Chip Kelly could have returned to the Oregon Ducks last year. He chose not to because he never shared the same level of love for Oregon and its fans that they feel for him, almost embarrassingly so.
Now Kelly becomes the new coach at UCLA and will be gunning to take down the Ducks program where he made his name as a head coach. The Bruins, who on Monday introduced Kelly during a press conference, will visit Oregon on Nov. 3. It will be the biggest sporting event in the Northwest in 2018. For the state of Oregon, it will be the equivalent of when former NFL quarterback Brett Favre returned to Green Bay as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.
Kelly becoming UCLA's new coach was a punch in the gut for Oregon fans that blindly believed he bled green and yellow. Kelly could have gone to the SEC where he would have only encountered Oregon in a bowl game. But no, he chose to take less money (five years, $23.5 million) than he would have received from Florida, which went after him hard, in order to reside in the Pac-12 where he will compete against the Ducks, and others, for Pac-12 supremacy.
Should Kelly pick up where he left off at Oregon where he won three conference titles in four years, a Fiesta Bowl, a Rose Bowl and guided UO to a national title game, the Ducks under coach Willie Taggart could be in for a long, painful ride while wondering why Kelly didn't want to return to Oregon.
The Ducks talked to Kelly last year about a potential return after firing Mark Helfrich following a 4-8 season. Heck, Helfrich, before he was let go, said he reached out to Kelly to ask him to return to UO in order to save the coaching staff. Kelly declined. He reportedly said he didn't want to quit on the San Francisco 49ers despite nearing the end of a 2-14 season. Or, was it really that he simply didn't want to return to Oregon under any circumstances? He had to have known that the 49ers could very well have been ready to quit on him as they did a month later. We could give Kelly the benefit of the doubt and just buy that he stayed with the 49ers out of principle and would have taken the Oregon job if it were available right now. But nobody I've ever spoken to at Oregon that is in the know believes Kelly would ever return to Oregon.
The Ducks, as it turned out, appear to have lucked out with coach Willie Taggart, the Ducks' seventh choice if we're counting Kelly. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens could very well have made a genius hire in Taggart, who has already demonstrated that with a healthy Justin Herbert at quarterback he can produce the same types of offensive numbers that Kelly did while at Oregon.
This entire situation presents a double-edged sword for Oregon fans who vilified Helfrich for supposedly destroying what Kelly built. If Oregon's success from 2009 through 2015 was all truly about Kelly, even after he left following the 2012 season, then he should be expected to duplicate that success at UCLA and do so at the expense of Oregon.
Or, maybe Kelly falters in his first opportunity as a coach taking over a rebuild that requires assembling a staff and completely reinventing a program. He's never done that at the college level.
Taggart, however, is in his third stint of rebuilding a program. He is a better recruiter than Kelly is or would ever hope to be given that he dislikes that aspect of college coaching. However, Kelly won't have to work as hard at recruiting while operating in the talent-rich area of Southern California and being armed with a brand new, $65 million Wasserman Football Facility that rivals Oregon's Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.
So the arms race is on between UCLA and Oregon with much at stake. Taggart not only faces the prospects of living up to grand expectations at Oregon created by Kelly's three consecutive Pac-12 titles (2009-2012) but he will have to match them while competing against Kelly both for players and titles.
It is quite possible that Oregon and UCLA could meet in a Pac-12 title game soon enough. That is, if the college game hasn't already passed Kelly by.
Be sure that nobody in the Pac-12 is afraid of Kelly and not because of his unsuccessful stint in the NFL. Kelly didn't fail in the NFL on the field. He failed off of it in terms of dealing with coaching adults. On the field, Kelly had a winning record in Philadelphia despite issues at quarterback. He had no chance to win in San Francisco with that mess of a roster and was let go. His offense scored. He simply was never given enough time to see his rebuilds through to the end.
So now the question is: Will Kelly live up to his God status with many Oregon fans and dominate at UCLA. Or, will he be exposed for simply being a good coach who caught lightning in a bottle for four years at Oregon?
In college, Kelly benefited from inheriting an already strong program in place under Mike Bellotti and his staff. The Ducks had already contended for national titles. UCLA under Jim Mora Jr. went 4-8 in 2016 and was 5-6 when he got fired.
Also, while at Oregon Kelly ran what was then a unique offense in terms of its pace. Not scheme. Pace. Big difference. Oregon's no-huddle offense, adopted by Bellotti in 2005 and sent into overdrive by Kelly, wore down opposing defenses that lacked the offensive firepower to keep pace. Most of Kelly's victories during the 2010 and 2011 seasons were iced in the second half when close games moved in Oregon's favor because opposing teams ran out of gas. Who will ever forget Cal resorting to having defensive players fake injuries in order to slow down the Ducks' offense?
Today, most of the conference runs up-tempo offenses, and all of the programs have changed the way they prepare on defense in order to be able to hold up over the long haul. Only six of 10 conference teams in 2010 averaged 25 points or more with four over scoring more than 30 per game. This season, 11 teams averaged 25 points or more with eight averaging 30 or more.
This doesn't mean Kelly can't overcome the trend if he averages about 45 per game again as he did at Oregon. What will be interesting is to see if he can make sure UCLA is good enough on defense to avoid seeing opponents, such as Oregon, also rack up 40 on the Bruins while they give no regard to time of possession.
Kelly has never before had to deal with that dilemma. Well, he sort of did in the NFL and it didn't quite workout so well.
That said, one of Kelly's strength is stressing and teaching fundamentals. Ask any of his former players and they will tell you that his attention to detail and the culture he created at UO helped foster success. As for the Xs and Os, Kelly will make sure UCLA doesn't beat itself very often.
However this all plays out, Kelly being back in the Pac-12 promises to be quite entertaining. Either the Ducks will return to championship form and in the process damage the Kelly mythology that has some comparing him to Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. Or, Kelly will live up to his legacy and by doing so, deny Oregon its return to glory along the way, which would be a double whammy for Ducks fans.
Can't wait to see how this plays out.