In the spring of 2007 when Chip Kelly arrived at Oregon as an obscure coordinator from the University of New Hampshire, the Ducks coaches sat in the locker room exhausted after the first practice. They remarked to Kelly that they’d just endured the fastest practice they’d ever been involved with. Kelly laughed and shot back, “That was the slowest practice I’ve been involved with in the last 10 years.”
With UCLA’s hiring of Kelly on Saturday morning, the school officially announced it will be operating at a new speed, in a new paradigm and, if history is any indicator, with a completely different set of peers.
UCLA’s hiring of Kelly is an adrenaline shot for a middling football program with no national identity, a ray of hope for what appears to be a lost season in the Pac-12 and the type of transformative hire that, quite frankly, just makes the whole sport a lot more interesting. UCLA has suddenly found itself in the fast lane of college football, upgrading its program from a Courtyard Marriott to a suite at the Chateau Marmont over the weekend. “I think he’ll be successful,” said Mike Bellotti, the former Oregon coach and athletic director who hired Kelly as a coordinator and then as his successor. “Certainly, what he did at Oregon is a good precursor. The question is, ‘What’s the ceiling at UCLA?'”
Kelly’s hire makes him the only head coach in the Pac-12 who has been the head coach in a national title game. His 46-7 run at Oregon sparkles in retrospect, and the main thing that resonates since he left the college game in 2012 isn’t the winning percentage, smashed records or even the entire new era of football he ushered in. What stands out is how much fun those Kelly teams were, the possibility every Saturday that they could hang 70 points on the opposition. In the first half.
Every time Oregon took the field, it was like a football science experiment, as players like quarterback Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner ran through defenses like they’d been given a cheat code. The Ducks had flashy uniforms, outsized swagger and an air of offensive inevitability. Behind that fun was the enigmatic and quirky Kelly, who constantly deflected attention, refused introspection and added an aura of mystery to the magic on the field. And he did all that in Eugene, Oregon, with no real local recruiting base, limited tradition or national football brand. (Apologies to Joey Harrington.) Kelly’s magic began with overhauling Dennis Dixon from an underachieving quarterback into a Heisman-caliber one in 2007 before injury robbed him of a trip to New York. Kelly’s reputation grew to where he’d become one of the game’s most respected play callers, as consistent on the sideline as he was evasive off it. “There was never going to be a question about Chip getting outcoached,” Bellotti told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “He’s an outstanding football strategist.”
Credit UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and senior associate athletic director Josh Rebholz for having the foresight and aggressiveness to make a run at Kelly. They fired Jim Mora a week ago with this hire in mind and executed everything perfectly, as the 5-year, $23-million deal may end up being priceless in retrospect. Mora’s buyout will cost the school $12 million if he doesn’t take another job, but that could well be covered in the season ticket surge that will be accompanied by Kelly’s hiring. Overnight, UCLA is “Hamilton” on Broadway, “Star Wars” at the box office and the new darling of endless coverage and speculation.
The place where this hits hardest is USC, where second-year head coach Clay Helton won the Rose Bowl last year and will play in the Pac-12 title game next week. The Trojans, however, have already lost this offseason, as Kelly’s arrival in Westwood will dominate headlines in L.A. Helton is 20-5 in two seasons as full-time coach, and already a distant second in his own city.
After Kelly left for the NFL, his desire to recruit was often whispered about. And it will undergo a significant test, as he needs to lure kids to Westwood, where they haven’t won a Pac-12 title since it was the Pac-10 – way back in 1998 under Bob Toledo. That will be Kelly’s first test, as the new early signing period – the one that’s caused this coaching carousel chaos to become a Thanksgiving staple this year – looms on Dec. 20. Bellotti dismissed the notion outright that Kelly wasn’t an engaged recruiter, and Kelly’s former defensive coordinator, Nick Aliotti, told Yahoo Sports on Saturday that he expects “instant success.” He adds: “His name and accomplishments at Oregon will bring instant credibility with recruits,” said Aliotti, a Pac-12 Network analyst.
There’s already buzz in Southern California recruiting circles. Jason Negro, the coach at powerhouse St. John Bosco High School, told Yahoo Sports on Saturday morning that Kelly’s name, brand and style will be attractive to recruits. “I think it’s a huge hire for UCLA,” Negro said. “It’s the first time UCLA has really made a national hire. It’s a brand of football that the kids really enjoy being a part of. Kids don’t have long attention spans. It’s an ADD kind of offense, and kids enjoy playing in that.”
Now let’s be clear here, Kelly isn’t infallible. His program had significant NCAA issues at Oregon, his genius didn’t translate to the NFL and there’s little unique these days about the tempo that he made famous at Oregon. The rest of college football has caught up to Kelly’s speed, as the game has changed so much in a decade that pro-style teams like Stanford are now the new-age anomalies.
Can Kelly stay a step ahead? Will top recruits flock to the new $65 million football facility in Westwood? Will the balance of power in the Pac-12 shift across town? Those are all questions no one was wondering about in Los Angeles two weeks ago.
In a town built on star power, UCLA has brought in the brightest one on the market. This will be a sequel that everyone, from Hollywood to Westwood and beyond, will be lining up to see.
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