To tell you the truth, I've been writing this column in my head for days. Weeks really. You know, the column giving my read on Chip Kelly taking the head-coaching job of NFL team X. Because Chip was a lame-duck coach these last few months. Kelly was the hottest property in coaching; his name in all caps at the top of multiple teams’ coaching wish-list. He was going through the motions on his farewell tour through college football. I mean, awesome career at Oregon, but it was time for Chip to move on. He wanted the NFL and the NFL wanted him. Kelly was going to get a ton of money; Mark Helfrich was sitting just a few formalities away from the top job. We'd all moved on. It was over, a given that as quick as Chip Kelly ran has scintillating offense, he would bolt for the NFL. But it didn't happen like that. Didn't happen like that at all. And so, even though my fingers hardly believe me, I'm not writing that column.
It was just about this time last year that I wrote a column about Chip Kelly in past tense. For a few hours on a fateful night in January last year, Kelly was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or so I thought. Because then I woke up the next morning and Chip was still, through all the smoke and conflicting reports, the head coach of the Oregon Ducks. But that morning last January, I wrote that this whole NFL thing was very real for Kelly. He didn't come back to Oregon because he loved his job, or he was devoted to the football team. He came back because there were better offers in the future than the Tampa Bay job.
Chip knew that if he sat on his cards and waited through another hugely successful college year, better offers with more money, power, autonomy, and security would come flying. There were top team executives in Arizona, waiting for that pesky Fiesta Bowl to be played so they could whisk their man away on a float of dollars and promises. The teams lined up. Cleveland. Philadelphia. Buffalo. And there were all sent slinking away as Kelly, apparently, coordinated Oregon's recruiting efforts throughout marathon meetings with his pursuers.
Cleveland was miffed at Kelly. They threw everything but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the man they felt could expel the losing stench that plagued their franchise for years. Philadelphia thought they had him too and, maybe, sensed Kelly would have sat through 16+ hours of interviews to amuse himself. He has been close before. Maybe Kelly overplayed his hand, ditched the Browns too soon and came up short with the Eagles. But I doubt it. Chip is far too smart for that. I think somewhere in those 16 hours, Kelly thought, gosh, I have a great, great job already, and a chance to do even greater things in it. Why would I leave to take over middling NFL disasters?
Oregon is 4 for 4 for BCS bowls in Kelly's first four years. There's no telling where Kelly and the Ducks can go from here – how many wins, BCS appearances, Pac-12 and even national championship appearances before the rest of the country catches up. Kelly will keep innovating, and the Ducks may just keep improving. Oregon's only been recruiting as a perennial top-5 team for a few years – we could see even better players in Eugene in the coming years. The brand, the offense, the Oregon aura is still exploding around the country. I’ll bet Chip looked out over the future and saw an opportunity to become a college football legend in Eugene.
Kelly has three Pac-12 titles, a Rose Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl, a 46-7 record, a fantastic staff, and a comfort level at Oregon the size of the Willamette River. I wouldn't want to leave that behind. Not for the NFL, a challenge romantic in theory, but difficult and perhaps not so fun in reality.
To be successful in the NFL, Kelly would have had to reinvent himself, almost completely. Chip Kelly's entire man-management style is geared towards college kids. Win the Day, Next Man Up, Every Game is a Super Bowl, that stuff works to keep kids focused and in-line, and would have to be thrown out at the next level, where jaded and paid professionals would laugh in Kelly's face if he tried, well, to be the coach he has been for the last four years.
Beyond that, as much as we feel big-time college football is a business, on the inside, the coaching part, which Kelly loves and thrives in, it's not. We see and hear and talk about De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota. Chip Kelly coaches 80 others guys who have no shot at the NFL. In college, you still get to teach, to guide, and to shape young men. And Kelly loves his kids. Loves them. He's the only head coach in FBS college football who has never been married, and his team is his family. You give that up at the next level.
Kelly would also have had to mend his offense. In the NFL, the spread doesn't work, because the angles it creates in college are shut down by faster, stronger defenders. The clock doesn't stop for first downs, the hashes are closer together, cutting down those angles further, and Kelly's offense would kill the poor quarterback who would have to run it. The NFL is tough, especially when you come from college. You’re the head of cooperation, not the king of a campus. There are more egos, more pressure, and more people to deal with. Kelly is surrounded by his people at Oregon … he runs the show, and he likes it that way.
Kelly’s staying of course means he’ll face the NCAA music. There will be penalties, sure, but Kelly’s return means he doesn’t think they’ll be crippling, and that they won’t include a bowl ban. When Kelly recklessly chased Lache Seastrunk, he was a first-time head coach, hot in pursuit of the player who could help make his career. I think he’s learned. I don’t think it’ll happen again.
If Chip Kelly had accepted the Philadelphia Eagles job today, Oregon would have been fine. The brand, the resources, the facilities, the fans, the coaching staff … they’re untouchable, and they weren’t built by Kelly. Rich Brooks did what Kelly might have done, left for the NFL. Mike Bellotti stepped in capably and then got out of the way for Chip when the time was right. Mark Helfrich – who will feel a little hard done tonight - would have stepped in, and he would have done well. Not quite as well as Kelly, but well. That’s well established. And that’s comforting to Oregon fans that the success of the football program doesn’t ride on the visor of one New Hampshire man.
But here’s the bottom line: The University of Oregon took on the Cleveland Browns, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the National Football League. And the Ducks won. Kelly was close to leaving, again, but he didn’t. In the end, the Oregon job is better than the jobs Kelly was offered, even with more money and possibly more fame. Chip Kelly, not an Oregon man by any stretch of the imagination, from his intense, workaholic personality and east-coast roots, knew that. That’s even more encouraging than the knowledge that Helfrich and one of the best staffs in the business would have kept the ride together.
There will be more NFL offers in Chip Kelly’s future, and one day, he’ll probably leave. This NFL thing is still very real to Kelly, and he may just be sitting in his hands again, waiting for a better offer. You never know with Chip. But here’s what we know for sure today: When Kelly’s stock was highest, in the very prime of his career, he stayed at Oregon. That is a victory for the Ducks bigger than any game won on the field during Kelly’s now extending era.