Earlier this week, Chip Kelly spoke to the football team at the University of New Hampshire. Kelly graduated from UNH, coached there for 14 years and considers coach Sean McDonnell a close friend and confidant. So when McDonnell went home on Monday night, his wife, Jenny, asked him a version of a question that will be asked countless times across the college football landscape this season: “What’s Chip going to do after this year?”
McDonnell chuckled as he gave the same answer to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday afternoon that he did to his wife on Monday night: “We didn’t talk about any of that stuff,” said McDonnell, who is entering his 19th year as UNH head coach. “We talked about football and what makes good teams and good coaches. That’s where conversations go with him, not what he’s going to do.”
Kelly will re-emerge publicly this week as he begins his new job as an ESPN analyst. But he’ll even manage to stay low-profile in that gig, as he’s slated to do pre-game, halftime and wrap-up shows on ESPN2, according to the news release of his hiring.
A decade since entering the college football spotlight when he left UNH to become Oregon’s offensive coordinator, Kelly has somehow managed to simultaneously live in the spotlight and still avoid it. His proclivity for mystery and affinity for aloofness added to his aura as a college coach. It also fueled scrutiny during his time in the NFL. And a veil of secrecy will inevitably follow his season away from the sidelines.
Kelly will be reluctantly cast as the star of Speculation Season. He’s clearly the highest-profile college head coaching candidate, assuming that Bob Stoops doesn’t change his mind and decide to coach again. Kelly’s collegiate record is an astounding 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon. He won three Pac-12 titles and reached the BCS title game after the 2010 season. The questions about Kelly’s future loom over the sport – Will he return? Where would he go? Is the NFL still an option?
Those are questions the famously reclusive Kelly isn’t likely to answer anytime soon. Kelly declined comment for this article, which is not surprising. If you thought Kelly’s offenses were fast at Oregon, see how quick he’ll change the subject when the topic turns to himself. Kelly has always countered any hint of introspection with a hot read. “That’s been his M.O. for a long, long time,” McDonnell said. “It’s always been about everything else and everyone else. He’s never been an ‘I’ guy. That’s what made him so good, he’s unselfish in everything that he does and so loyal to his friends, the people he coached with and the kids he coached.”
Even around Kelly’s inner-circle, no one is quite sure of Kelly’s next move. There’s a strong feeling he’ll eventually be back on the sideline, but the timeline and destination are speculative. “He’s the best available coach out there,” said Nick Aliotti, the former defensive coordinator at Oregon who serves as a Pac-12 Network analyst. “I have no doubt in Chip Kelly’s ability. I really don’t. What I saw in the six years I was with him, I thought he was a brilliant head football coach and offensive mind. There’s no doubt that Chip could recreate that at a good place.”
Look for Kelly to keep his options open, as he’s keeping an open mind to both college and NFL openings. Kelly does generally want to return to coaching, but his 2-14 season in San Francisco reinforced that proper alignment needs to be in place. That means that Kelly isn’t going to jump at the first school or franchise that sends a private plane his way.
After the debacle in San Francisco and some frosty moments with the front office in Philadelphia, the guiding tenet in Kelly’s next coaching move will be fit. Wherever he ends up, the right people and fit will be the biggest factors. As Kelly told Albuquerque television station KRQE in April: “I just want to be around good people.” (It’s perfect, actually, that nuggets of insight from Kelly come from a New Mexico television station.)
Don’t expect money to factor into Kelly’s decision. He spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater, University of New Hampshire, and cut his teeth at schools like Columbia and Johns Hopkins. Money has never been a guiding factor for Kelly’s career, and that’s not going to change with him reportedly owed more than $18 million the next three years. (No one is quite sure who owes him what.)
The best guess is that Kelly will end up back in college, but that prediction is just that – a guess. Kelly didn’t completely bust in the NFL, as he went 26-21 in three seasons in Philadelphia. (He went 2-14 in San Francisco last year, but Vince Lombardi would have struggled with that rag-tag roster).
