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Analysis: If Chip Kelly returns to college, he'd win

The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

November 14. 2017 9:23PM
Oregon head coach Chip Kelly is greeted with a bucket of Gatorade as linebacker Michael Clay (46) looks on after defeating the Kansas State at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Ralph Freso)

When Chip Kelly’s father died late last year, a contingent of high-ranking Oregon Ducks officials broke from business and attended the funeral in Maine.

The Ducks hadn’t yet offered the football head coach position to Willie Taggart. The search that was initially headquartered in Dallas had moved to New York for phase two, but when it came time to pay respects to the late Paul Kelly, Oregon’s brain trust diverted to that funeral and speculation about a return to Eugene ramped up.

I thought about that today as rumors grew surrounding a possible return to college football for Chip Kelly. Tennessee? Florida? Somewhere else? Maybe even Oregon someday again in the distant future?

Timing is everything, isn’t it?

In early December 2016, the Ducks were without a football coach and missing Kelly badly. The fomer Manchester (N.H.) Central player and University of New Hampshire offensive coordinator went 46-7 at Oregon and changed the trajectory of the program. If he were available, he’d have been candidate No. 1. But his possible return to Eugene was inhibited by the fact that he was still the head coach of the NFL’s 49ers. Even at 1-11 and on his way to being fired, Kelly reiterated to media that he was committed to winning games and staying in the NFL.

Days after that funeral, Taggart was hired. But I wondered amid all that if Oregon had broached the subject of its opening directly with Kelly. As in, at any point, did they offer him a chance to come back before moving forward to Taggart?

The answer from someone who was involved: “No. It’s kind of like seducing an old girlfriend. Good idea, but hard to find the words.”

Timing is everything, isn’t it?

For Kelly, particularly so. When Mike Bellotti brought Kelly to Oregon from New Hampshire it was only after offensive coordinator misfired on Gary Crowton and Andy Ludwig. But landing Kelly ended up being the greatest recruitment of Bellotti’s career.

The Ducks jumped with that hire from decent to dynamic.

Staffers in the football office at Oregon reported that the department took on “a wild west feel” during the eventual head coaching transition from Bellotti to Kelly. There was also a line of off-field incidents that were messy. Kelly was still figuring out how to handle the bureaucratic delicacies of being a head coach while also being a hands-on head coach. But he eventually figured it out.

“He’s an Olympian when it comes to being stubborn,” said one high-ranking athletic department official during Kelly’s tenure.

Some men have the extraordinary capability to go down roads less traveled. Kelly went from New Hampshire to Oregon to ending up fired twice in the NFL, richer by $55 million. Now, he’s working as an analyst on television. I always felt that part of the unspoken beauty of Kelly was that he didn’t just try to do things differently, he worked until he actually pulled it off.

It was always little things for him. For example, Kelly studying the sleep cycle of his NFL players was used as evidence of how controlling he was, or how little he understood the differences between college and pro athletes. But the rest of us knew that what Kelly was trying to do there was trying to find an edge. The NCAA slapped Kelly with an 18-month show-cause penalty in 2013 after its investigation into the then mostly unregulated scouting services he used at Oregon. But in retrospect wasn’t that just Kelly exploring an angle he thought he could take advantage of?

He left Oregon for the NFL. And he failed there for the same reasons that made him great as a college head coach. He needed to play the role of GM. Worse yet, he dared to take big swings with personnel in a league with small margins. Also, in the NFL, he didn’t have time to work though things like he did in college. At Oregon, he went to the 2011 BCS Championship game without a player drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft a few months later.

In the NFL, Kelly couldn’t just out-scheme people. The result was a 28-35 combined record in Philadelphia and San Francisco. But amid all that, the rest of us decided that if Kelly’s act could ever get back to college, where he could utilize recruiting vs. a draft system, look out.

I asked a confidant of Kelly’s on Tuesday about what he knows about a possible return to coaching. The reply came: “He’s bored and will go back to work next season if the right opportunity opens.”

Florida? He’d win there, if so. Same goes for Tennessee or anywhere else with resources. I’d bet on Kelly every time in those circumstances because I think he’s smart and motivated to prove he knew what he was doing all along. And when you combine those things with the advantage of resources and a recruiting base like the state of Florida and Kelly’s stubborn nature, I’m not sure how he fails in college.

Also, I’m convinced that the big money that came with coaching never really mattered as much to Kelly as being successful on the field. He told me in 2010 that scheming against the best appealed to him. He mentioned specifically coaching against Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin. I think he got that out of his system. After losing to Auburn in that sour ending of the Jan. 2011 BCS title game, I’m sure there’s some part of Kelly that would like to mix it up again with the best of the SEC.

Something there feels unfinished.

The Oregon contingent that attended Paul Kelly’s funeral went because it admires and respects Kelly. Sure, Ducks fans may have hoped that Kelly would bury his father, then board the private plane, quit the NFL from 20,000 feet high and fly straight into Eugene with the Ducks travel party. But that’s not Kelly’s style.

I can’t imagine Kelly quitting anything he’s ever started.