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December 19th, 2012 JOHN LOCANTHI | Cover Story
 

Chip Kelly’s Secret Offense

Why boosters are annoyed by the most successful football coach in Oregon’s history.

lede_chipkelly_3907Departing Duck Chip Kelly - IMAGE: Mitchell Lea
When the Oregon Ducks plucked a little-known offensive coordinator named Chip Kelly out of the University of New Hampshire in 2007, the tectonic plates of college football shifted toward the Willamette Valley. Within a few years, Oregon’s gutsy coaching, garish uniforms and an offense that was literally a blur changed the sport. 

ESPN’s College GameDay, which broadcasts from the site of the week’s biggest game throughout the season, has made six trips to Eugene since 2007, more than any other college in the country. A search for “Chip Kelly” at any sports website turns up thousands of results just in the past year. There is even a Twitter account, Chipisms, dedicated to republishing his witticisms.

And then there are kids like Adam Bussian. 

Bussian is a 16-year-old quarterback at East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina. The tall sophomore comes from a part of the country that is no slouch when it comes to college sports, and he had never been to Oregon before this fall. Yet he is a huge Ducks fan. His Twitter page is decorated with the yellow University of Oregon “O” logo over a green backdrop. His high-school coach implemented the Oregon “blur” offense three years ago.

“It took some time to get used to, but it was really fun,” Bussian says.

Last month, Bussian talked his father into flying the two of them to Oregon to watch the Ducks play Stanford at Autzen Stadium. Although Oregon lost in overtime, 17-14, the visit made an impression on the young player.

“It was amazing, like a trip to the mecca of college football,” says Bussian, who slapped an Oregon sticker on the back window of his Jeep Grand Cherokee when he returned home.

Guess where he wants to go to college?

In the 113 years of Oregon football before Kelly became head coach in 2009, the Ducks played in seven major bowl games and had four 10-win seasons. In Kelly’s four seasons as head coach, the Ducks have won at least 10 games every year and are headed to their fourth consecutive Bowl Championship Series game. They capped last season with a 45-38 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl—Oregon’s first win in the “granddaddy” of bowl games in 95 years.

It’s not just winning that has put the Ducks on the map. Kelly’s no-huddle, spread-option offense has run roughshod over much of the competition and become one of the most emulated systems in the nation.

This season, all 11 of Oregon’s victories have been by double digits. The Ducks’ closest margin was a 62-51 win over USC, a game in which Oregon racked up 730 total yards. The points and yardage were each the most the storied Trojans program had ever surrendered.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said a shell-shocked Monte Kiffin, USC’s respected defensive coordinator, after the Nov. 3 game in Los Angeles. “I’ve never heard of so many yards.” Kiffin’s reputation never recovered from the defensive debacle. He resigned effective after the season.

Of course, even the most casual fan probably knows Kelly’s accomplishments on the field. What they don’t know is that Kelly may be one of the biggest paradoxes in college football.

A number of substantial Oregon football boosters, many of whom requested anonymity, expressed a widespread annoyance with Kelly. The coach with the highest winning percentage (45-7, 86.5 percent) among BCS conference coaches is at odds with many of those closest to the Oregon program. Although most would agree Kelly is an extraordinary coach, he doesn’t care much for the many other obligations that come with his job.

“Some of the college boosters have gone as far as to say, ‘I hope he does leave so we can get somebody who appreciates the fans,’” says Jack Roberts, a former Oregon labor commissioner and Oregon alumnus.

On Jan. 3, Kelly and his Ducks (11-1) will play Kansas State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., a game many assume will be his last at Oregon. A presumed jump to the National Football League would leave Kelly with the legacy of a college coach who rebelled against the way the game is played—both on the field and off.

GAME-DAY GARB: Oregon coach Chip Kelly wears his trademark white visor and black-and-green shirt as he sizes up the opposition. It’s been a winning look: Kelly is 45-7 in four seasons as the Ducks’ head coach. His relationship with the team’s boosters has been less successful.
IMAGE: Mitchell Lea

 

Kelly, 49, lives in a new house on the remote, northern edge of Eugene. The lawn is immaculately maintained. The hedges are well-trimmed. There are no flower beds. The rock- and wood-sided house looks fresh out of the box.

