Anywhere but UCLA! Why Chip Kelly's decision makes all the sense in the world
Kelly's former Oregon cohorts and friends never thought this would happen
Pat Kilkenny sounded like he'd lost part of his soul.
"It certainly makes me uncomfortable," Oregon's former athletic director said of Chip Kelly's move to UCLA. "Chip's a friend. I want people I care for to have great lives. I just prefer they do it in another league."
Therein lies only one of the contradictions surrounding Kelly's return to college football.
Chip is back! But in the league he plundered for four years as head coach, now working against a shoe-sponsored brand of a program he nurtured to prominence.
Chip is back! But in becoming the sport's biggest splash hire in years, he didn't necessarily take the best job out there.
"In all honestly, I'm surprised he didn't go to Florida," former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "I think Florida is probably, potentially a better job."
There is little argument there. But Kelly chose familiar surroundings (Pac-12) and a sleeping giant (UCLA hasn't been to a Rose Bowl since 1998) over the day-to-day requirements of a big-time SEC job.
In Westwood, California, Chip Kelly strolling down Wilshire Blvd. is just another tourist. The SEC may have invented the celebu-coach, where dining out requires its own kind of defensive game plan to guard privacy.
"UCLA's not a fishbowl," said Nick Aliotti, Kelly's defensive coordinator at Oregon. "I really think … when it's all said and done, Chip is a ball coach and wants to win. You can win at both places. Florida is a place that won national championships. But at the end of the day, not being in a microscopic type atmosphere made him pick UCLA."
We'll find out for sure Monday when Kelly no doubt wins his introductory press conference. In four short seasons as Oregon's coach, Kelly went 46-7, making himself and his program matter on a national scale.
His Blur Offense mimicked its master. Kelly can squeeze more syllables into a breath than the average auctioneer. After a mediocre stop in the NFL, whether his offense is still a blur in a game that has appropriated many of his schemes is the biggest question.
Again, there is that contradiction. Kelly's best teams were based on the power run game. LaMichael James led the country in rushing and finished third in 2010 Heisman Trophy voting with 1,751 yards. That philosophy would seem to fit anywhere -- especially the SEC.
The Kelly-recruited Marcus Mariota won a Heisman in 2015 as much for his legs as his arm. Under Kelly, Oregon finished eighth, first, third and second in scoring offense.
"It was either three and out or three and in [the end zone]," said Aliotti, now a Pac-12 Network analyst. "We got used to playing fast. Everybody talks about tempo. I've not yet see anybody practice, the way we practiced tempo on defense. It was so easy for our guys during the game. We had one 10-minute team period against each other. We got 32 plays in, in 10 minutes. We never had to condition because conditioning was practice."
Since then, Kelly's ideas have spread like, well, the spread offense itself. Since Kelly left college, teams have averaged at least 80 plays per game 70 times. Kelly did it once at Oregon.
Is it possible Kelly created a Frankenstein that may ultimately turn on its master?
"I think people mistake Chip as an individual that has a lot to do with that choreographed offense that he had," Kilkenny said. "You talk to his ex-players. The first thing they'll tell you is that he's an incredible disciplinarian."
Another contradiction in this feel-good return: Kelly was slapped with a failure to monitor and 18-month show-cause penalty on his way out to the door to the NFL in 2013. Street agent Will Lyles told Yahoo Sports, "I look back at it now, and [Oregon] paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits."
In the end, it didn't matter to the SEC, which sort of has a. It certainly didn't matter at UCLA, which is starving for relevancy.
Since Terry Donahue retired in 1995, the Bruins have fired each of their four succeeding coaches.
Chip can certainly recruit, charm, be the face of the program. He can also coach his ass off. First order of business with Josh Rosen likely headed to the NFL: find a difference-making quarterback.
"You put Chip Kelly and young kids on the West Coast, he's going to have a chance to steal some guys," Aliotti said. "I would very concerned if I were a rival school."
Amping up the pressure: The first early signing period is 24 days away.
"Having a quarterback and spreading people out is nothing new," Bellotti stressed. "It's gonna be more difficult to repeatedly create any type of dominance."
It's also a different Pac-12 than what Kelly left. Stanford is playing for its fourth conference title in six years this week. Washington is coming off a playoff appearance. Mike Leach has coached Washington State to nine-win seasons in two of the last three seasons.
Jim Mora Jr. seemed to squander the career of Rosen, projected to be a top quarterback in the draft.
Kelly is so coveted because he procured Mariota. But he also won with the undersized Darron Thomas at quarterback. From 2010-14, he had one more defensive player drafted (nine) than offensive (eight). His three recruiting classes at Oregon were ranked 30th, 12th and 12th by 247Sports. Never in the top 10.
That shouldn't be a problem for a 54-year-old who had a national platform on ESPN each week. Eighteen-year-old recruits can't help but know him. They've already seen him.
Kelly hired Scott Frost, maybe the second-hottest coach this silly season. Hell, even Alabama has reverted to the power-run spread. Only military academies haven't adopted some of the concepts Kelly perfected.
"I'm going to have to call him and get a little bit of his money," Aliotti said. "I'm tired of singing his praises."
Ultimately, UCLA is investing in that 46-7 on Kelly's resume. Bellotti just knew he liked what he saw when bringing an unknown offensive coordinator from New Hampshire in 2007. Kelly took Oregon to unprecedented heights winning three Pac-10/12 titles, two BCS bowls and playing for the 2010 national championship.
The height of the influence Kelly, Oregon and Nike had injected into the game may have appeared the night before that BCS title game. Nike somehow had achieved the laser technology to project a giant Nike swoosh on the side of Camelback Mountain. In marketing circles, the game was the first such battle between apparel giants Under Armour (Auburn) and Oregon (Nike).
Part of Kilkenny's melancholy had to do with Kelly's longtime relationship with Nike CEO Phil Knight. That relationship have been altered in some way with the move. UCLA is an Under Armour school, flush with a record 15-year, $280-million apparel deal. Sources say its CEO, Kevin Plank, is more than a Nike competitor to Knight.
Knight might have tolerated Kelly even taking a job at Adidas-sponsored Arizona State. But UCLA? It's personal with Knight and his opinion of Plank, sources indicated.
"It's all part of an unfortunate outcome for people that would like him not to be [at UCLA]," said the thoughtful Kilkenny, a wildly successful businessman and prominent Oregon booster. "The Nike family is a very spiritual part of people's persona. I think Chip is very, very much a Nike person. I'm sure that was something he struggled with a lot."
If indeed the relationship is that deep, Chip in some way chose his first love -- football -- over any secondary friendship considerations. Phil Knight will have to accept that. The belief has to be that Kelly the coach would have thrived whether the Swoosh was involved.
That's why UCLA got involved, Chip said yes, and college football is threatening to become a blur once again.
In one of our last encounters at Oregon, Chip and I sat on a bench inside the football facility talking as players trudged in from practice. Kelly had all the time in the world. More than that, it seemed that Kelly owned the world. That private, happy moment is hard to envision at places like Florida and Tennessee where the fishbowl is deep and turbulent.
It's hitting home to those who know him best. Chip at Oregon is gone -- until the first time he brings UCLA to Eugene.
"I kind of hoped that would never happen," Kilkenny said, slipping into paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca."
"All the gin joints in the all the world, it has to be [UCLA]."
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