Los Angeles • The mystique is real. Just ask the 25-year-old quarterback-turned-safety-turned-linebacker, who when he was a younger was fascinated with the team in the flashy green uniforms and shiny winged helmets that ran plays at a break-neck pace and launched slashing runs and explosive passing plays from all over the field. Chase Hansen wondered then: How do you stop a team that literally wears opponents out?
Now, all these years later, he’s going to get a crack at it. Because Chip Kelly is back.
After spending the last five years in the NFL, the offensive guru who rose to stardom with the Oregon Ducks as an offensive coordinator and later as head coach, is back in the Pac-12. And later this year, Hansen and his fellow Utah defenders will try solve Kelly’s distinctive spread attack when they visit the Rose Bowl and the UCLA Bruins on Oct. 26.
“I think there’s a lot of teams that try to do it [like him],” Hansen said, “but the legend of Chip Kelly is he knows how to do it best. It’ll be fun to see how that works out.”
The Pac-12’s meal ticket has returned. Nobody put the conference in the spotlight in such a short amount of time like Kelly’s Ducks. He tried the pros, he tried his hand at installing his spread look with the Philadelphia Eagles and later the San Francisco 49ers. That’s done and dusted now, and Kelly is back to donning the signature trademark visor for a Pac-12 program.
“It just adds to the competitiveness of the Pac-12,” said Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who grew up a Ducks fan at the height of Oregon’s fame under Kelly. “It’s already a really competitive conference, and it’s just going to be even more competitive now.”
Kelly signed a five-year, $23 million contract when he was hired last November, ending a short stint as a football analyst after being fired by 49ers following just one season on the job. One of the most sought-after free agent coaches in football was available and UCLA came calling after firing Jim Mora Jr. The Bruins, always in a battle with USC for the hearts and minds of recruits and fans here in L.A., needed to kickstart a program trending downward. They swung for the fences. They had no other choice.
“I think it’s fair to say the Chip Kelly derby was one of the most-watched national coaching searches,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “Chip could’ve wound up in any league in the country if he wanted to. He wanted to be in the Pac-12, and he wanted to be at UCLA.”
Like most of us, UCLA wideout Theo Howard found out online. And at first, the Bruin junior didn’t believe it. He’d seen rumors swirling of Kelly-to-UCLA in the past, so he needed to validate the news he was seeing on social media accounts.
“I’m really happy he’s here,” Howard said. “It’s a fresh start. He’s bringing a culture change, making sure we’re all bought into the goal, all bought into what he wants to do with us this season.”
As one of the five new coaches in the Pac-12 this year, Kelly will want to do what he’s always done: Win, and do so with his unique, solitary style. It will take some time. The Bruins lost star quarterback Josh Rosen to the NFL Draft and the jury is still out whether or not this year’s UCLA roster has a signal caller up to the tall task of handling Kelly’s offense.
Things, too, have changed in college football since Kelly last roamed the sidelines. Mainly because of Kelly’s influence and mainly because of what Oregon was able to do, capturing the attention of talented recruits with his wizardry on the field and the uniform swag the Ducks' got under the Nike umbrella.
“When I first came in the league we were the only ones that ran a spread offense and had shiny helmets,” Kelly said. “Now everybody runs the same offense and has shiny helmets.”
The last coach to speak at Wednesday’s Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood, Calif., was predictably Kelly, the old new guy who has returned to his comfort zone after venturing out of it for a few seasons. It might take some time, because nothing significant is built in one season. But it is the first step to seeing if the new UCLA coach can replicate what he built in Eugene.
Kelly is back in a familiar groove. Only he’s traded in dreary skies of Oregon for the bluebird days in Southern California, where he said the best thing about L.A. is that he knows he’s not the prettiest person in any room. UCLA fans might feel differently.