We take for granted that two programs with the profile and reach of UCLA and Florida would chase after Chip Kelly. That’s important to remember, because if the Bruins think that Kelly will do in Westwood what he did at Oregon, they will be disappointed.
When Kelly took over the Ducks nine years ago, he took over a program good for eight or nine wins a season and turbocharged it into national prominence. Kelly’s uptempo spread offense revolutionized college football. That’s the only way a program like Oregon, with little winning tradition and even less of a local recruiting base, could play on the national stage.
“I think it was one of the most profound changes in college football that’s happened in a long time,” said Cal offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, who coached at Oregon for more than two decades, including all four seasons under Kelly. “Early on, people didn’t know how to handle it,” Greatwood said. “Defenses couldn’t get lined up. Adding the quarterback as part of the true run game without being an option team, being a zone team but having that element of the quarterback run and being able to spread the field and utilize all 53 and ⅓ yards of the field, was pretty revolutionary … We really caught the defensive world of college football off-guard.” What benefited Kelly at Oregon — the element of surprise, the excitement/panic that occurs when someone manipulates the X’s or O’s in a way that upends the status quo — is gone. Defensive coordinators have a better grasp on how to stop the uptempo spread than they did a decade ago. Officials have a better grasp on giving defenses a chance to substitute players.
The football gods taketh, and they giveth. At UCLA, Kelly will be recruiting to a brand name. Kelly’s record at Oregon is even more remarkable given the talent differential that existed between the Ducks and the sport’s elite. When Oregon took the field against Auburn for the BCS National Championship seven years ago, the Ducks had no one in the same talent zip code as Tigers quarterback Cam Newton or defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Yet Oregon took Auburn to the final play before losing, 22-19. Put another way, when the balance of talent didn’t tip away from the Oregon sideline, Kelly’s Ducks went 29-1 against unranked opponents — the lone loss a 51-42 shootout to Stanford in 2009.
Kelly made Oregon a national player in recruiting — remember when he flipped scatback De’Anthony Thomas from USC to Oregon on Signing Day in 2011? But now Kelly doesn’t have to do that. He can stay home and recruit. In Westwood, Kelly can’t drive to Starbucks without running into a four-star recruit. There will be no need for a Willie Lyles, whose recruiting assistance in Texas resulted in probation for Oregon and a show cause restriction against Kelly.
Nearly half (41 of 93) of the Ducks’ signees in Kelly’s four seasons in Eugene came from California. Kelly built Oregon into a national power on the backs, hands and feet of California recruits. That’s not unusual for Oregon or any team in the Pac-12. But it’s relevant given his return to the conference.
That’s a good thing, because Kelly’s distaste for recruiting is well-known. He talked about the draining time demands of it to Philadelphia Magazine four years ago. Mark Helfrich, his offensive coordinator and successor at Oregon, mentioned it on ESPN Radio last year.
Kelly, according to his former Oregon assistants, doesn’t like the ballyhoo of recruiting, the godding up a 17-year-old. Kelly doesn’t do ballyhoo.
“Chip is very good at evaluating,” said Nick Aliotti, the Pac-12 Networks analyst who ran Kelly’s defense. “We spent a lot of time in evaluation. What Chip is not good at is the tweeting and the schmoozing. He can do a nice job on the home visit. That’s just his social makeup.”
“He wasn’t the kind of guy who was just a bird dog on a recruit, calling a recruit all season long,” Greatwood said. “I mean, you got him in front of people, he’s impressive, the way he carries himself. I think he didn’t like the whole process of taking a kid from early January and recruiting him all through the following February to signing date. I think that kind of took its toll on him.”
Kelly is an introvert who calls watching video “the fun part of the job.” He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, which is another reason why he is at UCLA instead of Florida. The last thing Kelly wants is to be in Florida who Nick Saban is in Alabama, who Kirby Smart is in Georgia, or who any state university head coach is in the Southeastern Conference.
It was enticing to think about Kelly in Gainesville. Kelly has no ties to Florida, which is not to say he didn’t fit a familiar and beloved profile. Let’s see — guru of an exciting, fast-paced passing offense; winner of a conference title at a school that had been a perennial doormat; coach known for his dislike of recruiting — Kelly fit a lot of the profile of the Head Ball Coach.
But let’s not stretch the comparison too far. Steve Spurrier liked being the public face of his program, maybe a little too much if you’re Jim McElwain. Kelly is an introvert who soured on dealing with the media at Oregon and never warmed to it at either of his NFL stops. When Greatwood says Kelly “is just a football guy,” he means it as a test of purity.
The rest of the job — the care and feeding of boosters, the ego puffery of 17-year-old recruits, the guy who does TV commercials — no, thanks (although Kelly’s Tostitos ads when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles were terrific).
“I don’t think Chip likes that kind of stuff,” Aliotti said. “In L.A., you can be hidden.”
There are few high-profile jobs that carry a lower profile than being the head coach of UCLA in Los Angeles. When the sports spotlight gets around to college football after the Dodgers or the Lakers or the Clippers or the NFL teams, it tends to shine a few miles east of Westwood, on the John McKays and Pete Carrolls of the Southland. UCLA is not USC.
USC is winning again, and with a coach, Clay Helton, who can turn a spotlight dim. That’s one skill Kelly doesn’t have, even as the unique circumstances that made Oregon a national power and Kelly a national name don’t exist in UCLA.
Kelly brings a high profile to Westwood, even as he just wants to be a football guy, even as he makes a market-value salary (close to $5 million per), even as he jockeys for position in the Pac-12 South.
It won’t take another revolutionary change for Kelly to win at UCLA. But it will be fun to see what he has up his sleeve. Too bad we have to wait 10 months to find out.