Chip Kelly's Return Is a Win for CFB Whether He Flops or Flourishes at UCLA

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterNovember 25, 2017

New San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly answers a reporter during a media conference Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

The most significant moment of college football's essential, emotion-rich Week 13—more commonly known as rivalry weekend—did not actually take place on any football field. It was delivered to us on a Saturday morning, shortly before the pandemonium began, in a tidy press release totaling 599 words.

Only a few of those words were necessary. They are words those around the sport have been hoping would be written for some time—a marriage that always seemed too good and too productive to end the way it did.

After more than four years away from the sport, Chip Kelly is coming back to college football. Not just to a specific team or city or coast, but to the game and sport as a whole. After spending much of the week being courted by Florida and UCLA (and perhaps others), Kelly inked a five-year deal with UCLA totaling $23.3 million.

"It is an absolute honor to join the Bruin Family, and I am grateful to Chancellor [Gene] Block and to [UCLA athletic director] Dan Guerrero for this incredible opportunity," Kelly said in the release. "UCLA is a world-class institution with a distinguished history in athletics, and we will do our part to uphold its tradition of excellence."

For a sport so immersed in personality, it cannot be overstated how significant this is. For a sport with so much going for it, this is yet another meaningful addition to the mix.

Given all that's transpired since we last saw him, it feels like Kelly has been gone for ages. Since leaving Oregon in January 2013, after flirting with the NFL in the years leading up to his departure, Kelly has been chewed up and spit out by both the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. He then ended up wearing a suit and tie behind a desk as a studio analyst for ESPN, which always felt like a cruel and unusual waste of his talents.

PASADENA, CA. - OCTOBER 10: Chip Kelly Head Coach of the Oregon Ducks runs back to the locker room after they beat the UCLA Bruins 24-10 on October 10, 2009 at the Rosebowl in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Jacob De golish/Getty Images)
Jacob de Golish/Getty Images

While his initial departure was most certainly expected and understood, his void left a gaping hole. Not just at Oregon, which is still trying to find itself years later, but everywhere else as well.

In four years with the Ducks, Kelly finished with a 46-7 record, headlined by one national championship appearance and three consecutive 12-win seasons. Beyond the numbers, however, Kelly's unmistakable brand was missed. 

The pace of the game has undoubtedly quickened since he said his farewells, in part because of how much Kelly was able to torment opposing defenses. There was something about his style that seemed to mesh so naturally with the character of a college football Saturday.

Away from the field, Kelly has never been anything like his play-calling. He's private and often gruff. He doesn't radiate joy or manufacture enthusiasm. His answers and thoughts are often direct and to the point. 

Even this part of Kelly's presence and personality aligned brilliantly with his "mad scientist" reputation. The biggest personalities in the sport—Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh—are larger-than-life figures with their own ticks. Kelly, while his own unique person, fits nicely into this group.

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 28:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers (right) shakes hands with head coach Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles after the 49ers beat the Eagles at Levi's Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Santa Clara, Californ
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For UCLA, a program still trying to determine exactly where it fits in college football's evolving hierarchy, this feels like a moment. The fact Kelly ended up at UCLA rather than classic powers such as Florida or Tennessee or even Nebraska is a significant development in itself.

Whether it's to avoid the unreasonable spotlight and expectations that would have followed Kelly to the SEC or simply a matter of comfort is moot at this point. Kelly will control a team flush with young talent—something Jim Mora did a wonderful job acquiring over the past few years—and have a ton of resources at his fingertips. He will also enter the Pac-12 at a time when the conference feels ripe for the taking.

And yet it's completely reasonable to question whether this will be as successful as it feels like it should be. It's been documented that Kelly doesn't care a great deal for the grind that is college football recruiting.

Despite how much Kelly accomplished at Oregon, he also left the program as the NCAA put it on probation and took away scholarships. Kelly received an 18-month show-cause penalty for his involvement, which was without substance as soon as he went to the NFL.

That's not to say Kelly won't recruit. (He will.) Or that UCLA will fall into the same eventual NCAA wormhole. (It won't.) But it's difficult to win at the level Kelly did over an extended period. Expectations, while slightly more reserved given UCLA's more recent football standing, will be sky high. As they should be. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The buzz around UCLA on the heels of a disappointing stretch should be deafening. Everything says this should be a lovely, productive working relationship moving forward.

When his teams are fully functional, there are few things as fun as watching Kelly's offense go to work at its breakneck, unrelenting pace. And while that does not guarantee victories or conference titles or playoff cameos, college football is better for his return.

On a day that was supposed to be purely about results and the pageantry of fanbases coming together to respectably hate one another, Kelly's return almost feels larger than it all.

There will be time to dissect expectations and how his style will mesh in the conference he once tormented. How Kelly will evolve as a coach and a recruiter and a play-caller. 

But this is not a day for guarantees and proclamations. This is much more about the delight of being able to have that conversation to begin with.