The Bruins were headed for disaster. After two consecutive losses, the second of which courtesy of an absolute beating, UCLA looked lackadaisical, lifeless and lost 29 minutes into Saturday night. The Bruins trailed the Buffs 20-7 in a game they served CU on a silver spoon. UCLA’s second drive of the game had a 52-yard run by Zach Charbonnet called back due to holding. The third drive had a 41-yard touchdown pass to Kam Brown down the right sideline called back due Brown going out of bounds on the route and committing illegal touching. The Bruins fifth possession saw them squander a 55-yard crossing route to Greg Dulcich with a missed 47-yard field goal.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a 37-point Bruin stampede that reversed a 13-point deficit into a runaway 24-point victory. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” as Leonardo da Vinci once said and the Bruins channeled their inner da Vinci by returning to their core identity. Gone were the inexplicable defensive line shifts that unnecessarily created running voids for the Buffalos. Erased were unnecessary throws on first down that put UCLA behind the chains. Eliminated were the self-inflicted wounds that seemingly killed momentum every time the Bruins made a potential game changing play.
With a relentless dose of running, UCLA only needed seven play-action pass completions from Dorian Thompson-Robinson across four consecutive touchdown drives, limited CU to only two chunk plays in the second half and put the icing on the sundae courtesy of a breathtaking 82-yard punt return touchdown from Kyle Phillips that led to PAC-12 special teams’ player of the week honors. The Bruins now move to 6-4 with two extremely winnable games ahead and the possibility of an 8-win regular season for the first time in six years.
Yet, over the past few weeks, it seems that the Bruins on-field record and performance is taking a massive backseat to chatter about Chip Kelly’s future. All anybody with emotional skin in the Bruin football game wants to do is take out their tarot cards, gaze deeply into their fortune telling globes, or call their concierge therapists to predict Kelly’s future. Most casual fans and local media outlets are screaming for Chip’s head. I have consistently predicted between 8-4 and 9-3 for UCLA this year. If the Bruins win their last two games to get to 8-4, including getting the Victory Bell for only the 6th time in the past 23 contests, I can’t possibly imagine the Bruins walking away from Kelly. The more interesting scenario is if the Bruins lose the Crosstown Rivalry this week and conclude the regular season with a victory against older sibling Cal.
7-5 would be a disappointment by most measures, compounded by the highs felt after the LSU victory. But even if UCLA concluded the regular season with seven victories, here’s why not only Chip Kelly will come back, but going one step further, UCLA would be utterly immature, revealingly clueless and strategically stunted NOT TO bring him back.
Not A One-Trick Metric
The first argument anybody wants to use with Chip Kelly is his 16-25 record, which is the worst winning percentage for a UCLA coach this many games into a tenure. Did we get that out of the way now? This is such a lazy argument from the same bloodline as why MJ is greater than LeBron because six rings are greater than four. MJ is better than LeBron because he has more MVPs, never lost a series with homecourt advantage, has more Defensive Player of the Year and ALL-NBA defensive selections, has a higher scoring average, completely changed conventional NBA thought on if a team without an all-league center could win a title, went an entire decade without losing three games in a row, and oh by the way, didn’t need to jump ship and team up with one of the co-players of the decade to ring chase.
But I digress…the point being that you can’t build an argument on just one statistic. The first rule of data analytics is you can’t be overly reliant on one metric to yield insight. If we go deeper and trend on winning percentage, a very interesting phenomena emerges: Kelly’s winning percentage has gone up each of his four years. From .250 to .333 to .429 to .583 (even if we assume 7-5). How do you fire a guy who’s winning percentage has gone up approximately 10% every year? If we look at all the coaches in the post Terry Donahue era, they all had a very similar pattern: their winning percentage maxed out in either year two or three and then dipped for several seasons before their ultimate demise.
Bob Toledo and Jim Mora had 10 wins in each of their 2nd and 3rd years respectively, and then spent three years never reaching those numbers again. Karl Dorrell had 10 wins in year three followed by two mediocre years, and Rick Neuheisel had seven wins in year two, only to dip for two more seasons before getting fired, preventing him from seeing his prized recruit Brett Hundley make it on the field (more on that later). We haven’t seen the ceiling on Chip Kelly yet, the guy only had 57 scholarship players his first year, the cupboard was completely bare. It would be potentially disastrous to pull the plug now without truly understanding the potential.
