Chip Kelly is potentially heading into his final UCLA Bruins game amid reports that he’s on the hot seat. Potentially on the verge of another Bruins’ coaching search, let’s examine UCLA coaching candidates.
After firing Jim Mora toward the end of the 2017 season, the Bruins coaching search led them to Kelly. He seemed like an ideal candidate to take over the helm, boasting a college resume that includes three Pac-12 Championships and a stellar 46-7 record as the Oregon Ducks coach (2009-’12).
- Chip Kelly coaching record (UCLA Bruins): 34-34, 0-1 in bowl games
It was a struggle from the start. After enjoying two 10-win seasons under Mora (2013-’14) and then finishing with six wins in 2017, UCLA combined for 10 total wins in its first three seasons with Kelly at the helm. The Bruins seemed to be on the upward trajectory from 2021-’22, posting a 17-8 record, but more disappointment in 2023 has made a coaching change necessary.
With all of that in mind, let’s dive into the Bruins coaching search and examine some of the top UCLA coaching candidates in 2023-’24.
UCLA Bruins coaching candidates: Identifying candidates with experience, familiarity and upside
Ryan Grubb, Washington Huskies offensive coordinator
The record-setting debt in the UCLA Bruins’ athletic department may impact the coaching search heavily. If that’s the case, after paying Kelly’s buyout, the Bruins might have to avoid a bidding war for a current Power 5 head coach and go after a top assistant.
Enter Washington Huskies offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Grubb. While head coach Kalen DeBoer receives a majority of the credit for Michael Penix Jr’s success, Grubb is the coach working with the Heisman Trophy candidate the most, and his accomplishments before that are impressive.
From 2020-’21 as the Fresno State Beavers’ quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Jake Haener completed nearly 70 percent of his 840 pass attempts, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt with a 53-12 TD-INT ratio and nearly 7,000 passing yards. DeBoer brought Grubb with him to Washington, resulting in Penix going from second-team All-Big Ten quarterback in ’22 with Indiana to an All-American candidate in ’23. That’s exactly the kind of coach who the Bruins should want working with Dante Moore.
D’Anton Lynn, UCLA Bruins defensive coordinator
The Bruins coaching search could ultimately lead them back to someone already on the staff. Even before UCLA’s defensive success in 2023, Bruce Feldman of The Athletic highlighted D’Anton Lynn as one of the top coaching candidates in college football. The former Penn State Nittany Lions defensive back is specifically praised around the industry for his ability to both connect with players and teach them in individual ways that are tailored towards making them successful.
- UCLA Bruins defense stats 2023: 296.3 total yards per game allowed (11th-fewest in FBS), 34.6% third-down conversion rate (30th), 2.8 red-zone scoring attempts allowed per game (22nd), 120.1 average opponents QB rating (21st), 7.9 points per second half allowed (11th)
Related: College Football Defense rankings
The son of former Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, D’Anton already knows the Bruins’ program. One important element of coaching searches is finding a leader who players will respect, listen to and are willing to stick with through good times and bad. Lynn already has the support of the players. He also spent nearly a decade learning how to coach in the NFL, including a stop from 2021-’22 with the Baltimore Ravens that allowed him to learn from John Harbaugh. There’s risk in hiring a head coach without experience and Lynn is just a first-year defensive coordinator, but the 34-year-old offers so many of the qualities that can make him a great coach.
Liam Coen, Kentucky Wildcats offensive coordinator
Liam Cohen left the Los Angeles Rams this past offseason to rejoin the Kentucky Wildcats as their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It might not have necessarily been the best move for his immediate future in the NFL, but it could open the door to him becoming one of the more intriguing UCLA coaching candidates.
In 2021 with quarterback Will Levis, Coen helped the Wildcats’ quarterback become one of the best quarterbacks in college football with a 148.3 QB rating and a 24-13 TD-INT line. Prior to that, Cohen couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford for the starting job at Penn State. Following his one-year departure from Kentucky, rival coaches were extremely critical of a Wildcats’ offense that had “no identity” without Cohen calling the plays.
Sean McVay will offer a glowing recommendation of Coen and the offensive coordinator’s time with one of the brightest minds in all of football makes him even more appealing. There’s another important trait that Coen brings. Despite the Wildcats’ offensive line and diminished skill group being responsible for the team’s struggles this year, Coen has always taken responsibility for what happens on the field. A leader who doesn’t throw his young players under the bus and provides an example of being accountable makes a football team better. While Coen won’t be one of the most popular UCLA coaching candidates, he’s a name to at least keep an eye on during the Bruins’ coaching search.
Jedd Fisch, Arizona Wildcats coach
With Jonathan Smith headed to Michigan State, Jedd Fisch joins our list of UCLA Bruins coaching candidates. It would also be a fitting hire, considering Fisch served as the Bruins’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2017 with a brief stint as interim coach.
- UCLA Bruins offense 2017: 32.5 points per game (33rd in FBS), 6.2 yards per play (23rd), 457.8 total yards per game (20th), 41.8% third-down conversion rate (44th)
In his lone season on the Bruins’ coaching staff, Fisch got the most out of Josh Rosen. After posting a 10-5 TD-INT line with a 59.3 percent completion rate with a 138.9 QB rating in 2016 (six games), Fisch helped Rosen completed 62.6 percent of his passes with a 147 QB rating and 26-10 TD-INT ratio in 2017. It helped Rosen become the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Fisch’s work today with the Arizona Wildcats is even more impressive. After taking over a team that went 0-5 in 2020 with Kevin Sumlin, Fisch needed time to rebuild the program. Arizona improved from 1-11 to 5-7 and is now on the verge of its first season with 10 wins since 2014.
The Wildcats have beaten UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State, Utah and Colorado during their six-game winning streak to close out the season. Arizona also took USC to triple overtime and lost by one score to Washington. Fisch would be an ideal hire for the Bruins’ offense and UCLA could attempt to retain Lynn as defensive coordinator.
Sean Lewis, Colorado Buffaloes offensive coordinator
Sean Lewis hasn’t had the year anyone expected. The 37-year-old seemed to be building Kent State into a quality program, winning the MAC East division in 2021 before taking a slight step back in 2022 (5-7). Then, one of the rising names in college football left his head-coaching gig to become the Colorado Buffaloes offensive coordinator.
- Colorado Buffaloes offense stats: 408.6 total yards per game, 32.1 points per game, 5.1 yards per play, 96.43% red-zone scoring rate
With Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter, Lewis coordinated one of the best offenses in the Pac-12 Conference. Even while dealing with one of the worst offensive lines in college football, Colorado’s play-caller managed to create an explosive passing attack. Then, Deion Sanders stripped him of play-calling duties.
It might ultimately be the reason the Buffaloes lose out on one of the most well-respected offensive minds in the sport. Lewis has a track record that speaks for itself, with success as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green, Syracuse and Colorado. He’d need an experienced staff with quality defensive minds and top recruiters to help him, but Smith is a compelling candidate for UCLA.