.
Still, Kelley said his meetings with Golloway blind-sided him.
“He said, ‘I just think you should check it in,’” Kelley said. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Of course, I’ve got to fight for what I believe in, so I told him, ‘I honestly don’t think anybody else sees what you’re seeing. Everybody has their own opinions, and I respect your opinion, but it’s not true.’
“I told him, ‘I totally disagree with what you’re saying. I’ve had a good attitude all year. I’ve busted my ass all fall to be part of this team, to help this team.’ I told him, ‘There’s 30 players in that locker room right there that will disagree with you.’”
Kelley said his scholarship is good through this summer, and he expects to have his undergraduate work in physical activity and health complete by then. He plans to pursue a Master’s degree in education at Jacksonville State, with an eye toward teaching and coaching.
He plans to look into whether he has playing eligibility left.
“I’m not sure about that,” he said. “I need to talk to some people and ask questions. … If I still have eligibility left, I’d love to play baseball somewhere.”
Kelley said he has had nothing but support from family and friends at home since Sunday, and he’s taking to heart the support he received from his best friend of Auburn’s team, bullpen catcher Justin Veazey.
“When it happened (Kelley was dismissed from the team), he said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve cried since my dad died, when I was 14 years old,’” Kelley said. “He said, ‘Always stand up for what you believe, and never let one man dictate how you live your life.' That’s one thing that’s stuck with me that’s helped me through this.”
Contact Sports Columnist Joe Medley at email@example.com. On Twitter, @jmedley_star.