The home, where Kelly lives alone, has little furniture other than a big-screen TV.

Kelly declined to speak with WW for this story.

The son of a lawyer, Kelly grew up in Manchester, N.H. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of New Hampshire, Kelly started his coaching career as an assistant at Columbia University in 1990. He coached defensive backs and special teams, earning an annual salary of $4,000. This season, his base salary is $3.5 million.

After another season coaching defense at Columbia, Kelly spent 14 of the next 15 years coaching at New Hampshire, his alma mater, laying the groundwork for his offense. The football junkie frequently took road trips to speak with coaches across the country, testing theories about how to run the spread offense.

“They were always receptive,” Kelly told Sports Illustrated in 2009. “Because no one was ever playing New Hampshire.”

In 2006, then-Oregon offensive coordinator Gary Crowton consulted Kelly to learn more about the spread offense, a system the Ducks had recently implemented under coach Mike Bellotti. A year later, Kelly replaced Crowton as Oregon’s coordinator.

“Under coach Kelly, everything was so fresh and genius that we had complete confidence in our playbook,” former Oregon wide receiver Cameron Colvin told fan site FishDuck.com earlier this year. “It changed everything we did on offense.” 

Bellotti, who resigned as Oregon’s coach after the 2008 season to become athletic director, said Kelly brought a new dimension to the Ducks.

“We had a coaching staff that was pretty good at making adjustments after games,” Bellotti, now a college football analyst for ESPN, tells WW. “Chip was able to make them during games.”

Kelly’s “blur” offense marries the spread option pioneered a decade ago by college coaches Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer with a speed and tempo heretofore unseen. The offense spreads the defense all over the field and wears it down with a no-huddle attack. Defenses have little time to line up properly, let alone substitute exhausted players. Several teams have resorted to faking injuries just to slow down the Ducks. 

Kelly’s offense was so intriguing that it drew the interest of Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who was offered the Ducks’ offensive coordinator position in 2009 after Kelly was promoted to head coach. Gruden, who was not coaching at the time, opted to become an NFL announcer with ESPN.

“I was so eager to learn it, I almost took the job,” Gruden told The New York Times in 2010. “My wife said, ‘Are you the craziest human being alive, you want to move to Oregon to learn an offense?’”

But when Oregon brought Kelly to Eugene, the athletic department didn’t even consider how he would do at the other part of his job. 

PROLIFIC OFFENSE: Running back Kenjon Barner scores one of the Ducks’ six rushing touchdowns in their 48-24 victory over Oregon State in the Civil War game Nov. 24. Under Kelly, Oregon is 4-0 against OSU and has scored at least 37 points each year against the Beavers.
IMAGE: Mitchell Lea

 

The role of college football head coach extends far beyond coaching 85 scholarship athletes. It’s about mingling with the boosters. It’s about being an ambassador for the school. And it’s about money.

Football is the only profitable sport within the Oregon athletic department. The football program generated $20.5 million in the 2011 season. Largely on the back of the team’s success, the athletic department took in an additional $30.6 million in gifts and donations. 

The Oregon football coach brings money to the athletic department, and his obligations extend far beyond the field.

Rich Brooks, Oregon’s head coach from 1977 to 1994, was a legendary schmoozer. As was Brooks’ successor, Bellotti.

Kelly—not so much.

“As revolutionary as Chip has been on the field with the no-huddle offense, he’s been more revolutionary in how he acts toward social functions,” says an Oregon booster who requested anonymity. The source said the relationship between Kelly and boosters is strained.

When Kelly began at Oregon as offensive coordinator, his contract included a $50,000 incentive—a third of his $150,000 base salary—to make specific public appearances, which he dutifully made. His current contract makes no mention of any similarly required appearances.

“He’s good at talking to people,” says Jack Roberts, “but he’s not a glad-handing guy.”

Dan Dutton, a booster and former walk-on player at Oregon under Rich Brooks, says: “Fundraising and socializing are not his favorite activities.”

