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Chip Kelly officially picks UCLA as his return to college coaching

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The architect of Oregon’s title contenders is heading back to the Pac-12.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Kansas State Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Chip Kelly has picked UCLA over Florida and others as his return to college coaching, the Bruins have announced. “Kelly agreed to a five-year contract worth $23.3M with a $9M reciprocal buyout,” per the school.

Oh, and today is Kelly’s birthday, just as UCLA fired previous coach Jim Mora on his birthday.

The move brings Kelly back to college, where he had his most prominent role, with the Oregon Ducks from 2009-2012. He went 46-7 as the Ducks’ coach and brought the program to BCS bowls every year, winning the Rose and Fiesta bowls in his last two seasons in Eugene.

But things will be different this time because as time has gone on, the game has evolved.

Kelly left for the NFL, and he left his Oregon program in good hands.

After Kelly left Eugene, the Ducks elevated his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich, to replace him. For the last 40 years, Oregon football has thrived by hiring from within in terms of head coaches. Under Helfrich, Kelly’s offenses from 2010-12 finished in the top 5 in total offense, including the No. 1 unit in 2010.

Kelly, a former Oregon offensive coordinator himself, left to be the Philadelphia Eagles’ new head coach. All seemed to be going swimmingly in Eugene following Kelly’s departure, but of course it all came crashing down leading to Helfrich’s firing in 2016.

Kelly left Oregon to coach the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, and he produced two 10-6 seasons before stumbling to 6-9 and being fired late in the year in 2015. Here’s just a taste of what went wrong in Philly, with a big chunk of it having to do with personnel.

Kelly's personnel moves might have played an even bigger role in his dismissal than his coaching. After fighting for personnel control during the 2015 offseason, several of his roster additions struggled. Quarterback Sam Bradford did not upgrade the passing game as expected, and the running game took a step back after the Eagles traded away LeSean McCoy and picked up DeMarco Murray, and ignored problems along the offensive line.

The 49ers hired Kelly for the 2016 season, and it was an unqualified football disaster. Kelly’s team finished 2-14, and he was fired at the end of the season. He’s spent 2017 doing TV with ESPN.

But how will Kelly adapt to today’s college game?

Kelly isn’t a great fan of recruiting. (Oregon got into some hot, recruiting-related water a few years ago, stemming from things that happened during Kelly’s days as head coach.) But, as anyone in college football knows, you have to recruit well to be successful at a Power 5 program, and he’s gonna have to keep up with the changing landscape of college football.

Of course, recruiting in Los Angeles isn’t exactly the same as recruiting in Eugene. He won’t have to travel far to recruit with his beloved efficiency.

The college game is, in general, more amenable to spread offenses than it was when Kelly ran them at Oregon, both as an offensive coordinator in the Dennis Dixon days and later as head coach. More teams work out of the shotgun more often, and speed’s an even bigger emphasis in even more places than it used to be.

Remember that Dixon-Kelly 2007 offense, which was so fascinating in so many ways? More teams are like that now. It doesn’t mean Kelly can’t still make it work, but it means that style is less distinct and maybe less of a recruiting edge than it used to be. The sport evolved, in large part because coaches like Kelly were so successful doing things the way they did.

Some of the pros and cons he’ll have to weigh:

Pros: Any observer of the Dan Guerrero era of UCLA sports knows that each coaching search begins with the courting of a big name, and this year’s big-name coach is Chip Kelly. To be absolutely fair, Chip Kelly is the type of home-run hire that would take UCLA to the next level. He’s a proven winner at the college level, with a dynamic offense that could really take advantage of incoming recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s skillset (to say nothing of current backup and former 4-star recruit Devon Modster). Kelly is THE hot coaching name at the moment, but UCLA does apparently have some advantages here that we’ll talk about in a different section. As an additional plus, Kelly is still being paid a truckload of money by the San Francisco 49ers, so salary may not be as big of an issue in this case as in other options.

Cons: There are reasons to be wary of Chip Kelly, as with any coach. Kelly’s stint in the NFL was not the best, as he struggled to adapt his system to the NFL. It has been 5 years since Kelly coached in college, which is certainly another factor to consider. The biggest factor against Kelly is the show-cause penalty he received after leaving Oregon. The report is that the Oregon program paid a 7-on-7 coach $25,000 to help guide players to their program. Kelly’s personal show-cause penalty has expired, but this is something to consider, especially in light of the FBI investigations into college basketball corruption revealed last month.

We can’t know how this Round 2 will work for Kelly. But it’ll be fun to watch.

He’s not coming back to the same program he once built, and he’s not coming back to the same college game he left. Kelly did some amazing things at Oregon once upon a time, and it’ll be fascinating to watch the sequel now in a different place.