Top 5 UCLA Coaching Candidates If Chip Kelly Leaves For NFL

As Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports has recently reported, UCLA Bruins coach Chip Kelly is getting interest as an offensive coordinator candidate from multiple coaches involved across the eight NFL head coaching openings for the 2024 season. 

The likelihood of Kelly leaving for the NFL is slim given his age (60), his modest level of success since revolutionizing college football (63-69 head coaching record across stints with the Eagles, 49ers, and Bruins after his staggering 46-7 record at Oregon), and a reputation for not being the most relationship-centric with recruiting. 

However, it’s undeniable that Kelly is deeply respected by national media experts as an innovator of the sport and its configuration, given his recent remarks to Pat McAfee. Kelly also has transformed UCLA’s offense into a perennial top 30 unit the past three years, including 4th in 2022, without the luxurious plethora of five-star prospectus.

Finally, Kelly is highly thought of in NFL senior management circles, including a known decades-long friendship with one particular coach on the market, six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick. 

If Kelly were to leave, it would put the Bruins in a precarious position given the timing. Most programs establish their coaching staff by mid-December to fortify their strategy for national signing day on February 7th, maximize the fall transfer portal window that ends January 4th, and solidify plans for spring player development.

For those reasons, bringing in a new coach this late in the game should incentivize Athletic Director Martin Jarmond to go with a one-year bridge option and explore 2024 as a coaching pilot. With that context, here are five viable considerations for the Bruins. 

Top 5 UCLA Coaching Candidates If Chip Kelly Leaves For NFL

NCAA Football: Stanford at California
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Niumatalolo

A widely respected coach across the country, Niumatalolo compiled a 109-83 head coaching record across 15 full seasons at Navy, including six bowl wins and two top-25 finishes. Navy is an institution that mirrors the UCLA Bruins across many facets: academic rigor, service-oriented philosophy, and values off the field above all else – thus the transition would be seamless. 

The past two years, Niumatalolo first served as UCLA football’s Director of Leadership and then recently named Tight Ends coach. He is currently on the verge of being named the head man at San Jose State, so the Bruins might need to get creative in making a counteroffer to slow the process down. 

*Editor Update: Since this article was published, San Jose State finalized the deal to make Ken Niumatalolo their head coach.

David Shaw 

Speaking of unanimously respected coaches who understand how to navigate football success within the context of UCLA’s academic environment, no coach would master that delicate balance more than Shaw. His 96-54 record at educational powerhouse Stanford, including five bowl victories, four 11-win seasons, four top-10 finishes, and two Rose Bowl triumphs in 12 seasons at The Farm, represents the golden era of Stanford football. 

Furthermore, the opportunity for Shaw to coach his son, Carter, a wide receiver heading into his sophomore season at UCLA, could be too ideal to pass up. I sat near Shaw at the LA Bowl, and his pride postgame in hugging his son was beaming.  

David Shaw might be the top of the UCLA coaching candidates.

D’Anton Lynn

Now we venture into the bold and bizarre, but such has been the state of college football these days. It’s common knowledge that Lynn transformed the Bruins defense in 2023 from 87th to 11th, before being unceremoniously plucked by cross-town rival USC as he was offered a $1M pay raise. What if the Bruins counter that move and offer Lynn their head coaching position? 

After all, Lynn seems to be a very ambitious young coach highly motivated by title, prestige, and money. It would immediately regain momentum for the Bruins, put gasoline on the rivalry fire in a delicious way, and provide brilliant defensive continuity heading into 2024.

One blindspot is the possibility of Lynn being offered the Ravens defensive coordinator position after the NFL season given how desired current Baltimore DC Michael MacDonald is for a head coaching role. 

Related: UCLA Bruins Transfer Portal Tracker 

Rick Neuheisel 

Nobody loves UCLA more than Neuheisel, and the opportunity to help stabilize his alma mater even for one year is something he would jump at.

Neuheisel might be the most misunderstood coach in UCLA Bruins history, known more for his underwhelming 21-29 record across four seasons with the Bruins, and his constant provoking of cross-town rival Trojans sparked by his introductory press conference confidently declaring “the football monopoly in Los Angeles is over.” USC would later add the word “there” to that quote on billboards across the city. 

But people forget Neuheisel went 33-14 in four seasons at Colorado with a top-10 finish along with a 33-16 record at Washington in four more seasons, including an iconic 2001 campaign that culminated with an 11-1, top-3 finish and Rose Bowl championship.

Neuheisel also famously redshirted his prized recruit, Brett Hundley, in the name of Hundley’s development despite being on the hot seat. The Bruins subsequently fired Neusheisel before the 2012 season and Jim Mora reaped the benefits of what Neuheisel sowed. If Neuheisel got one more season, there’s a legitimate chance he would still be coaching the Bruins today. 

Brandon Staley 

Now more than ever, the one thing players want from their college football experience above all else is a legitimate path to the NFL. If NIL and playing time are the appetizers, an NFL future is the main course. Despite an unceremonious departure after a mediocre 24-24 record with the Los Angeles Chargers the last three seasons, who better to sell expertise in the NFL game than Staley, who’s spent the past seven seasons coaching professionals? 

Staley has lived in Los Angeles for the past four years, including his 2020 run as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. This could be the perfect bridge role for him to rehabilitate his career without disrupting his life, discover a possible romance with college football, and give the Bruins an NFL legitimacy few, if any other, Big-10 schools could offer. 

Regardless of what happens, “Chip Watch” the next few days and weeks should keep Bruin fans clinging to their phones for updates. Just when you think you know, you never know.