For Chip Kelly at UCLA, Things May Finally Be Working

Chip Kelly's tenure at UCLA was on the cusp of being deemed a failure. This season proves he can build a winning team. How far can he take the Bruins go this season?

UCLA Head Coach Chip Kelly Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy
UCLA Head Coach Chip Kelly Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy

Last Saturday, the undefeated UCLA Bruins welcomed the 5-1 Utah Utes to the Rose Bowl for a battle of Pac-12 supremacy. Utah has been a great program under Kyle Whittingham, and this may be one of his best teams. They are always a tough out and always come to play. And UCLA dismantled them.

The Utes kept it close through three quarters, but it never felt out of control for UCLA. The Bruins ran away with it in the fourth quarter. They never gave up the lead for the entire game. And they dropped six touchdowns on the Utes.

After this game–which leaves UCLA at 6-0 and having scored at least 40 points in 5 of those wins–if it wasn’t clear before, it is abundantly clear now: UCLA is a really good team. Almost always unranked, they are now ranked 11th in the latest AP Poll. They’re as good as they’ve been in a really long time. They have a legitimate shot at winning the Pac-12. They even look better than cross-town rival USC through six games. At some point, that all comes back to the coach and the man behind UCLA’s success this season: Chip Kelly.

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UCLA Under Chip Kelly

It’s worth taking a step back to acknowledge Chip Kelly having gotten to this point. Because it’s not something I would have seen coming. I started covering UCLA for LAFB right when they hired Chip Kelly. And for years, I was very skeptical that it would work out.

When Chip first came to UCLA back in 2018, he was highly coveted by both UCLA and by the University of Florida. He ultimately chose the Bruins, and what they were getting in his hiring was a bit of a question mark. Kelly was coming off a failed NFL stint, and he hadn’t been a head coach in college since 2012. It was a flashy hire, as Chip was known for his high-speed spread offense that took the country by storm when he was at Oregon. At the time, it was revolutionary stuff. But it was a long time ago, and Chip had much less to work with at UCLA than he did at Oregon.

Chip Kelly’s hiring at UCLA seemed to fit the mold of what I call the “savior” hire. This is where an organization hires someone (usually a white guy) that is expected to fully rebuild and “save” a program that is not in a good place. How are they going to do so? It isn’t entirely clear. But through the magic, the “it” factor of their personality, their unique way of doing things, their “genius”, they’ll figure it all out.

It’s an overly hopeful but unrealistic hire that isn’t based on process or specifics but on the wishful thinking and naivety of the owner, AD, or fanbase. Urban Meyer’s hiring (and subsequent failure) in Jacksonville was the epitome of this.

Chip Kelly had been out of the game for years. He had never built a program from the ground up. How was he going to manage players? What was his philosophy for team building? What about recruiting? What kind of culture does he believe in? These are all specific parts of team building where you need a cohesive and realistic plan to implement as a head coach. And for a while, it really didn’t look like Kelly had anything close to those answers.

Chip Kelly’s first two years at UCLA were really really bad. They were undisciplined and inconsistent. They weren’t talented. They didn’t win, and they didn’t play well. And they showed close to no improvement.

Some of the numbers, from fan attendance to the losing streaks, to the struggles on defense, were historically bad. Kelly wasn’t running his high-speed offense from the Oregon days. He seemed uncertain as to what offense he wanted to run. He often infused NFL passing concepts that were not easy for the young players to learn. He stuck with Dorian Thompson-Robinson at QB despite his obvious struggles at the position. He didn’t recruit well. And he ran almost every player that was there when he got there out of the program.

Two years in, UCLA had hit rock bottom. Kelly paled in comparison to his peers hired at the same time. Justin Wilcox seemed to gradually be building something at Cal. Dan Mullen had Florida in a great place. Had Kelly gone to Florida with these results, he would have been gone. But at UCLA, it appeared that Kelly had a long leash from the AD. And we heard the usual limiting excuses: UCLA just wasn’t a football school, Kelly was the best they could get, etc. UCLA seemed destined to remain in pieces while their “savior” ran a rudderless ship while collecting checks for a program that didn’t seem to care how bad he was.

2020, the pandemic season, showed some improvement. UCLA went 3-4 in the shortened season, but all the losses were close. 2021 is when Chip really took advantage of the transfer portal to bring UCLA their best season yet. They went a respectable 8-4, yet they still struggled against good teams. They seemed to peak after their Week 2 win against LSU, yet they often still struggled to play up to their potential or to keep their discipline and focus for four quarters. It was a respectable and very encouraging season overall, but it seemed like it would be as good as it got with Chip, certainly with some key seniors leaving for the NFL after the season was over.

