Somewhere, somehow over the past eight years, Chip Kelly has lost his magic. It seems like just yesterday that he was the darling of college football, leading one of the nation’s hottest programs to four straight BCS Bowls. Kelly took the college football world by storm at the University of Oregon and changed the way the game was played forever. Kelly had it all at Oregon, the flashy offense played at lightning speed, cool uniforms, world class facilities and Heisman trophy candidates. It seemed like everything Kelly touched turned to gold.
Fast forward to 2021 after two lackluster stints as an NFL head coach and three straight sub 500 seasons at UCLA, Kelly finds himself desperately looking to recapture that magic as he leads the Bruins in today’s season opener against Hawaii at the Rose Bowl. Kelly enters the 2021 season in the fourth year of a monster five year contract along with an experienced Bruin team that returns 20 starters. With a combined 10-21 record at UCLA and only two year's left on his deal, it's Kelly's time to find that magic once again.
An unlikely beginning
While many may only know Kelly from his time at Oregon or maybe from his brief stint in the NFL, I have known about Chip Kelly for over 25 years, having followed his career closely since his time just starting out as a I-AA assistant. If there is anyone who believes that Kelly can find his magic again, it's me. Coaching is a small world and even smaller in the tight knit circle of Northeast FCS football. To those who coached with or against him back in the early 2000's, Chip Kelly was a legend before stepping foot on the University of Oregon campus.
I first learned of Chip Kelly when he was the Offensive Coordinator for the University of New Hampshire, a small I-AA (now FCS) football program playing in the Atlantic-10 conference. As a I-AA coach myself, I remember breaking down film and being amazed at what I was seeing from Kelly’s UNH offense. It seemed like every week there was a different scheme, personnel group or formation I had never seen, along with some crazy trick play that nobody else was running at the time. In seven of his eight seasons at New Hampshire (1999-2006), Kelly's offenses averaged over 400 yards a game, which at the time was unheard of. In his last four seasons with the Wildcats, the offense averaged over 30 points per game including the 2004 season where Kelly’s offense broke 29 school records.
Jump to the Big Time
In 2007, Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti changed the college football landscape forever when he reached 3,000 miles across the country to name an unknown FCS assistant in Kelly as offensive coordinator of the Ducks. While many Pac-12 fans and even some opposing coaches chuckled at this hiring, those of who had followed Chip knew he was about to take major college football by storm. In his first season as offensive coordinator at Oregon, the Ducks led the Pac-10 in points per game with 38.15 and total offense with 467.54 yards per game. In 2008, the Ducks offense performed even better by averaging 42 points and 484.8 yards per game, breaking the school records that were set the previous season. Behind Kelly’s offense, Oregon burst on the national scene, suddenly becoming the coolest team in college football. With speed and tempo at which his offense played, Kelly and Oregon changed the way college football was played and you either had to change with it or be left behind.
Things only got better for the Ducks as Kelly was named head coach in 2009. In four years as head coach at Oregon Chip Kelly amassed a 46-7 record and made it to four BCS bowls. The Ducks reached the 2010-11 BCS National Championship Game but were defeated by Auburn, falling just short of college footballs top prize. Kelly’s style and scheme gave defensive coordinators nightmares, running 80 -100 plays per game, most often getting the snap off before the defense had a chance to get set. In no time at all, just about every school across the country was trying to emulate what Oregon was doing on offense. The Ducks were known for moving at lightning speed. The offense barely gave the defense a chance to sub personnel or get lined up while their crew of young assistants gave signals, holding up crazy signs, to communicate plays in order to exploit the defense.
Kelly’s time at Oregon would come to an end in 2013 when he left for the NFL, joining the Philadelphia Eagles as head coach. Many were upset with Kelly as he left for the NFL, leaving Oregon to deal with NCAA violations that allegedly took place during his tenure. While Kelly won an NFC East title in only his first year as coach of the Eagles, the NFL never seemed to be a fit for Kelly’s personality or style of play. Many NFL players openly questioned his way of doing things in terms of practice style and his handling of personnel. After back to back 10-6 seasons, Kelly’s time in Philadelphia came to an end during the 2015 season, as he was fired before the final regular season game. While Kelly was quick to be hired in 2016 by San Francisco, he only lasted one season. The 49er's lost 13 straight games in 2016 while finishing the season 2-14, ultimately costing Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke their jobs.
Return to the Pac-12
After spending the 2017 as an analyst for ESPN, Kelly returned to college football and the Pac-12, this time with UCLA Bruins. At the time, Kelly brought hope, excitement and optimism to a UCLA program that had underachieved for years while playing in the shadows of its cross town rival USC. The timing seemed perfect for UCLA to grab the spotlight in Southern California as USC was going through a transition period of its own. While USC was trying to find its way back to prominence after the Pete Carroll era ended in scandal, UCLA had a chance to put itself back on the map. However, Kelly’s time at UCLA to this point has largely been a disappointment, going 10-21 overall in his first three seasons including going 0-5 out of conference against group of 5 schools
Victim of his own Success?
Some could argue that Kelly himself and his own success has been partly responsible for his demise. Once the innovator, Kelly returned to a different college football world than the one he left in 2013. Many of the things that made Chip Kelly different at Oregon had become the norm in college football. Based on much of what Kelly created, rule changes were put in place allowing the defense to exchange personnel along with the offense as well as giving them more time to get set. Referees began to have much more control over the tempo at which offenses could play, limiting much of the advantage they once had to get plays off before the opposing defense could match up or get aligned.
Struggling to find the magic he once had at Oregon has caused many to wonder if Kelly was better at exploiting the rules of college football rather than being an offensive genius. Upon Kelly’s return to UCLA in 2018, much of what he did at Oregon no longer gave his team an advantage on Saturday’s. Yes, he can still put up points as evident by games like the thrilling 67 -63 comeback win over Washington State in 2019 but everyone puts up points these days in college football. It’s been the inconsistency on both sides of the ball and an inability to cement UCLA as a recruiting force in Southern California that have left some feeling that this is a make or break year for Kelly.
Reason for Optimism
There is hope in 2021 and even though the Bruins are coming off three straight sub 500 seasons, they bring back 20 starters, including the entire offensive line and Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Many of the returning starters for UCLA are in their third year in Kelly’s system and that type of experience will be a major factor in what I believe can be a special season in Westwood. Nothing will come easy for the Bruins as the schedule is brutal with LSU & Fresno State upcoming along with the usual 9 Pac-12 games, which is why this opening game against Hawaii is critical. If the Bruins have any hopes of competing for a Pac-12 title which I believe they can, it’s important that they take care of business this afternoon against the Rainbow Warriors.
In my opinion, Chip Kelly could never win another college football game and still go down as one of the most influential coaches in the history of the sport but I know he is determined to lead this program back to greatness. I will be watching Saturday and I will be rooting for Coach Kelly as he will always have a special place in my heart. To me, Kelly still represents that small school coach who did the unthinkable. The FCS assistant who defied the odds, took the college football world by storm and changed the game forever. It’s time for Kelly to find that magic once again. While the real test may come next week against LSU, it's critical that the Bruin's take care of business today against a dangerous Hawaii team.