One of the longtime traditions of being the Oregon football coach is making a weekly trip to Portland during the season to speak to members of the Oregon Club of Portland at the Multnomah Athletic Club. At the luncheon, members watch Ducks highlights and meet with the head coach.

For years, Brooks and then Bellotti made the trek up Interstate 5 every Thursday. The three-hour round trip ate up valuable time in the hectic schedule of a major-college coach. But maintaining a relationship with donors was important. 

“I enjoyed selling the program,” Bellotti says. “Thankfully, I had a driver take me so I could watch film in the back of the van.”

“Mike and Rich used to come every week,” Dutton says.

Kelly? Since he’s been head coach, he phones it in, appearing on a projector screen and videoconferencing with every Oregon Club across the state simultaneously.

“People prefer to see [the Oregon coach] in person,” says Brian Vik, a 30-year Ducks season-ticket holder and member of the Oregon Club. “It comes back to the human element. They got used to something: access to the coach. It changed.”

Every June, the Oregon Club hosts a fundraising golf tournament at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in rural Washington County. Boosters gather to play a round while mingling with coaches. 

Bellotti was the main attraction when he was coach, although he wasn’t much of a golfer. He sometimes found himself playing once or twice a week in May and June, he says, “usually at some fundraiser.”

Brooks was the same way. The two never missed the Pumpkin Ridge tournament and fundraiser.

Kelly skipped the golf tournament in 2011, sending assistant coaches instead.

When he did come to the tournament this year, according to several boosters, he didn’t mingle and partnered with a small, select group.

“He can walk the course, but golf is definitely not his game.” says Don Ossey, who runs the golf tournament. “Football is his passion.”

MEET THE BOOSTERS: Kelly chats with a group that includes Nike co-founder Phil Knight (left) at the 2012 Rose Bowl. He has a chilly relationship with many Oregon boosters.
IMAGE: Alex McDougall/Daily Emerald

 

As an Oregon undergrad in 2007, I attended spring practices on April afternoons and wrote the occasional practice report on Ducks-related message boards. It was a time to gauge talent and see which players could fill the roles of departed stars. It was a means for fans to connect with Oregon football in the offseason.

But, starting with Oregon’s preparation for the BCS national championship against Auburn in the 2010 season, Kelly closed practices to all but players, coaches and a small group of approved visitors. Spring practice was closed for the first time this year.

Not even Oregon super booster and Nike co-founder Phil Knight can get into practices.

Before the Kelly era, big donors got all-access passes, which gave them the right to walk the sidelines during games, hang out in the locker room and press box, and attend postgame press conferences. 

Now, all-access passes are severely limited. Only Knight, former athletic director Pat Kilkenny and a handful of others receive them. Longtime Ducks fans who once hung out on the sidelines when Bellotti was head coach are now relegated to the coaches’ upper-deck suite at Autzen Stadium.

(This year, a rule instituted by the Pacific-12 Conference limits the number of non-football personnel allowed on the sidelines during games to 60 per home team.)

And the media? Kelly treats the press like a malignant tumor. He is only available for interviews after practice and after games. He is available to the media whenever he is contractually obligated. But his appearances in these situations are often curt, crisp and threaded with the irritation of a man who views this part of the job as utterly trifling.

“If you approached Bellotti with a frivolous question, he would still go out of his way to try to give you something to work with,” says Rob Moseley, who covers Oregon football for The Register-Guard of Eugene. “Chip will not.”

A press conference Dec. 7 after Oregon’s first practice for the Fiesta Bowl was typical. Wearing his trademark white visor and black-and-green Oregon polo shirt, Kelly fielded questions in his usual rapid-fire manner. He spoke as fast as possible while saying little to the assembled gaggle of reporters. 

After he was asked how many NFL teams had contacted him, Kelly snapped, “Not gonna talk about that, and the answer is zero.”

When asked a repetitive question, he replied, “Already talked about that, big boy.”

The interview was over in nine minutes.

As distant as he is to boosters and as brusque as he is with the media, Kelly is a different person to his players, who laud his ability to communicate complex concepts and schemes. And his relationships with the players goes beyond Xs and Os.