Kelly went on a diverse camp tour this spring, as his reported stops included New Mexico, Texas A&M, Navy, Duke, Virginia and Maryland. He also visited the Dolphins and has been spotted multiple times observing the New England Patriots. (Kelly’s offense at UNH evolved from yearly trips to study offenses at places like Clemson, Northwestern and Auburn).
There’s a footnote on Kelly’s collegiate experience that will certainly come up if he interviews for a college job. Kelly left Oregon ahead of NCAA penalties for recruiting violations, which came down six months after his departure for the NFL. The NCAA slapped him with a show-cause penalty that expired in December of 2014. Kelly was one of the first coaches to get charged with head coach responsibility, as the NCAA ruled that he failed to monitor the program. That’s a significant charge in NCAA world, but it’s hard to imagine that scaring away decision makers in most high-profile athletic departments. (The NCAA did not prove he had direct knowledge of the recruiting violations in question.)
So what’s Kelly learned from the past four seasons? How will his NFL experience shape the rest of his coaching path? Where could his band of loyalists get back together to start another run? Those are questions that will likely go unanswered as Kelly spends his Saturday afternoons analyzing Big Ten West slugfests. Even with Chip Kelly back in front of us, he’ll remain enigmatic. Just the way he likes it.
With Kelly established as the top head coaching candidate on the board this offseason, here’s the 15 top coaches from outside the Power Five who are positioned to be in play for jobs this year.
1. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane went 10-3 last year, finishing in the top 10 in scoring offense (42.5) and total offense (527 yards per game). They are poised for a breakout year in the American Athletic Conference. Montgomery can bolster his candidacy with an upset of Oklahoma State next week. Opposing coaches have observed his spread offenses are unusually tough and physical for that style of play.
2. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State – Since starting 1-5 in the FBS, Satterfield is 27-5. That includes going 11-2 and 10-3 with bowl wins the past two years. He’s an obvious target if N.C. State opens up and whiffs on high-profile names. Not a name who many consider would take a West Coast job.
3. Jason Candle, Toledo – He’s 10-4 with a bowl win in his debut over Matt Rhule and No. 24 Temple. Rocket quarterback Logan Woodside led the nation in TD passes (45), and a similar performance will get Candle – who still calls plays – a lot of buzz. In a down year for promising MAC coaches, he’s the clear candidate.
4. Mike Norvell, Memphis – Norvell has as big an upside as any candidate on this list. His offensive acumen, high intellect and palpable energy are easy sells to ADs. Needs to follow up a debut 8-5 season with progress, as Memphis is favored to win the AAC West division over Tulsa and if the Tigers fulfill expectations they’ll shoot up higher.
5. Bryan Harsin, Boise State – The buzz around Harsin has cooled with the Broncos 4-5 in their last nine games in the Mountain West Mountain Division. They also haven’t reached the MWC title game the past two years. With a job the caliber of Boise, the expectations are astronomical. Still, no coach outside the Power Five can claim a 31-9 record and Fiesta Bowl victory. The big question: Would he consider Arizona State? Hard to see him moving elsewhere this season, with little movement expected out West.
6. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy – He’s a paragon of consistency going 77-42 over 10 seasons, emerging as a confidant of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Niumatalolo’s profile will rise with the announcement of the Showtime documentary series that will follow Navy for the season. The option-based offensive style hurts his candidacy at the top-echelon jobs, but could be ideal at a place like Arizona. After Cal showed significant interest last year, Niumatalolo’s time is coming.
7. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State – He won the Sun Belt regular season outright two years ago (8-0) and tied for it last season (7-1). Anderson is 24-15 overall and could draw interest from a school like Texas Tech, as he’s shattered all the school’s offensive records. (He’d be higher on this list if not for three blowout losses to Toledo).
8. Craig Bohl, Wyoming – He’s the most accomplished coach on this list, as he won three national titles at North Dakota State. His recruitment and development of Carson Wentz and Josh Allen make for an intriguing narrative. The issue here is that he’s 59, which could be a hard sell for an AD.
