While the college football world was caught up in Manti Te’o fake-girlfriend-hysteria on Wednesday, the real story (no pun intended) in the sport came 2,000 miles in Eugene, Ore., where one of the best coaches in the game walked out the back door on an emerging dynasty. In the least surprising news of the off-season, which just so happened to come at the most surprising of times, Chip Kelly is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. And the strangest thing to me is that no one seems to care.
Well, ok, so “no one seems to care” is a bit of an overstatement, but in terms of great college coaches leaving the game, it barely registers as a 2.0 on the Mark Richter scale. Understand that it was just a few short years ago that we spent weeks wrestling with the idea that Jim Harbaugh would coach anywhere other than Stanford, fully expecting him to return to his alma mater at Michigan before he eventually pulled a 180 and headed off into the NFL sunset instead. Same with Pete Carroll, who had a multi-year song-and-dance with the NFL before eventually he too eventually took the plunge with Seattle in early 2010. This off-season we speculated on Bill O’Brien and Brian Kelly, Doug Marrone and for a minute, David Shaw as well.
But Chip Kelly?
Well, we’ve been curious which NFL city Kelly would next call home since well before the Fiesta Bowl, almost resigning ourselves to the fact that he was a part of college football’s past, before he’d even coached his last game at Oregon or ever officially taken any other job. And even when he did announce his return to Eugene a few weeks back, most weren’t really excited as much as they simply shrugged their shoulders and said, “Meh, he’ll go to the league next year instead.” Again, with Chip and the NFL, we always had a lingering doubt and pit in our stomach. For us as outside observers, it was always “when Chip Kelly would leave Oregon.” Not if.
So when Kelly finally did skip town Wednesday, most simply shook their heads, made their lame Twitter jokes and moved onto the next subject…which conveniently fell into their laps with Te’o a few hours later (for the record, don’t expect me to write anything about Manti any time soon. That story is so weird, with so many damn layers that I’m having trouble thinking about it, let alone putting pen to paper). Still, when we found out Kelly was leaving on Wednesday, I was stunned at how many people who care so deeply about college football- analysts, fans, Oregon fans, whoever- were simply apathetic to his departure to the pros. No one was necessarily happy to see him gone. But they weren’t devastated either.
Me on the other hand, well man, I was crushed. This was one of the great coaches of my lifetime, a true genius in a sport where the term gets thrown around entirely too loosely. And now he’s gone to the NFL, to try his hand with Michael Vick and De’Sean Jackson, and to try regain control of a locker room, franchise and city that long soured on Andy Reid a long time ago. Will Chip Kelly’s system work in the NFL? I don’t know. But what I do know is college football simply won’t be the same without him.
As Kelly now packs up his sparse Eugene bachelor pad to hit the road for Philly (by the way, I can just picture Chip’s condo in Oregon, with game-film and empty pizza boxes scattered everywhere), I don’t think people realize just how great this guy was at Oregon. Why no one seems to know or appreciate it, I’m not totally sure. Maybe it’s because his team’s played on the West Coast while half the country was asleep, or maybe the Ducks beat so many teams by so many points that after a while everyone eventually came numb to it. Or maybe it was Kelly’s arrogant East Coast attitude, one which I adored as a fellow New Englander (understand I grew up with a million Chip Kelly’s in my life. Seeing him yell at a reporter wasn’t weird to me; it simply felt like Thanksgiving at my uncle’s house) but also an attitude which so many on the West Coast despised. Whatever the case, like many geniuses’ Kelly’s true greatness won’t be felt until long after he’s gone from the college game, and running up the score on Monte Kiffin in Dallas, instead of Los Angeles.
Looking at the raw numbers, it really is incredible what Kelly did in his four years at Oregon. Kelly will leave Oregon with a 46-7 record overall, including a staggering 33-3 in the Pac-12 and 22-2 at Autzen Stadium (of those two losses, one came in overtime this year to Stanford and the other on a last second field goal miss to USC a season ago). In the process he also led the Ducks to three straight Pac-12 titles, and in the one season he didn’t win the conference (this year), Oregon finished 12-1 overall with a resounding Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State. Speaking of those 12 wins, Oregon is the only program in the country to win 12 games the last three years, and is also the only one which is currently working on a streak of four straight trips to BCS bowl games. No one else, not Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma or Boise can claim either of those things.
As a matter of fact, that might be the most underrated thing about Kelly’s tenure at Oregon, the fact that after a “bump in the road” first season as head coach (where his team ONLY went 10-3 and won the Pac-10), his team’s never lost to inferior teams. Ever.
Seriously, go ahead and look at the guy’s resume. Of Kelly’s last four losses dating back the last three years, his clubs were defeated by an eventual BCS champion (Auburn in 2010), a BCS runner-up (LSU to open 2011), a team which finished 2011 ranked in the Top 5 nationally (USC) and a Stanford club which went 12-2 this season and won the Pac-12. I mean… think about that for a second. The lost four clubs that beat a Chip Kelly coached team in the last three years averaged OVER 12 wins a season in the year which they beat him. In other words, nobody- not Nick Saban, Les Miles or Urban Meyer- had his team more prepared to take care of business on a week-in and week-out basis over the last four years than Chip Kelly did.
As Kelly gets set to head to the NFL, he will of course be remembered at Oregon for his system, the same system who most doubt will work in the pros. I’m not an “NFL guy,” and by no means know if it will or not. I just know that if Kelly gets half as much out of his players as he did at Oregon, then the Eagles will be Super Bowling within a few years. Understand that for Chip Kelly, his players didn’t make his system. His system made them.
