Almost a decade after he left that giddy success behind, the narrative about what makes him brilliant remains unchanged. It’s all about past innovation, about all those points scored in a hurry, about what he once did with shiny helmets and speedy offense.
That could change Saturday at the Rose Bowl. This is Chip Kelly’s chance to blur his way to a new path against his old team.
Want to be known for more than what you did at Oregon? Beat Oregon.
Want to erase the rancid taste of those NFL failures? Beat Oregon.
Want to make fans stop pointing to that historically horrid start at UCLA? Beat Oregon.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the college football world will be watching. ESPN’s College GameDay will be on the UCLA campus for the first time in school history, having also appeared at the Rose Bowl before the Bruins played Oregon in 1998.
That was the day UCLA quarterback Cade McNown was so sick he vomited on the field while guiding his team to a fully therapeutic 41-38 victory in overtime.
This matchup could be equally intriguing. The Bruins (5-2 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) are 3½-point underdogs against the No. 10 Ducks (5-1, 2-1), who haven’t been flying particularly high since that September road victory over Ohio State.
The game will be televised nationally by ABC with an early-afternoon kickoff that has thrilled Kelly after three recent games with late starts ended shortly before midnight. Two of those games ended in defeat for UCLA.
“I’m just elated and more excited than anybody in the country because we get to play at 12:30,” Kelly said Saturday night after the Bruins withstood a Washington comeback for a 24-17 victory at Husky Stadium.
UCLA’s late starts this season have prompted a running joke between Kelly and reporters about what time games kick off in the Philippines, where defensive backs coach Brian Norwood’s son plays professional basketball. The Bruins’ kickoff against Oregon will come at 3:30 a.m. Manila time.
“They’re not happy,” Kelly cracked, “I’ll tell you that right now.”
Kelly went on say how the late starts had prevented the children of his assistant coaches from attending games. They also might have curtailed interest in the sport from other children who were asleep by halftime.
“We have a responsibility to the young kids of the world to show them what a great game this is,” Kelly said, “and that’s our responsibility to put on a good show against a really good Oregon team.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Ducks’ disruptive defensive end, could apply the kind of pressure quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hasn’t felt this season. But Oregon running back CJ Verdell is out for the season because of a leg injury and the Ducks have been so bad on offense that they were repeatedly booed at home.
UCLA hasn’t felt any elation at the Rose Bowl since beating Louisiana State there in early September, sparking momentary hopes of an unbeaten season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Those dreams ended with home losses to Fresno State and Arizona State that couldn’t be blamed on the 7:30 p.m. starts. UCLA’s defense faltered in both games and its offense disappeared after halftime against the Sun Devils.
More recently, the Bruins showed resilience in holding off Arizona and scoring the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter against Washington. But questions about their struggling secondary remain, even after freshman cornerback Devin Kirkwood recovered to intercept an underthrown pass and preserve the victory over the Huskies.
It’s going to take a stronger across-the-board effort for UCLA to log its first victory over a top-10 team since beating No. 7 Texas in 2010. Kelly’s offense will need to keep churning out rushing yardage while Thompson-Robinson must replicate the nearly mistake-free performance he made against Washington.
The defense must stay away from those oversized cushions and the big pass plays that doomed them in the Bruins’ two losses.
For Kelly, the snuggly storylines involving the team he led to a 46-7 record are gone. Two trips to Oregon in his first three seasons at UCLA gave him a chance to reunite with old friends and receive a standing ovation from fans who once adored him. They also ended in two more defeats for a coach who is an underwhelming 15-23 at his latest coaching stop.
Saturday could be about creating something special at UCLA, a victory keeping the Bruins in the running for a Pac-12 title and a major bowl.
“It’ll be like another game,” Kelly said. “It’s not my former team, I was there a long time ago, so I don’t know any of those coaches, I don’t know any of those players. So it’s not like I’m going back to coach against a bunch of guys that I coached.”
Like it or not, Kelly will be coaching against the memories of what he once was, trying again for the breakthrough that could make him famous for something else.