In your moments of great disappointment, you’ll find who you are. Are you defeated or are you inspired?
Portland entrepreneur Quy Tang, on Facebook
Chip Kelly was an historically good head football coach. 46-7, three conference titles, the school’s only national championship appearance, season-ending rankings of 11th, 3rd, 4th and 2nd, four BCS bowl appearances, back-to-back bowl wins and Oregon’s only three 12-win seasons–it was a heady, legendary ride, a couple of years from statue-worthy and a plaque in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Chip blazed a trail of innovation and snark. He talked fast, ran with the bulls, charmed Erin Andrews and game-planned the hell out of the conference. He starred in a UPS commercial. Wearing the visor, on the sidelines in his game day crouch, he went for it on fourth down and went for two and pulled the trigger on onside kicks and fake punts and flurries of points and big plays. The Ducks became bold and aggressive, feared and resented. It was exhilarating.
In the last three years, it was about three field goals shy of perfect.
Most significantly, he changed the way everyone in the program and every fan thought and behaved, creating a shift to next-man-up, win-the-day thinking that transformed the culture at Oregon. No goal was too big. No opponent too fast or too touted. He taught his players, “Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing,” and they believed him. They committed their lives and their fierce athletic hearts to living that way.
Kelly made spot checks to see they were going to class. He demanded that they be on time and make their beds in the morning. He taught them no one was indispensable. “We’ll miss you, but we’ll get along without you,” he said.
Chip didn’t compromise, and he didn’t make nice. He skewered the media for dumb questions, or questions he didn’t want to answer, a habit that might not play in the Not-For-Long League. He shunned the boosters and stayed aloof from the fans who largely worshipped him, once famously telling a couple of rowdies to shut up during a midfield, postgame interview on live TV.
Oh, there were notable failures, and a couple of black marks. The horrid first game and LeGarrette Blount’s punch. A starting quarterback dismissed for stealing a laptop and being stopped with a glovebox full of weed. Cash Harris smoking them all at 118 miles an hour. Team face plants against Ohio State, LSU and Stanford. An inability to adjust or overcome pressure in losses to Auburn and USC. The Will Lyles affair, which could still plunge Oregon football back into the dark ages of 3-8 and beatdown losses to the Huskies and Trojans. Beaver nation, that tiny enclave of mouth breathers and mediocrity celebrators from Corvallis, could dance on the grave of the Ducks flashy football empire.
Anytime you lose a program-changing coach, there’s a chance you get a Bill Doba, a Jim Lambright, or a Larry Coker. A placeholder. A good guy who says the right things and has a reasonable track record as a coordinator or coaching elsewhere but just doesn’t have the dynamism or the organizational skills to sustain success.
If they avoid major sanctions this spring, and that’s not a given, Oregon can coast for a couple of years. The talent Kelly assembled will carry them for a little while, even if this year’s recruiting class takes a significant hit. What if there are scholarship reductions for the next three seasons to compound that? The habits and approach Kelly ingrained in the staff and players will resonate through next season and probably the next, but it will take an exceptional man to replace his powerful combination of teacher, father figure and innovative football genius.
Kelly saw things differently and created tremendous, repeatable efficiencies in every aspect of the way the Ducks prepared and played. There aren’t more than five football coaches in the country, no more than a couple of dozen in the history of the game that have done it as well. In the parity-driven, violent, drug and performance-enhancing-infected NFL, he may succeed, but his superb talent for molding young men will largely be wasted.
He’s a college coach, and deserves a long tenure crafting excellence in the level of the game where coaching matters most. The NFL is a coaching wasteland, a soulless meat grinder where creativity gets ground under by roster limits, salary caps, mercenary players and parity scheduling.
Kelly chose The League because like most successful coaches he’s a competition junkie who craved the biggest stage. He had no emotional or personal ties to Oregon other than his relationships with the staff and players, and those weren’t strong enough to keep him here. Sadly, he was looking ahead to the next job within a couple of years of landing this one. Ambition and drive are marvelous things, the source of his tremendous energy and achievements, but they are halfway to arrogance. It’s a foolish move even if it works. College football is the best level of coaching, where coaching matters most. Kelly will win in Philadelphia, but it will never be as fun or satisfying as coaching Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James, Kenny Rowe and Hroniss Grasu.
No one could tell Chip that now, and it wouldn’t matter. He’s gone. Even if it doesn’t work out in the City of Brotherly Love, the city where they booed Santa Claus and ran Andy Reid out of town, he’ll have his pick of college jobs in three to four years. Should Mack Brown retire or Lane Kiffin flame out or Urban Meyer suffer another health crisis, the premier jobs in the game at the sport’s most accomplished schools will readily beckon. They’ll pay big dollars to make a splash hire, and his NFL money is guaranteed for the life of the contract.
For the Ducks, they have to replace an outlier and a legend, far too soon. If the Chip Kelly era had lasted ten years they’d have gotten a couple of national championships and become the next dynasty in the FBS, joining the Tide and the Hurricanes and Trojans and Seminoles with a couple of Heisman awards and crystal footballs to display for the ages.
It can still happen. But Mark Helfrich has a big job ahead of him, and he’s never called the plays or recruited a De’Anthony Thomas. He has three days to learn how, take the podium in the meeting room, and convince 105 guys and a roomful of his former fellow staff members that he’s the right guy.