After failed NFL tenures in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and after a year away from coaching, former University of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly has agreed to return to the college game and become the new head coach at UCLA. Kelly will be replacing Jim L. Mora, who was let go after six seasons coaching the Bruins. While Mora enjoyed success early in his tenure at UCLA–including wins against USC–he has rightly earned a reputation for not getting as much as he could with the talent on his roster. As head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, he had one of the most electric players I have ever seen, pre-prison Michael Vick, and never reached the Super Bowl. It did not take long after he was fired for the Seattle Seahawks to transform into a Super Bowl contender, either. This year, the Bruins went 5-6 despite having one of the top quarterback draft prospects in the country in Josh Rosen. Enough was enough.
When Kelly left the Pac-12 Conference after the 2012 season, he went out on top, having turned the Oregon Ducks into the class of college football, right there with Alabama and Ohio State. While UCLA is not a traditional college football powerhouse like their cross-town rival USC, there are reasons to think Kelly is the man to turn the Bruins into a national contender.
People who have been reading me for years know I am more fascinated by Chip Kelly than I am with any coach in any sport, with the possible exception of Bill Belichick. Part of it is the exciting up-tempo offense his teams run, that I still think would have worked if the Eagles and 49ers were more patient. Part of it is the fact that he is from New Hampshire, and started crafting his offensive philosophy at his alma mater UNH. Part of it is the fact that he keeps his private life so close to the vest that he was described in an article as a “lifelong bachelor” even though he had been married and divorced, he never bothered to correct the record until someone else tracked down his ex-wife. He’s basically achieved Ron Swanson-level privacy in a profession where he goes to a podium and talks to reporters multiple times a week. In the 2010s, that really is fascinating.
Kelly was frustrated with the gig at Oregon because he had to deal too much with boosters and the recruiting aspect of college football. While every college coach has to deal with recruiting, Oregon was a special case because the in-state talent pool is not particularly deep (the best quarterback Kelly recruited while he was there was Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who is from Hawaii), and they have one of the most influential boosters in all of college sports in Oregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight. Some college coaches live for the recruiting aspect of the game like Mack Brown and Ed Orgeron, who are great at selling their programs to elite high school athletes, but rely heavily on their assistant coaches for the x’s and o’s. Chip Kelly is a hardcore x’s and o’s and film guy, which is why I thought he would be better than he was in the NFL.
The transition from the college game to the professional game is more than just recruiting. In a system where players get (legally and legitimately) paid, and you have players for more than four years maximum, different factors inevitably have to go into the construction of the roster. Kelly improved the Eagles in his first year, but ran into trouble the more he tinkered with the roster, making moves that made sense in a vacuum, but in total, did not result in better football. In San Francisco, he never stood a chance. Neither did Colin Kaepernick. I wrote when Kelly was first hired by the Niners that it was a make-or-break year for Kaepernick–and that was before his protests began–but Kelly had the best chance of any coach in the NFL to unlock his potential. As it turned out, the Kelly/Kaepernick collaboration was probably a couple years to late, and both spent this football season not working in football, but I maintain that the 49ers’ roster was just so bad that both were set up to fail in 2016.
Kelly’s absence from college football also showed the impact of his coaching. The first couple of years, Oregon remained a National Championship contender, and even made the National Championship Game in the first year of the college football playoff format, but lost to Ohio State. Since then, Oregon has been in decline, despite the Nike money invested in the program. As it turns out, actual coaching still matters. When the Ducks fired Kelly’s replacement, Mark Helfrich, last winter, some speculated that Kelly, himself likely to get fired by the 49ers would come back to the program he transformed into a powerhouse, but he was not interested, and elected to take a year off from coaching. Chip Kelly is now coming back to the Pac-12 at a time when Oregon is going through an identity crisis, and when USC has been going through an extended stretch of struggles dating back to when Pete Carroll left the Trojans for the Seattle Seahawks. Being in Los Angeles gives him the ability to recruit top talents in his own backyard, and the road to a conference title, and by extension a playoff berth, is relatively easier compared to the University of Florida, the other school that was considering him this year.
Chip Kelly proved he can turn Oregon into a national player, and I believe he can do the same for UCLA. The Pac-12 just got more interesting.