Near Gone, Kelly’s Heart Calls Him Back
By Paul Myerberg // Jan 23, 2012
In the early hours of the morning, Chip Kelly changed his mind. When heads hit pillows on both coasts, Oregon’s Kelly, fresh off his third straight B.C.S. berth – and first win – was nearly signed, sealed and delivered to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nearly, of course is key: as with recruiting, nothing is official until signatures meet dotted lines. For as far as Kelly’s discussions moved along with Tampa Bay, his cursive script never met the bottom of a contract; perhaps there’s hope after all, thought a portion of the Oregon fan base, as heads hit pillows. Then again, no Oregon fan could have been upset if Kelly followed the money, not to mention Phil Knight’s personal and professional mantra: Just Do It.
Even if he had left last night, or leaves at some point within the next three years, Kelly’s place in program history is more than secure. He’s the only coach to win 12 games in Eugene, something he’s now done twice. He, along with Bellotti, share all seven of the double-digit win seasons in program history.
Kelly in Oregon lore: built by others – Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti – the program has taken a step forward under his watch. The Ducks have become the Google of college stock, growing exponentially while other, more historically prestigious programs struggle reclaiming past glory.
So you’d understand why Tampa Bay was interested. And you’d understand why Kelly would reciprocate any interest; the N.F.L. offers Kelly not just a large annual contract, but also the opportunity to put behind the sort of non-coaching business that plagues the day-to-day activities of a college coach.
There’s no recruiting in the N.F.L., which to some college coaching stars might be the league’s most attractive draw of all. There’s no petting the egos of high school juniors and seniors. No milking relationships with high school coaches – or a figure like Willie Lyles.
Speaking of Lyles, the N.F.L.’s enforcement committee focuses primarily on non-sanctioned sock height, noticeable bandanas and overaggressive over-the-middle head shots. Measure that with how the N.C.A.A. pursues a figure like Lyles, the Texas-based runner who factors heavily in Oregon’s past and future, and you can see why Kelly, and others, look at the N.F.L. as the promised land.
It’s an idea that goes beyond merely competing on football’s highest level, which according to reports has long been one of Kelly’s career goals – him and everyone else, it should be added. Some coaches, like a Steve Spurrier, aren’t happy until they’ve tried their hands on the N.F.L.; most come back with their tail between their legs, but they tried.
So what flipped Kelly – what made a done deal into no deal? Fairly simple, really: his heart wasn’t in it. Everything else was, but according to Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, Kelly’s “heart is with college football and Oregon.”
Music to Oregon’s ears, and a disaster averted. And put to bed the idea that Kelly was jumping ship, much in the same way most assumed Pete Carroll skipped town at U.S.C. just as the N.C.A.A. was preparing to drop the hammer on the Trojans’ program.
The only issue with that idea, that Carroll got out of Dodge, was that Carroll had been eyeballing a return to the N.F.L. – a chance to reclaim his good name on that level – for at least two years prior to his eventual departure. He was merely waiting for the right opportunity, one that would allow him to have some degree of power of personnel decisions.
Kelly was going for the fun of it. Well, perhaps fun is the wrong word: the N.F.L. is a lot of things to a lot of people, but coaching in the N.F.L. is the opposite of fun; there’s a reason Bill Belichick, the most successful N.F.L. coach in generations, never smiles. Vince Lombardi only smiled on Sunday nights after victories, when he and his wife would entertain guests with cocktails in hand.
Kelly wanted to go because, with a George Mallory-like mentality, the N.F.L. is there. But his heart wouldn’t be there; as Dominik noted, his heart would have remained with Oregon and college, where Kelly knows his offensive philosophy remains the most devastating attack in the F.B.S.
So Oregon breaths a sigh of relief, and looks forward to a few years of coaching consistency. You forget that the Ducks have experienced precious little coaching turnover for decades, not just at head coach – three since 1977 – but also with assistants. Running backs coach Gary Campbell is closing in on three decades in Eugene, for example.
For a few hours, it seemed as if the program would need to return to the drawing board. This would be completely unlike the transition from Brooks to Bellotti, when Oregon promoted the latter, then Oregon’s defensive coordinator, from within the staff. Or from Bellotti to Kelly – offensive coordinator to head coach.
Knight and the Ducks would have looked outside the program, and things may have never been the same again. Yes, there’s that Nike money, not to mention the fact that Oregon’s national prestige continues to grow with every passing fall; once nouveau riche, the Ducks are close to joining the old guard.
There will be no new coaching search, though it was close. The program’s climb will continue under Kelly, though Oregon might want to have a transition plan in mind, should he ever be enticed once again by coaching on football’s highest level.
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Tags: Chip Kelly, Mike Bellotti, Oregon
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