Two scenarios for Bruin fans to ponder, is it better to have Chip Kelly one year too long or watch him take the Washington State or Arizona State job next year and absolutely blow up? Fans, it’s been 23 years since UCLA has won the conference and the fanbase hasn’t made significantly more noise than a firm meow, let’s not pretend we don’t have the patience for one more year.
This isn’t SEC country.
Need More Sample Size
Up to this point, Kelly has been tied to the same quarterback and defensive coordinator. All the coaches mentioned above had multiple quarterbacks and coordinators before the decision was made to let them go. DTR only played one year of high school at Bishop Gorman before coming to UCLA and was still clearly the best quarterback prospect UCLA has had for the past four years. Wilton Speight was a serviceable backup, but simply didn’t have the skillset to be a starting QB in a Power Five league, and that’s why he washed out at even run-heavy Michigan.
Chase Griffin is going to be an incredible professional, citizen and leader in society. Mark that one down now. I honestly believe he’s capable of running for state senator or starting a tech company or being a leadership role model for the next generation. But football-wise, at 5’7, he simply doesn’t have the size and neither the Kyler Murray nor Russell Wilson type explosiveness to offset that lack of size to be a long-term answer for a PAC-12 contending team.
Ethan Garbers is finally the pure QB prospect Kelly, the quarterback whisperer, has been longing for. Garbers absolutely spun it in his first few throws on that final drive against Oregon before the untimely interception. In his lone spot start against Utah, Garbers was one of the few highlights on a night the run defense spectacularly collapsed like a piece of space debris returning to Earth’s orbit. Garbers brought a new offensive dimension: precision throws within tight windows in the red zone. His two touchdown passes, a 6-yard inside slant to Michael Ezeike and a 9-yard out route to Dulcich, showed a variant of Kelly’s offense previously unseen due to lack of personnel.
Let’s see the Garbers-Justyn Martin QB competition play out in the spring and give Kelly a season with a new toy turning the ignition on offense. Garbers, after one year in the system, has all the makings to be special. Then let’s decide just how much mental acuity Kelly has left to architect an elite offensive unit.
Furthermore, I’m not making headlines when saying Jerry Azzinaro must go; he’s worn out his welcome faster than three-day old uncooked meat lying in the refrigerator. This is where AD Martin Jarmond with his magnetic personality, can potentially recruit a Gary Patterson with an enticing offer to serve as the Bruins defensive coordinator and an opportunity to be head coach in waiting if year five of the Kelly experiment doesn’t work out.
But common-sense dictates that variables around the head coach need to change before any logical determination can be made on the leadership efficacy of the leading man.
More Money, More Problems
This one might be the biggest problem of all: UCLA Athletics simply can’t afford firing Kelly before January 15th, 2022. Period. Anybody that says otherwise, I question if they have successfully led a profit-loss division for any organization. There are three major facts at play.
First, UCLA Athletics has had a two-year combined budget deficit of $40.6M between fiscal years 2019 and 2020. In addition to the lack of revenue from attendance due to COVID-19, what’s been lost in all the excitement around the Bruins Jordan Brand apparel deal is just how much less that contract was compared to the infamous Under Armor deal. The Bruins’ Jordan Brand deal is worth $46.45M over seven years, considerably less than the $280M 15-year deal with UA. Even as the litigation proceeds with Under Armor, the snail pace of the legal process means that UCLA Athletics will not see any settlement dollars for several years (if any, assuming UA doesn’t file for bankruptcy beforehand). Furthermore, it’s not likely that any net amount will be a transformative sum once legal fees are factored in.
Second, Kelly has a $9M buyout UCLA Athletics must pay if he’s fired prior to January 15th, 2022. Firing Kelly after January 15th essentially torpedoes next football season given the timing of national signing day. Firing a coach in the second half of January is tantamount to waving a white flag for next season being a total rebuild with a recruiting class the Bruins would be lucky to hold in the top 75. Firing Kelly prior to January 15th means the Bruins are on the hook for approximately $14M for a coach for next season ($9M to fire Kelly and presumably $5M for the new coach). Even Alabama’s Nick Saban, who is the owner of seven national titles, six of which have been celebrated in the last 12 years, is only making $9M a year.
