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January 05. 2013 9:59PM

In NFL interviews, NH's Chip Kelly likely asking most of the questions


 

Chip Kelly, then offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, directs from the sideline during a 2006 game against host Dartmouth as UNH head coach Sean McDonnell looks on. The two men remain close friends. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER FILE)
Chip Kelly spent the past two days in various meetings with the NFL's Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. Normally, when an employer meets with a prospective employee, it's the former who does the interviewing, but in these instances, as the University of New Hampshire's Sean McDonnell can attest, it probably was Kelly who asked most of the questions.

This isn't the first time the NFL has come calling on Kelly, who played and coached at Manchester Central High and the University of New Hampshire before becoming the hottest commodity in football as head coach at the University of Oregon. There was a near-leap to the NFL last year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offered him their head-coaching job, and there was an opportunity years earlier, when Kelly was offensive coordinator under McDonnell at UNH and Tom Coughlin was looking for someone to fill the position of offensive quality control coach.

"They offered him a two-year deal - at twice what he was making for us the first year, three times what he was making here the second," McDonnell recalled on Saturday.

"But the job was all about analyzing the offense and breaking down film, and Chip wanted to be teaching and calling plays. Chip talked to Coach Coughlin about that, but Tom couldn't guarantee that was going to happen, and Chip turned him down. I was flabbergasted, but Chip didn't feel in his head or his stomach that it was the right move. He wanted to make sure that when he did move on, it was for the right reasons and the right job.

"I'll tell you this: Whoever Chip's talking to (this weekend), he's asking a lot of questions."

McDonnell spent time with Kelly last week in Tempe, Ariz., where Kelly's Ducks played Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly set his former boss up with a tee time at the exclusive Scottsdale TPC Stadium Course on Wednesday - a couple of other good friends, Kevin Mills, an assistant coach at Portsmouth High, and Tony Trisciani, a Manchester Memorial High graduate and former UNH assistant now coaching at Villanova, rounded out the threesome - and McDonnell got to watch Oregon beat KSU, 35-17, Thursday night.

"It's always fun to get out to an Oregon game with Chip coaching there," McDonnell said. "It's great to be in that kind of atmosphere - great setting, great competition, great people ... people like (former Wildcats and current Ducks defensive line coach) Jerry Azzinaro, (Oregon defensive coordinator) Nick Aliotti, (defensive backs coach) John Neal - and not have to coach."

One thing he didn't do, McDonnell claimed, was discuss Kelly's future. Kelly, 49, has said in interviews that the two people outside the Oregon football department he speaks with most frequently are NFL head coach-turned-TV analyst Jon Gruden and McDonnell, but, McDonnell said, his conversations with Kelly have their limits.

"We talk about football, about coaching, about motivation ... We don't talk much about jobs," the UNH coach said. "He has a couple of people he really trusts on those matters, including his agent, and I'm sure that's who he's talking with now."

That doesn't mean there won't come a time when Kelly and McDonnell do discuss employment.

McDonnell, 56, has done wonders with the Wildcats, taking over for UNH legend Bill Bowes - the man who coached and later hired both him and Kelly - and turning a slumping program into one that has made a nation's-best nine straight trips to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs: the first three with Kelly as offensive coordinator, the last six since Kelly's departure for Oregon.

In an occupation known for volatility and transience, he has deep roots and security.

But with facilities vastly inferior to those of most FCS playoff regulars, he may have taken UNH as far as he can take it - and for a much lower annual salary than he'd make as an NFL assistant.

If Kelly were to offer him a staff position, would McDonnell take it?

"Not right now," McDonnell said. "I look at where I am, at what I'm doing, and UNH is the right place for me right now. Would it be a dream to coach in the NFL on the staff of a good friend? Some day, yeah. But I'm good with where I'm at, and - honestly? - it's something we've never talked about."

If they ever do get around to talking about working together again, it will be at some point after this weekend. In the meantime, Kelly has at least a few more questions to ask his prospective employers.

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Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News deputy managing editor. Email him at vsylvia@unionleader.com.

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