Let’s take some time to talk about the one person that’s on every UCLA fan’s mind just about every week, head coach Chip Kelly.
Kelly was hired at the beginning of last season after Jim Mora’s midseason firing during the 2017 season. Mora was a relatively successful UCLA coach, finishing his Bruin tenure with an overall record of 46-30. He was, however, less successful in conference play, finishing with a still positive but much tighter 30-26. After starting his first three seasons with 9 wins, 10 wins, and 10 wins, his teams regressed to 8 wins, 4 wins, and 6 wins in subsequent seasons before he was fired. His inability to bring UCLA over the hump and his team’s regression and poor defense led the Bruins to decide a different direction was necessary.
Chip Kelly was quite the opposite from the pro-style Mora. Kelly was known for running a high speed hurry-up offense that brought Oregon to prominence earlier in the decade, but that was a bit too gimmicky to succeed subsequently in the NFL. UCLA could have easily stuck with the relatively successful Mora, but they decided that average/slightly above average wasn’t good enough. They wanted a full on turnaround, someone who could rebuild the program from the ground up, rather than keep it hovering in the mediocrity of which it has been for most of the past few decades. It was a risky and questionable move, but a move the higher-ups felt was necessary. They went for the flashy, atypical hire in Kelly.
A season and a half later, things are not looking good.
Evaluating Chip Kelly’s Tenure at UCLA So Far
Kelly’s Coaching History
Kelly is an interesting person to evaluate because of his strange career arc as a head coach. It’s relatively short, started with the highest of highs, and has been a bit of a rollercoaster ever since. It’s gradually gotten worse and worse, but there have also been so many situation changes in such a short span of time that it’s been hard to know which results to attribute to Kelly and which have been out of his control. That seems to be true for both his successes and his failures.
Kelly started his head coaching career with the Oregon Ducks, where he was promoted from offensive coordinator starting in 2009. Kelly inherited a perfect situation at Oregon, with talented personnel, a recruiting infrastructure, and an already successful program. During his time at Oregon, Kelly transformed the ducks into the fastest and most exciting offense in the country, using tempo to get back to the line and snap the ball almost immediately after the previous play concluded.
It was a spread / option attack, a relatively simple offense that used deception and tempo to wear down defenses. The offense brought tremendous success to Eugene. Over four seasons as the Ducks’ head coach, Kelly went 46-7 with a national championship game appearance (some would argue it should have been a win, due to questionable officiating,) and a heisman quarterback in Marcus Mariota. For his work with the Ducks offense, Kelly was deemed by many to be an offensive genius.
Kelly would then try his luck in the NFL, and initially, the result was more of the same. Following a 4-12 season which would prove to be Andy Reid‘s last in Philladelphia, Kelly took over and immediately led the Eagles to 10 wins and a playoff berth. Even more impressive was his work with young quarterback Nick Foles, who would finish the regular season with 27 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions in Kelly’s offense.
Although the offense wasn’t exactly the same as what he ran in Oregon, it was still unique by NFL standards with regard to the tempo and it proved to be effective yet again, forcing defenses to stay simple to keep up with the pace, and elevating the play of both the running back and quarterback.
Kelly was fired after 4 seasons in Philly. After that first year, he wouldn’t reach the playoffs again; subsequent seasons were 10-6, 7-9, and 7-9. But causing frustration in Philly more than the win/loss ratio was Kelly’s role as de-facto general manager. Following that first season in Philly, Kelly insisted on having, more-or-less, full control of player personnel and proceeded to jettison away fan favorites such as Lesean McCoy, Desean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin. This upset both the fandom and management. Yet, the results weren’t awful for Kelly. Despite the regression, he still left Philly with a winning coaching record.
Kelly spent the 2016 season as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. They went 2-14 and would fire Kelly after just one season, but it’s hard to put that one on Kelly, as those 49ers were never in a place to compete that year. Kelly didn’t have a quality starting QB at his disposal, yet he actually did nice work with both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. Kelly would then spend 2017 away from coaching before luring in a big time 5-year contract from UCLA, who had outbid Florida for Kelly’s services in the process.
So by the time Kelly came to UCLA, he was kind of tough to get a read on. He’d been out of college football since 2012. He was fairly removed from success as a head coach, but there were also a variety of circumstances behind that. College football had changed a lot since Kelly was last here, in big part because of Kelly’s influence.
The spread / option / hurry up offense that Kelly specialized in had become somewhat standard fare around the league, as a variation of it is run by close to every team now. The same could be said for some of Kelly’s off the field innovations, like the way he used sports science to modernize practice techniques and cut down on injuries. This all presented a dilemma: On the one hand, Kelly was back in a league that was perfectly suited for his preferred style of play. On the other hand, what once made him special was no longer considered revolutionary.
Was Kelly still a coaching genius or even a good coach, capable of turning around a program? Or was his success a long time ago, and purely the result of favorable circumstance? I think after the hire, most people would have answered with the former, but after a season and a half of what can only be described as bad football, it’s starting to look more like the latter.
