Chip Kelly is doing something that might be without precedent in major college football: Take a demotion without being forced to.
On Friday it was announced Kelly would leave his head coaching job at UCLA to become Ohio State’s offensive coordinator after Bill O’Brien wasn’t around long enough to unpack his bags before he took the Boston College job.
UCLA begrudgingly decided to keep Kelly after another nothing season in Westwood as all his brilliance and past success never carried over to the Bruins.
Kelly went 35-34 at UCLA, won as many games as he lost in the Pac-12 and never had a 10-win season in five full campaigns there plus the COVID year.
Interest in the program had basically fallen off a cliff, too, as Kelly never embraced being a head football coach in today’s world. Tarps filled the Rose Bowl so empty seats didn’t show. The seats that were available were half-filled most Saturdays.
Everyone has seen the embarrassing pictures on social media: Ten minutes before kickoff, still no one here, most outside on the golf course polishing off their last adult beverages – or not coming at all. Lots to do around Los Angeles.
Kelly never really embraced being a head coach at UCLA so maybe being an offensive coordinator somewhere else fits him better.
Word was Kelly was shopping himself to NFL teams – whether it was on Antonio Pierce’s staff with the Las Vegas Raiders – and I was told Kelly was telling some people the Seattle Seahawks coordinator job was a possibility as well.
Instead, he will be on Ryan Day’s staff at Ohio State as Day played for Kelly at New Hampshire and they have coaching history together.
Recruiting never interested Kelly and that was an ongoing problem. He would never show up to big-time games in Southern California, major official visit weekends would never materialize all that often in Westwood, he was basically a ghost to the power brokers for players in the region.
California Power, the upstart, elite 7-on-7 organization with big-money backing, visited UCLA last weekend before the Pylon Los Angeles tournament and Kelly was there but most of the kids wanted to talk about their USC visits the next day instead.
Kelly can surely call plays and he has an incredible offensive mind – there’s no doubt about it – from his early days through Oregon, to the NFL and then at UCLA – but he’s a perfect example of the Jimmys and Joes usually mattering more than the Xs and Os.
An NFL offensive coordinator job would have been perfect for him. He wouldn’t be a head coach so his personality wouldn’t clash with ego-driven owners like it did during his stops in the pros. He could sit in an office, study film, develop offensive schemes and then execute them. That’s where he’s best.
Day runs the show. Recruiting, in many ways, takes care of itself as the Buckeyes chase the best of the best. Kelly won’t have to go out begging for top players to come, like he ever did that at UCLA anyway.
Of course, the Ohio State offensive coordinator job was supposed to be O’Brien’s next stop but in unsurprising fashion he found a better gig and bolted as fast as possible. That’s after former coach Jeff Hafley jumped ship at BC to become defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers and belly-ached about NIL and transfer portal out the door.
To be clear: Being a head coach in the Big Ten is better than being an offensive coordinator. But Kelly is smart and knows if he couldn’t win at UCLA in the Pac-12, he’s definitely not going to win at UCLA in the Big Ten. And he saved his job once in Westwood, no way he’d survive another bad season.
Kelly decided to smoke instead of get smoked. At UCLA, he was never all that interested in recruiting, the CEO role of a head coach or accepting the realities of today’s game where big parts of recruiting meant figuring out NIL prices. At Ohio State, he’ll be able to shove those duties off elsewhere and call plays. That’s what he’s best at.
In one way, it’s mind-boggling that a head coach would willfully take a demotion.
For Kelly, though, it makes sense: He had to win big in Westwood to save his job (wasn’t going to happen) and now he can do what he wants: Call plays with elite players and look smart doing it. This is right up his alley.