9. Frank Wilson, UTSA – He resuscitated UTSA with a 6-7 record and led the program to its first bowl in school history. (UTSA was 3-9 in Larry Coker’s final season). Another three-game jump will put Wilson’s name on the lips for SEC jobs, as he’s regarded as one of the most prolific recruiters in the Southeast. Wilson has developed a reputation in the industry for being a dynamic and prepared interview.
10. Scott Frost, UCF – Authored one of the most impressive turnarounds in 2016 as UCF went 6-7 after going 0-12 the year before. Another distinct leap will only help Frost, as his playing pedigree at Nebraska and Chip Kelly lineage from his time at Oregon will push him to the forefront. Deserves props for hiring Eric Chinander as defensive coordinator, as UCF went from No. 117 to No. 42 in scoring defense last year.
11. Neal Brown, Troy – He flipped Troy from 4-8 to 10-3, and won the Dollar General Bowl over Ohio. The Sun Belt is flush with promising young coaches and Brown’s star quarterback, Brandon Silvers, will only increase his visibility. He’s similar to Norvell in that his offensive background and personality will resonate in interviews.
12. Chuck Martin, Miami University (Ohio) – No coach changed his paradigm more in a shorter period in 2016, as Martin went from 0-6 and on the hot seat to winning six straight to close the regular season. (Miami showed well in the bowl game, losing 17-16 to heavy favorite Mississippi State). Martin won two national titles as a head coach (2005 and 2006) at Grand Valley State and was Notre Dame’s OC when they reached the national title game in 2012. Don’t be surprised if Miami surges and Martin gets hot this year.
13. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech – He was excellent at UConn (34-23), East Carolina (two C-USA titles) and has put together three straight nine-win seasons at La Tech. The anomaly in the résumé is a brutal stint at USF that ended with him 3-9 in 2012. Holtz, 53, likely has one more move in him but would need to execute it soon.
14. Chad Morris, SMU – His 7-17 record should disqualify him from the list. But with movement likely in Texas, he could well emerge as a Texas Tech candidate with a big season. (A&M would have a hard time paying $10 million to hire the SMU coach, who at best will be near .500 after this year). Morris recruited Deshaun Watson to Clemson and has one of the country’s top receivers, Courtland Sutton, this year. His high school lineage looms large in that state.
15. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii – Rolovich brought an Elvis impersonator around with him at MWC media day, as he’s making a play at Mike Leach for the country’s most eccentric coach. Rolovich went 7-7 in his debut with the school’s first bowl win since 2006 and non-losing season since 2010.
Football Championship Subdivision
1. Chris Klieman, North Dakota State – He’s won two national titles in three years and would make a lot of sense at Kansas State. Bohl’s success last year at Wyoming helps Klieman, as it shows that system can work at higher levels.
2. Bo Pelini, Youngstown – The results are still there on the field, as he reached the FCS title game last year. Off-field controversy still follows though, as the school just announced that convicted Steubenville rapist Ma’lik Richmond will remain on the team but not play in 2017.
3. Mike Houston, James Madison – JMU ended North Dakota State’s run of five straight titles by upsetting it on the road in the FCS semifinals. Has an impressive track record from stints at Lenoir-Rhyne (DII title game appearance) and The Citadel. Be afraid East Carolina, on Sept. 2.
4. Andrew Breiner, Fordham – The 33-year-old RPO whiz kid could be the next Fordham coach on the rise. If Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead leaves for a head job, don’t be surprised to see Breiner take the ex-Fordham coach’s OC job in State College.
5. Tom Arth, Chattanooga – Went 40-8 in four seasons at John Carroll, his alma mater. Arth’s most notable accomplishment was ending Mount Union’s run of 24 consecutive conference titles. Arth, 36, backed up Peyton Manning for three seasons with the Colts.
*The notable Division II candidates are Adam Dorrel at Abilene Christian, who won three of the past four national titles at Northwest Missouri State, and Matt Mitchell at Grand Valley State (57-19).