Remember that Kelly not only won an average of 11.5 games in four years at Oregon, but did it with virtually a different cast of characters every season. This program wasn’t about one player or even a truly great group of players taking the team to new heights, but instead Kelly getting more out of the sum of his parts, than the parts were truly worth themselves.
In four seasons Kelly had three different regular starting quarterbacks (four if you include a couple spot starts from Bryan Bennett) and three different leading receivers as well. Not to mention that when LaMichael James left after three 1,500-yard seasons last winter, Kenjon Barner showed up and showed out with 1,700 yards rushing himself in 2012. Had Kelly stayed, I suspect that whether it was Byron Marshall, De’Anthony Thomas or someone else, the next guy would’ve put up strikingly similar numbers as James and Barner did before him.
And really, that’s what incredible about this whole run for Kelly. Whether it was Darron Thomas and LaMichael James or Marcus Mariota and Kenjon Barner, he never needed the five-star, elite, can’t miss prospects to win games. When one formerly obscure three-star recruit left, the next one filled in. Understand that in his four years at Oregon Kelly had exactly one class finish in the Top 10 in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings (No. 9 in 2011), and the seniors on this year’s team were part of the 34th ranked class in 2009. That 34th ranked class also went 4-0 against USC's No. 2 ranked class nationally in their four years in Eugene.
Beyond that (and admittedly, I don’t follow recruiting particularly closely), I can only think of three players who arrived at the school as nationally known commodities under Chip Kelly’s watch. There was Lache Seastrunk, a five-star running back out of Texas, who finally found success in 2012…at Baylor. There was De’Anthony Thomas, whose best asset is as a brilliant return man, and who was recruited by most schools (rightfully) as a cornerback. And there’s Arik Armstead who arrived last year as one of the nation’s top defensive tackle prospects, and played sparingly as a true freshman this season.
Beyond them, Kelly didn’t recruit great players, so much as great players were developed in his system. Where others saw Barner as an undersized back (who Rivals had as the 89th best player his senior year… just in the state of California), Kelly saw a guy who would eventually rush for 3,000 yards in his Ducks’ career. Where most saw Michael Clay as too small to play linebacker in the Pac-12, Kelly saw someone who would eventually turn into a multi-year starter and All-Pac 12 performer as a senior. And while we’re on the subject, let’s also not forget that Kelly was one of the few guys who recruited Johnny Manziel as you know, a college quarterback. Safe to say that guy turned out pretty well, huh? Sure some of Kelly’s remaining recruits had more offers than others, but it’s also safe to say that at no point did Kelly ever bring in the kind of talent haul that schools like Texas, Ohio State and USC do annually. He also won a lot more than those schools over the last couple years as well.
That’s also why I’m dubious that Oregon can keep things going without Kelly as their head coach next season. When the news broke on Wednesday I found it fascinating as to how many people took to Twitter and quickly said that with all the talent that Oregon has returning and the schedule they have that the Ducks will be just fine. One national columnist said they’d “sleep walk to 10-2.”
Wait, really? Weren’t we saying the same thing about Arkansas this past fall, when they lost Bobby Petrino, but returned the rest of their staff, Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis? Yeah, how did things turn out in Fayetteville? Because I’m not quite sure 4-8 was what most fans were expecting in September (to my credit I pegged Arkansas at 7-5. Even I can’t claim 4-8). It was the same when Petrino left Louisville and Cardinals went from 12-1 to 6-6 in one year, or when Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia when Rich Rodriguez left or Steve Spurrier skipped town at Florida. All teams had tangibly great coaches and were tangibly worse without them the following season. You don’t just plug in the next guy. Not when the last guy was as good as Chip Kelly.
As a matter of fact, the only program I can think of which lost a great coach and didn’t miss a beat the next year was Stanford in 2011, and they had some guy named Andrew Luck running their offense. Make no mistake, Marcus Mariota ain’t Andrew Luck, and even though David Shaw proved to be a plenty capable coach without him this season, there’s also no guarantee that Mark Helfrich (Kelly’s eventual replacement) is David Shaw either. Sorry Oregon fans, but there’s a much better chance Helfrich is instead Bill Stewart, Steve Kragthorpe or Ron Zook. Understand, that’s not me talking. That’s college football history speaking on my behalf.
That’s also why I’m also glad to say that I at least got one chance to see one of Kelly’s teams in person before he took his talents to Philadelphia. It came this past season at USC, when Oregon rolled into the LA Coliseum ranked No. 2 in the country and rolled out with a 62-51 win over the Trojans that wasn’t really as close as the final score indicated.
In that game, Oregon’s offense was everything I hoped it’d be and then some. They played at a blinding speed, to the point that as I wrote the next day, if you put your head down for one second to check your phone, there was a chance you not only missed a play, but a touchdown as well.
To the Ducks credit, they remained one step ahead of USC the entire game. They blistered USC with pace at the beginning, slowed down the tempo after they’d gained the lead, and despite a popular misconception, they played power football at times also. On one drive in the third quarter, Oregon converted two fourth down conversions by simply running the ball right at USC, and when the Ducks scored later that drive, the game was unofficially over.
And in the end, it all came back to Kelly, who was equal parts button-pusher and puppet-master that night. He knew what to call and when to call it, and for ‘SC’s fans and coaches, it was a lot like pulling teeth. Every time the Trojans had Oregon backed down or in a corner, Kelly had an answer, an answer which moved the chains, kept the drive alive and eventually resulted in points on the scoreboard.
It was true genius at work, literal football poetry in motion.
And now it’s off to the NFL.
Let me be the (first and maybe only college football fan) to wish Chip Kelly luck as he heads to Philadelphia.
Whether college football fans realize it now or not, he will be missed.
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