Third, the Bruin Athletics Department has already been flagged as a non-responsible steward of its fiduciary responsibilities. A recent article from ESPN revealed that UCLA Athletics, between January 1st, 2010, to January 31st, 2021, spent the 10th most of any university athletic department in “dead money” (i.e., money in buying out coaches they’ve fired). UCLA has spent $15.5M during that time to Mora, Ben Howland and Steve Alford to NOT coach the Bruins.
UCLA is a very complex political landmine between the Chancellor’s office, the UC Regents and the state of California. Furthermore, the crown jewel of the institution is the hospital and the accompanying UCLA Health ecosystem. That’s the area of the university that gets the most funding, and it SHOULD because it is the single greatest determinant of why UCLA is an elite research institution.
The crown jewel of athletics is the basketball program, with its 11 national titles, Pyramid of Success and plethora of NBA legends. For Jarmond to make the case to spend $14M for a public employee in the state of California, he would a.) need to burn significant political capital and bridges he will undoubtedly need down the line in his tenure, and b.) need to be convinced that there is a significantly better alternative to Kelly.
For the first point, it would be foolish for Jarmond to lay down on the sword for this issue when he can fire Kelly outright for free in 12 months and start getting out from this mountain of debt. Or he looks like a genius for keeping Kelly if things turnaround…no downside, all upside. Secondly, who is significantly better than Chip Kelly on the open market? The consolidation of power in college football, where the same 5-6 teams are competing for playoff spots every year has created a supply-demand anomaly in the sport. Guys are getting jobs, praise and hype for getting CLOSE to success, not actually having tangibly achieved anything, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
James Franklin? Matt Campbell? Are these guys good coaches or the only thing in-between national championships and dumpster fires? Mel Tucker is a true program builder and that’s why Michigan State is smart to break the $95M bank for his services and Dave Aranda seems destined for an SEC opening. But outside those two guys, who are considerably beyond UCLA’s budget and scope, there isn’t a coach in the country that’s definitively better than Kelly. A challenge for Bruin fans: when you’re on the cusp of writing something negative on social media or messaging friends about Kelly, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “can I name someone definitively better, based on statistics and on-field performance, that’s realistic for UCLA to get?” I promise you can’t.
Crosstown Rivalry, Crosstown Awareness
Firing Kelly would create an unprecedented scenario in the Los Angeles college football landscape: both USC and UCLA would have coaching openings in the same season for the first time ever. Advantage USC. That’s not a strategic game UCLA wants to play when the number of national championships is 11-1, the number of Heisman winners is 7-1 and the Trojans have won five Rose Bowls in the 23 years since UCLA has been to one. While we highlighted the Bruins’ priorities above, the Trojans only priority is football. That glaring difference between emphasis, history and resources will put UCLA in a significantly diminished negotiation capacity for a coach.
Like it or not Bruin fans, UCLA and USC football will always be linked together in a Harry Potter – Voldemort-esque way. There is a chain of causality and dependency with those two programs.
Don’t believe me? Case in point, UCLA has been in contention to win the conference or division within the last two weeks of the regular season in only five of the previous 23 seasons…2005 and 2012-2015. For a school that’s been in contention only 20% of the time this century, it’s peculiar that it happened four consecutive years. Not when you realize that it perfectly coincided with USC being on sanctions and scholarship reductions during those years.
A recruiting class makes its biggest mark on a program two years after it arrives on campus. It’s when the redshirt seasons are completed and those recruits refine their experiences to become upperclassmen and have the biggest on-field and locker room impact. For instance, programs will reap the benefits (or costs) of the upcoming 2022 recruiting class in the 2024 season. It’s why year three is such a pivotal year for a coach; it’s the first season his inaugural recruiting class can shape the program in the coach’s image. In the aftermath of the Reggie Bush saga, USC had bowl bans in 2010 and 2011 with 30 scholarship reductions across 2010-2012.