Dennis Dixon was an underachieving quarterback when Kelly was hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2007. He spent that summer before his senior season playing baseball in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system, trying to get his mind off football. The decision to play baseball was criticized by the press, fans and even his own coach—Bellotti. But not by his new quarterbacks coach.

Kelly showed up unannounced to one of Dixon’s games in Orlando, Fla., just to cheer him on.

“It was a big moment for me,” recalls Dixon, now a practice-squad quarterback with the NFL Baltimore Ravens. “I’d never had anyone show that kind of support for me up to that point.”

Under Kelly’s tutelege, Dixon went on to have an exemplary season for the Ducks until a knee injury ended his run at the Heisman Trophy.

That level of emotional support to his players extends back to the early days of Kelly’s coaching career.

Justin Fossbender’s grandfather died when he played for Kelly at Columbia. It was the first meaningful death in the young wide receiver’s life. Fossbender walked into Kelly’s office—even though Kelly was not his position coach—and started crying. Kelly took the grieving player out to get burgers.

“Whatever he was doing, he dropped it if you needed him,” Fossbender says.

RELUCTANT RELATIONSHIP: Kelly, fielding questions during media day before the Rose Bowl last season, is notoriously impatient with reporters. He usually is available for interviews only after practice and after games.
IMAGE: Alex McDougall/Daily Emerald

 

Whatever happens Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl, the odds are that Kelly will be headed to the NFL. And in some respects, it could be a better place for him.

NFL coaches don’t have to play golf with boosters. Or drive to the airport after practice to fly out and eat dinner with a recruit’s family. Or worry about the fallout from a lengthy NCAA investigation (which is currently hanging over the Oregon program).

Football coaches only have to worry about coaching football in the NFL.

The team at the next level that most resembles Kelly’s style of play is the division-leading New England Patriots, whose coaches met with Kelly in the offseason to learn the secrets of his uptempo offense. New England now leads the NFL in yards per game and plays per game. 

And, oddly enough, the longtime coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichick, is somewhat of a doppelgänger for Kelly. 

Belichick has prowled the sidelines in a beat-up gray hoodie for the past 13 years with the Patriots, a permanent scowl fixed on his face. He doesn’t release injury reports beyond what is required. He is not popular with the Boston-area media.

“He’s uncooperative and downright rude unless he’s talking about the history of the NFL and football,” Joe Sullivan, assistant managing sports editor for The Boston Globe, wrote WW in an email.

For now, Kelly is focused on preparing his team to take on Kansas State. This game looked like the probable national championship matchup midway through the season. Now it looks like Kelly’s final hurrah at Oregon.

Boosters may bitch about not getting to play golf with Kelly. The press may take umbrage with the limited access he gives them. In the decades before Kelly arrived, Bellotti and Brooks created expectations for the head football coach at Oregon.

Chip Kelly didn’t become the most talked-about coach in the country by doing what was expected. 


Coaching With Benefits

Chip Kelly’s base salary for this season is $3.5 million, with his contract topping out at $4 million in 2015. The contract offers Kelly a number of performance incentives for such accomplishments as winning the Pac-12 title, playing in the BCS Championship Game, and winning 12 regular-season games. Kelly earned a $50,000 bonus for leading the Ducks to the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon’s overtime loss to Stanford on Nov. 17 cost the coach at least $200,000.

Kelly also stands to earn up to an additional $100,000 if a certain percentage of his seniors graduate, up to an additional $100,000 if his players achieve a certain grade-point average and up to an additional $100,000 if his players make other academic progress. In addition, his contract calls for the university to provide him with:

  • Two automobiles. (Kelly will receive a $500 stipend per month per car if the university is unable to attain one or both of them.)
  • 12 season tickets to football games along with two tickets to every home game for each of the university’s other varsity teams.
  • Travel expenses for a guest of Kelly’s to attend all regular-season away games and a postseason bowl should the team qualify.
  • A skybox suite at every home game to be filled with guests of Kelly’s choosing.

Kelly’s contract was negotiated by his agent, David Dunn. Dunn is the founder of Athletes First, an Irvine, Calif., agency that represents a number of NFL players and college and professional coaches, including San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

 
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