Kelly at UCLA
Let’s just get this out of the way: Kelly has not been good at UCLA. He’s 4-14 since coming here, attendance is at record lows, there hasn’t been improvement, and the program is not getting good players. No one expected a 3 win season last year, but you could rightfully give Kelly a pass because of what he inherited.
That’s not the case this season, as the Bruins have not noticeably improved. You can argue about where to place blame, but you can’t argue with the results. So far, Kelly’s Bruins have reached levels of lows that his last few predecessors, however many flaws they had, never came close to. Since there’s so much to unpack with this topic, I’ll break down specific areas in which the Bruins have struggled under Kelly.
It starts with quarterback, and though Dorian Thompson-Robinson has begun to improve this season–a good sign for sure–and hasn’t really been the problem in recent weeks, his general tenure at UCLA leaves much to be desired. UCLA was able to eek out a few wins last year thanks to the unspectacular but serviceable graduate transfer Wilton Speight at the helm late in the year.
But early on in the season, it was clear that DTR had little in the way of accuracy, timing, decision making, and pocket presence, yet Kelly chose to stick with the former high school WR when he was healthy. Again, the improvement is good, but the sample size was large enough that one could argue he should have been benched much sooner and Kelly should have looked elsewhere.
Then there’s the offense as a whole, which also simply hasn’t been good. It starts with their identity, of which they have none. It’s a different story each week. UCLA seems to be at its best when they’re running a relatively simple spread offense that starts with the run, mixes in bubbles and shots, and utilizes tempo and check-with-me on the sideline. But Kelly seems intent on doing something different every week, often with no rhyme or reason behind it.
He’s mixed in complicated NFL concepts despite the fact that, a) that was never his forte, and b) he’s working with a lot of young players that aren’t suited for that kind of scheme. His personnel usage is also questionable. He’ll play guys in questionable roles, or he’ll bench guys a week after they went off. The one thing Kelly is good at is scripting opening plays, as UCLA is often able to score on opening drives. But after that, it’s usually just a mess of randomness that just doesn’t work.
UCLA’s defense was bad last year, but it was worse under Mora the year before, so at least there was improvement. Again, not the case this year. The pass defense has been one of the worst in the FBS, yet Kelly continues to hire his friends at key coaching positions despite them being unable to get the job done.
Herein lies the biggest concern of Kelly’s bruin tenure so far. In his six years at UCLA, Jim Mora never brought in worse than the 20th best recruiting class in the country. In just two seasons, Kelly has went from the 19th best class in 2018 to the 40th best class in 2019. Their class next year is currently 50th. They’re simply not getting 4-star and 5-star players, and you can’t compete in college if you don’t have talent.
Kelly has been particular about which recruits he chooses to sign, but this degree of struggle this early is an alarming sign. Kelly is not the most personal guy and we saw his interpersonal struggles doom him with Philly. Now the same thing is happening at UCLA; even more alarming than the recruiting is the fact that since Kelly has arrived in LA, an absurd amount of players have left the program.
That means something is going on that we don’t know about. Nonetheless, it can’t be ignored, as recruiting is probably the most important part of college football. If you can’t connect with students and convince them to buy into your program, then you’re not going to be able to build a culture, which is exactly what the brass at UCLA hired Chip Kelly to do.
How Long is Chip Kelly’s Leash at UCLA?
The general rule is that a coach gets three seasons in college to prove himself. Kelly will likely get at least that, as with the new athletic director coming in just before the start of next season, the Bruins aren’t likely to make a change right away. Let’s also not forget the fact that firing Chip Kelly would cost the Bruins a lot of money.
But after next year, unless there’s some big time improvement, I don’t think anything should be off the table. Dan Guerrero, the universally hated athletic director responsible for hiring Kelly, is gone next year. Yes, it’s early. No, Kelly hasn’t had much to work with. No, programs don’t change overnight. And yes, getting a new coach would likely mean two steps back before it’s one step forward. The state of this UCLA program is so bad that it’s going to be tough to find anyone to get it back to simply Mora level, let alone to greatness.
But it’s also worth asking how much worse things could get than they already are. I mean, yes, the Bruins are getting better, and the rest of the season is crucially important for them. But the amount of regression we’ve already seen from last year to this year is, frankly, unacceptable.
I’ve already noted that this program is reaching historic lows when it comes to losses, attendance, and personnel. At this point, there’s very little justification for keeping Kelly around that much longer if things don’t turn around quickly. Let’s also not forget that there are a lot of young coaches in similar situations to Kelly right now around the country, and he’s doing worse than pretty much all of them.
The more you look at the big picture, the more it looks like Kelly was a one-hit wonder at Oregon. No, that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for him in college football as a coach of some sort. But when it comes to rebuilding a program, as Kelly has been tasked with doing, he appears to be in over his head.