UCLA’s greatest three-year run this century (consisting of 29 victories), came with Jim Mora from 2012-2014, a perfect two-year correlation with SC’s temporary demise. In fact, the moment USC got their full scholarship quota back in 2013, Mora finally lost to USC due to that class in 2015, went 17-23 in his final three seasons, and the program hasn’t been the same since. It’s again why coaches’ win-loss records don’t tell the whole story. Mora went 29-11 his first three years with Neuheisel’s prized recruit at quarterback and an artificial bubble in Los Angeles college football. The Bruins were getting access to guys they normally wouldn’t get if USC had 30 more scholarship spots. The moment the playing field was level again, Mora went under .500.
It’s why Mora’s success needs to come with an asterisk. It’s also why it took Mora so long to find another job, and a non-Power-Five one at that. But no Bruin coach has been able to find consistent success this century sharing the city with USC, so let’s not blame Chip for something nobody else has yet to figure out either.
The Bruins Are The A’s
This brings me to my culminating point. There’s the famous scene in the movie Moneyball when Brad Pitt, playing Oakland A’s visionary GM Billy Beane, asks his scouts “do you guys even know what the problem is?” Their answer was “we need to replace Jason Giambi’s and Johnny Damon’s production.” Pitt responds by making an incorrect buzzing noise and says “We’re playing an unfair game…if we try to play like the Yankees and Red Sox in here, we will lose to the Yankees and Red Sox out there. We need to think differently because we’re the last cat at the milk bowl.”
Most Bruin fans and media (you especially Ben Bolch) don’t even understand the actual problem. The problem isn’t Chip Kelly’s coaching style, it’s how can the Bruins consistently win in today’s modern college football with the explosion of money, television rights and ecosystem investments that require athletic departments to specialize as feeder factories, while not having football be THE priority, while sharing a city with a team that has more football history and resources, while having at least 80% of their recruiting class adhere to academic standards higher than the NCAA? That’s the problem, and that’s why nobody has figured it out yet, because it’s HARD.
It is why Bob Toledo went 24-22 the moment he had to deal with the new lucrative BCS landscape in a post NFL salary cap world where he couldn’t simply rely on just UCLA’s academics and campus as recruiting advantages, while not having the Donahue mystique at his back. It’s why Dorrell went 35-27, four 4th quarter comebacks in 2005 away from being exactly .500 at 31-31. Why Neuheisel went 21-28, and Mora on his own merits went 17-23. See how much closer that is to 16-25 now?
The five greatest college football runs in the 21st century: 1.) 2009-present Alabama, 2.) 2002-2008 USC, 3.) 2015-2020 Clemson, 4.) 2006-2009 Florida, and 5.) 2000-2002 Miami. The 6th best run is 2010-2015 Stanford (more impressive than Oregon’s run), because of what Stanford is academically. Its peer institutions are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Columbia, transcendent schools that would literally be putting student athletes’ lives at risk if they stepped on a D1 field. Yet Stanford was able to go to five BCS/New Year’s Six bowl games over a six-year period and win three of them. Jim Harbaugh’s coaching claim to fame is thinking differently at Stanford, understanding that the students most likely to meet the academic admission requirements at Stanford were lineman and tight ends, as opposed to the uber athletic running backs or receivers.
Harbaugh built the offensive and defensive system of his team around recruiting those types of players. While not always aesthetically pleasing, they were highly effective, and gave Stanford a blueprint to stay competitive while waiting for the occasional Andrew Luck or Christian McCaffrey or Richard Sherman; special talents who were also valedictorians of their high schools that could make Stanford truly elite contenders. UCLA’s academic requirements are not as rigorous as Stanford’s, but the Bruins still need to navigate the UC requirements of having 80% of their recruiting class have at least a 3.0 GPA, while the NCAA only requires a 2.3 GPA with an appropriate SAT score. What type of football system can best yield these types of players at scale? Given the richness of their LinkedIn profiles, Griffin, Obi Eboh and Qwuantrezz Knight are unique young men with aspirations just as profound off the field.
All of this is to say UCLA needs a visionary thinker and strategist to lead the football program given these nuanced challenges. Sports management leaders with deep intellectual curiosities in the same vein as Beane or Daryl Morey or Sam Hinkie. Who better to lead UCLA football than a man that has been credited with revolutionizing the sport, architecting its modern era, a man who’s had books written about his approach and who’s always thinking outside the box of convention? Bruin fans, we have the right Chip in hand, let’s not be myopic and cash out now.