Zemek's Fiesta Thoughts: The Chip Kelly Era

Posted Jan 4, 2013

Matt Zemek's Final Thoughts after Oregon's win over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Remember the first game of Chip Kelly's career as an FBS head coach?

Oregon's offense was smothered by Boise State in an ugly 19-8 loss that could not have gone any worse. The performance by the Ducks during the course of live game action was abysmal enough, but the infamous postgame punch thrown by UO running back LeGarrette Blount created a public relations nightmare for Kelly, the anointed successor to one of the better coaches in Pac-10 history, Mike Bellotti. On that Thursday night in Idaho, it was reasonable to wonder if Kelly was in over his head.

Here was this former offensive coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, of all places, an unknown commodity Bellotti brought to the Pacific Northwest to give the Ducks a turbo-boost. Kelly did improve Oregon's offense in two seasons as the Ducks' coordinator, but making the jump from coordinator to head coach is not something every mortal can pull off. When the world seemed to crash down on his shoulders at the beginning of the 2009 college football season, Kelly's position of power – rather than granting him prestige and satisfaction – was nothing but a source of massive headaches. It was going to take a special coach to build back Oregon's confidence, improve the Ducks' technique, and handle the LeGarrette Blount firestorm all the while.

You saw how Kelly stood in the arena and absorbed the pressure of that moment. You saw how much his team drew from his confidence in 2009, winning Oregon's first Pac-10 title since 2001 and only its second since 1994. Once that band of brothers conquered USC and ended the Trojans' reign on the West Coast, Kelly cemented the psychological advancements he made with his players in Eugene. His "win the day" mantra took root in the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley. He has turned Oregon into an unquestionably elite program, one that has competed for a national title, won three Pac-10/Pac-12 championships, and now claimed two BCS bowl victories with this thumping of Big 12 champion Kansas State.

Kelly might soon leave Oregon for the NFL – the smart money seems to suggest as much, though Kelly once seemed to be gone before he slept on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offer and reconsidered. This time, the threat of impending NCAA sanctions relating to the Willie Lyles affair might re-create a Pete Carroll situation in the Northwest, eerily leading the Pac-12's two great coaches of the 21st century to depart college football under similar circumstances. It's true that Kelly – after handling the 2009 season and his baptism by fire with such grace – grew too big for his britches and made some clumsy, wayward, flatly amateurish decisions that will hurt the Oregon program. This is why the NFL will probably get its hands on the master of the up-tempo offense, the man whose concepts have clearly rippled across the sport, taking what guys like Rich Rodriguez did in prior years and advancing them to another level.

Yet, no matter what you might think about Kelly's ethics or his prickly, ornery manner ("WILL YOU SHUT UP?" will be the YouTube moment that forever captures Kelly's temperament, one that drove Oregon to such lofty heights…), his rise – and the Oregon ascendancy which accompanied it – represents one of the more remarkable stories in college football's history.

You can say that Phil Knight's money was going to make Oregon a colossus, but neither Rich Brooks nor Bellotti were able to turn the Ducks into an annual national title contender. You can say that if Dennis Dixon had not gotten injured in 2007, Bellotti might have been able to do what Kelly has done in Eugene. Yet, that's not how history unfolded. It was Kelly who forged a top-tier program from the flames of pressure that engulfed Oregon Football in September of 2009. It was Kelly who took a regional program and made it into a national force that often took away the breath of college football fans with its devastatingly fast offense and signature style.

Chip Kelly has spent only four seasons as an FBS head coach. His brief stay in the college football spotlight – assuming it does indeed end this month – will be remembered as one of the most influential four-year runs in this sport's 144-year history.