UCLA's Chip Kelly says he'll 'focus and worry about winning' instead of answering critics

LOS ANGELES — The recurring tight shot was almost painful. The TV cameras kept coming back to Chip Kelly, staring from the sidelines as the game plan unraveled in front of him. It seems laughable now, but in the moment – with his Oregon Ducks on the wrong end of one of those impressive, BCS-busting performances by Boise State – people wondered if the first-time head coach might be in over his head.

Ponder that scene from 2009 as you consider Kelly’s demeanor throughout 2018 – and now, too, on the eve of his second season with UCLA. In his return to college football after four years in the NFL, Kelly’s Bruins lost their first five games and floundered to a 3-9 finish – two more losses than in his four years at Oregon. Add a decidedly unsexy recruiting haul, and already there are questions about whether Kelly – who was indisputably seen as the home-run hire during the 2017 coaching carousel – has what it takes to get it done in Westwood.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly.

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But that’s not reckoning with the situation Kelly inherited at UCLA. Or with his track record, either.

That Thursday night in Boise, a 19-8 loss, was compounded immediately after, when Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punched Boise State’s Byron Hout. In sum, it was a bad night.

But it quickly became apparent those tight shots of Kelly were not indicative of, well, much of anything. Instead, it was our first glimpse of a guy whose steady state is stoic. Whose public comments are routinely delivered in a high-speed New England monotone, punctuated by the occasional zinger. And who adheres to the adage about never letting 'em see you sweat. Kelly’s demeanor that first time out in 2009?

“You can’t be concerned, when you’re in that position, of what other people think about what you’re doing,” he says by way of explanation.

To anyone who has followed Kelly’s career, this much is abundantly clear: He seems truly unconcerned what anyone else thinks.

“You should focus and worry about winning,” he says, “as opposed to what people are talking about.”

Kelly is referring specifically to the perception of the Pac-12, but it’s consistent with his stance on, well, everything. And maybe we should wait just a little before deciding how this experiment will go. The challenge of revitalizing UCLA’s program presents as different, more difficult task than the situation Kelly inherited a decade ago in Eugene.

That first Oregon team was loaded with talent, recruited during Mike Bellotti’s tenure (which included Kelly as offensive coordinator). When Bellotti stepped aside, Kelly was promoted into a very nice situation. 

“I’d been there for two years,” Kelly says. “I knew how things were. If I was going to tweak something, I knew what it was like in the past. It wasn’t like that here. It was all new. They players were new to us, and we were new to the players.”

After that loss to Boise State, the Ducks went on to win the Pac-10 and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time in 15 years. In four seasons under Kelly from 2009-12, Oregon was 46-7. The Ducks won three Pac-12 championships and played for a BCS national championship, all while employing a spread offense at warp speed.

“He innovated the game,” UCLA running back Joshua Kelley says. “He innovated college football, for sure. So him coming (to UCLA), it was crazy. It was awesome.”

What followed has not been. Kelly swept into Westwood and began installing his version of culture change. Where his Oregon teams were taught to “win the day,” the Bruins embrace the mantra “habits reflect the mission.” He says they largely did. But UCLA was anything but a turnkey operation. The Bruins played 21 true freshmen in 2018, and it showed. They ranked 98th nationally in scoring and near the bottom of the Pac-12 in defense.

“It was as expected,” former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel says. “The roster – there’s always a transition when a coach enters. There’s guys that are gonna buy in and there are gonna be (others) who are, ‘Well, I’m not sure,’ that don’t fit the system. … They were without a quarterback. So now you didn’t have any of the pieces. So it was kind of ‘as expected,’ in my mind.”

Kelly points to progress in the second half of last season as important in the program’s development. After their worst start to a season since 1943, UCLA won three of its final seven games. Included – and this is important – was a victory against USC (as a bonus, it helped send the crosstown rival to a losing season).

“The kids, at the end of the season, understood what it took to win,” Kelly says.

And now?

“The only thing you can’t accelerate is time,” Kelly says. “It takes time. It takes time to build trust. It takes time to build relationships. So obviously, going into Year 2, you feel a lot better than going into Year 1, because you’ve got a better sense and feel about everything.”

Although UCLA returns 10 defensive and eight offensive starters, the Bruins opened preseason practices last week with 42 freshmen and six transfers.

“We’re still gonna be really young,” Kelly says. “Now, we’ve got a bunch of younger guys that have experience ,but we’re still in the same boat. We do not have (many upperclassmen) – there was a void for whatever reason. We played a ton of freshmen last year – some by design, some by necessity. It was just, ‘It’s what we have.’

“Obviously, you hope that game experience plays out for you.”

A nonconference schedule of Cincinnati, San Diego State and Oklahoma doesn’t exactly offer an easy onramp into the Pac-12 schedule. But whatever happens in 2019, there are deeper concerns in the long term. Kelly has never been known for his recruiting enthusiasm. It’s in part why coaching in the NFL appealed so much to him. But UCLA’s recruiting so far in his tenure has been underwhelming.

The 2019 class was rated 40th nationally in the 247Sports composite ranking, sixth-best in the Pac-12. And the approach was interesting; the Bruins issued fewer scholarships than most of their competitors. The results weren’t especially encouraging; they landed only one four-star recruit.

The explanation is simple: Instead of chasing stars, Kelly is looking for players who fit not only his schemes but his idea of culture; he points to UCLA’s admissions standards as a significant consideration, as well. But the Bruins missed out on several of the stars they went after – presumably, guys who fit the system and culture. 

“I don’t think it’s a unique approach, but I think it’s – we don’t want to waste time,” Kelly says. “We don’t want to waste student-athletes’ time, nor do we want to waste our own time. We need to find out a lot about the student-athletes from a background standpoint, because that’s really the reason that they’re going to get admitted to the university.”

But if recruiting doesn’t pick up – the 2020 class currently ranks 68th – the on-field results seem unlikely to match the lofty expectations of competing for Pac-12 championships. Kelly, though, likely doesn’t care what anybody thinks about his methods.

The Bruins, by the way, aren’t necessarily employing that “blur” attack – at least, not in the same ways. Kelly has meshed passing concepts from the NFL; the Bruins run the ball differently; the quarterback is under center more often.

“There isn’t, ‘my offense,’” Kelly says. “It’s what’s the best offense for us to run based upon who we have. When we were at Oregon, we played to our strengths. When we’re at UCLA, we’re gonna play to our strengths.

“It’s an ongoing process of self-scouting and trying to put your players in position to make good plays. Whether it’s the Wing T or the wishbone or whatever, you have to know what the best fit for your team is.”

It’ll be a while yet before we know if Kelly and UCLA will be the right fit, and if his return to college football will ultimately be a success. One thing’s for sure: Watching the coach probably won’t reveal any clues.

“Everybody is allowed to have an opinion and everybody is allowed to weigh in,” Kelly says. “But you have to still stay kind of true to your vision and what it looks like.”