And then came the Oregon talks. After the 2021 season ended, Chip was in serious discussion to go back to Oregon as head coach. At this point, I’d had enough of it all. The 2021 season was good, but I felt no strong desire for Chip to be back. He came in, basically drove the program into the ground, and after finally pulling things together for a good but not great season–his first winning season for the program in his four years there–he wanted out? Good riddance. UCLA could find someone else.

Ultimately, Kelly decided to stay, so at least there was continuity coming into the season. The returns of Zach Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson were key for creating a solid foundation on offense. Kelly continued to maneuver the transfer portal well, but the program still had some key losses to the NFL. For those reasons, I expected the 2022 season to be similar to last year’s season. UCLA would beat the bad teams and lose to the good teams, but maybe have one bad loss offset by one surprising win, as is often the case with the unpredictable Kelly.

But here UCLA is undefeated almost halfway into the season. Sure, UCLA had their easiest non-conference schedule yet and has played all but one game at home so far. But the way they have handled Washington and Utah over the past two weeks–two very good teams–seems different.

UCLA is playing disciplined football. They aren’t beating themselves. They are playing with serious confidence and cohesion. They’re making things look fairly easy against good teams. Kelly’s offense is dynamic and explosive, and the defense, a weak spot in the past, is vastly improved and is creating turnovers. Special teams have become a strength as well with Kazmeir Allen returning kicks.

And most importantly, let’s talk about the quarterback. The improvement we’ve seen from Thompson-Robinson is about as good as it gets. When he started playing, he was more of an athlete than a quarterback. His accuracy, footwork, and decision-making were simply not up to par. But he has gradually improved throughout his college career, to the point where he is a legitimately great player right now. I don’t expect him to have a future in the NFL, but that doesn’t change the fact that as of right now, he’s one of the most dangerous and effective quarterbacks, not only in the Pac-12 but in the country.

In the past, I’ve watched the Bruins dig themselves into early-season holes and then hope to find a way out. Right now, they have a safety net the likes of which I have not seen before. Next week’s game at Oregon will be tough, and a loss would not surprise me. But after that, the only tough opponent on their schedule is USC, and quite honestly, the Bruins should not be scared of them. Chip has beaten the Trojans twice before, and as I said earlier, UCLA has been better than USC through six games.

They’re not looked at that way because they’re a lesser brand and they don’t have big names like Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams, but most of USC’s hype came from before the season. They’re not bad, but they have struggled; against Oregon State and Washington State. It won’t be a walk in the park for UCLA, but looking at these two teams as of now, USC is beatable. And furthermore, UCLA can afford a loss and maybe even two and still play in the Pac-12 Championship, seeing as how the Pac-12 is a round robin now. UCLA should be favored in all their remaining games other than Oregon and USC.

The bottom line is, UCLA’s in a great position, perhaps the best position they’ve been in in years, and they pass the all-important eye test. The schedule works in their favor, as do all the veterans on this team. But taking advantage of good opportunities is what good teams do, and that’s what UCLA is doing right now. UCLA is a different-looking team than they’ve been in the past, and that has to go back to the coach.

For Kelly, it was a long road to get here. Chip Kelly is an oddball, and an easy guy to pick on. He’s going to do things his own way. He’s somewhat stubborn. From the outside, his personality doesn’t inspire much confidence. And he’s not interested in building relationships with boosters or creating any sort of hype for the program, and instead prefers to run it like an NFL operation. This is a big reason the Rose Bowl has been so empty recent. The “Ra-Ra” of college football simply isn’t there for this team, nor does Kelly seem to have any interest in bringing it.

But at the end of the day, results and wins are what matter more than anything. It’s the product on the field that is most important. The results speak for themselves for Kelly. Kelly may be unliked by a lot of players and personnel, but he somehow–and I don’t know how, to be frank–has gotten these players to buy into a collective culture. It’s hard to see from the outside, but if it weren’t there, the team wouldn’t be playing like this.

So after all we’ve been through with Chip Kelly, it seems like things really have changed. UCLA is a good football team, and somehow, the Chip Kelly experiment seems to be working.

UCLA Head Coach Chip Kelly Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy
UCLA Head Coach Chip Kelly Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy