Chip Kelly and UCLA are a match made in who-the-hell-knows heaven.
Kelly is college football’s prodigal genius. He would have brought massive expectations to whichever school he chose to make his long-awaited return to campus, and he signed a five-year, $23.3 million contract to become the Bruins new head coach on Saturday. Kelly is famous for making Oregon a consistent championship contender for the first time in school history, but he bolted for the NFL before he could ever capture a national title, and he disappointed in his two-stop tenure in the pros. UCLA is a school with the location, brand name, recruiting territory, and deep pockets to put together a perennial threat to win Pac-12 and perhaps even national championships. And yet, it hasn’t played in the Rose Bowl game since 1999, even though it plays in the Rose Bowl stadium a handful of times each year. Both Kelly and UCLA can be great, and both have recently swung and missed. Combined, who knows how excellent—or underwhelming—they can be?
The chase for Kelly was the fiercest of this season’s coaching carousel, with both Florida and UCLA identifying him as their clear-cut no. 1 choice. Most coaches probably would have gone to Florida, as the Gators program makes more money and has won two national championships this century. UCLA, meanwhile, has claimed only one crown in its entire history, and that was in 1954. Florida averaged 87,000 fans per game in a 88,000-seat stadium last season; UCLA averaged 67,000 fans per game in a 92,000-seat venue.
But Kelly isn’t like most coaches. While most job changes primarily revolve around money or prestige, this one seemingly didn’t. By all accounts, his two main desires are to coach football and to not be annoyed by anybody while he does it. It might seem like his 2012 decision to ditch the once-sleepy Oregon program he built into a powerhouse for the Philadelphia Eagles was based around money and prestige. Yet Kelly also shed himself of two of his least favorite tasks in the process: trying to land recruits and dealing with university boosters. (“Being in the office every day and watching tape—that is the fun part of our job,” Kelly told Philadelphia Magazine in 2013.) The NFL was supposed to bring him freedom from others meddling with his creations; instead, he spent his entire Eagles career mired in squabbles with management, and was fired by the San Francisco 49ers less than a year after he was hired when the franchise’s ownership sought a regime change.
UCLA should feel like home for Kelly, even though it sits roughly a continent away from his actual home in New Hampshire. Like Oregon, it’s a Pac-12 program that lacks a storied history of contention. Expectations are dramatically lower than at Florida: UCLA’s last coach, Jim Mora, had a tenure that stretched longer than Kelly’s entire college head-coaching career despite accomplishing little of note. Florida’s last coach, Jim McElwain, was fired in October despite making the SEC championship game in both of his full seasons at the helm. At Florida, Kelly would have immediately become the largest fish in the swamp; at UCLA, he’ll take a position in charge of perhaps the fourth-most prominent football team within city limits.
Florida would have been the conventional choice, but UCLA represents a return to what Kelly knows best, and most crucially, to the type of situation that he has previously thrived in. If he wants to coach in peace, the Bruins should give him that chance. He built a program that helped revolutionize college football in Eugene by creating one of the greatest offenses the sport has ever seen; he’ll look to replicate his own formula in Westwood.
For the Bruins, Kelly’s hiring is not a return to normalcy—it’s an all-in moment. In past, UCLA’s athletic department has been stingy with football expenses. Now, it boasts a record-breaking apparel contract with Under Armour and upgraded football facilities. Money wasn’t an issue when it came to spending big on a buyout of Mora’s contract following a loss last weekend that dropped the team to 5-6; it also wasn’t a detriment in the administration making the flashiest coaching hire of the year.
Kelly is, amazingly, the fourth consecutive UCLA head coach whose prior job was in the NFL, although the last three amounted to attempts to tap into the school’s existing identity. Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel each played for the Bruins, while Mora grew up in Los Angeles and has a father who coached for the Bruins. Kelly has no connection to the program other than going 3-0 against them while he was the head man at Oregon.
It’s easy to wonder whether both parties know what they’re really getting themselves into: UCLA clearly sees Kelly as the coach who can get the most out of L.A.’s fertile recruiting turf and vault the team past USC to win conference or even national titles. Kelly probably sees UCLA as the school where he can work without being bothered about recruiting, playing up rivalries, or glad-handing boosters. UCLA has whiffed on coaches in the past, and every career choice Kelly has made of late has proven ill-advised. Even Kelly’s greatest success ended with him leaving amid NCAA sanctions.
But the ceiling here is so high. Kelly is a mad scientist who likes to operate free from prying eyes. UCLA is going to provide Kelly with all the beakers and potions that he needs. Stuff is gonna go boom; with Kelly, that can result in greatness. At the very least, it should make for college football’s most fascinating experiment.