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All In On Chip Kelly

By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

It took an All-Star team of Bruins to bring the nation’s most coveted football coaching candidate to UCLA.


Illustration by Wayne Johnson.

Speed was the defining quality of Chip Kelly’s Oregon football teams: The Ducks simply played the game faster than everyone else. UCLA’s hiring of Kelly tracked similarly — UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero ’74 knew he must work fast to make the move amid rumors that Kelly was about to sign with the Florida Gators.

Guerrero informed Coach Jim Mora that he was being let go on the Sunday following UCLA’s third straight loss to USC last fall. Then Guerrero, Chancellor Gene Block and Senior Associate Athletic Director Josh Rebholz flew to San Francisco for Pac-12 meetings. Meanwhile, Guerrero contacted Kelly’s agent, David Dunn ’83, and determined that the coach’s interest was affirmative. Arrangements were made to fly Kelly to the Bay Area for a meeting the next day.

“I’ve typically not made a decision to replace a coach until after a season ends,” Guerrero says, admitting that circumstances made this time different. “The NCAA passed legislation that added an [earlier] national letter-of-intent signing date. [And] because other schools were beginning to make decisions earlier than they might normally make, I had to look at that dynamic and ascertain the most appropriate time for us to make a move.

“Chip was cognizant that UCLA is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world, and our athletic department is one of the most successful and prestigious in the country,” says Guerrero. “Everything that we discussed utilized those realities as a baseline.”

Says Kelly, “To me, finding the right fit and being in a situation where I am aligned with the right people was the most important thing. When I talked to Chancellor Block, Dan, Josh, [and later] Troy [Aikman] and Casey [Wasserman], it was evident that we shared the same vision and values.”

Guerrero’s decision to include Aikman ’08 and Wasserman ’96 — two of the school’s most prominent figures — on the search committee proved vital. After the initial meeting in the Bay Area, the whole deal came together over a series of an estimated 50-plus phone calls between all parties.

“[UCLA] reached out, and I said I wanted to be involved,” says Aikman, who starred at UCLA in the 1980s before leading the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins in his Hall of Fame career. “When Chip was targeted as our first choice, I reached out to him, maintained communication and gave him an overall view of UCLA from my experiences. Some of the pros, some of the cons. I stayed in touch and tried to help bridge any gaps.”

Casey Wasserman, whose family name adorns UCLA’s state-of-the-art football facility, is chairman and CEO of Wasserman. He also is the person Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tapped to lead the effort to bring the Olympics back to L.A. in 2028.

“It was the chancellor, Dan and Josh’s job to sell Chip on UCLA,” Wasserman says. “It was Troy’s job to be able to talk about the community from a football perspective, and it was my job to work with Chip’s agent to help structure the transaction. We all had our roles, but it started with the chancellor and Dan spending time with Chip, talking about vision, culture and academics. Once they did that, it was my and Troy’s job to push as hard as we could to try and make it a reality.”

He continues, “In Chip Kelly we have a proven championship football coach. That’s an incredible opportunity for the university, and it’s an incredible opportunity for Los Angeles. It brings a lot of attention to the community. It’s a big deal.”

The national media, where hot-take culture mandates dissent, agree with Wasserman. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic wrote that “the Great White Whale of the 2017–18 coaching carousel always figured to be the guy who went 46-7 and won three Pac-12 titles in four seasons at Oregon.” Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Feldman said, “UCLA reeled in the biggest fish in the coaching free agent market.” On ESPN’s College GameDay, Desmond Howard summed things up: “[Kelly]’s going to ignite the Bruins.”

According to Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor for CBS-affiliated 247Sports who has covered Kelly since his Oregon days, the new coach has already ignited the Bruins’ prospects on the recruiting trail. “The buzz among recruits was huge when he was hired,” says Huffman, who notes that the impact was immediate. One of the first players to sign with the Bruins after the coaching change was Chase Cota, a wide receiver and Oregon legacy. “This kid had all the makings of the next in-state player who went to play for the Ducks,” Huffman says. “But because of his growing up watching Chip Kelly’s offense, it tipped the scales to UCLA.

“I think if you look at the kind of player [Kelly] recruited at Oregon, it was a player that fit in his system. It wasn’t always the highly rated kid,” Huffman says (while also pointing out that Oregon did land best-in-their-class, five-star recruits like De’Anthony Thomas and Arik Armstead in back-to-back years). “More often, he’s going to go with kids who fit his system. He’s really big on player development. Kelly typically does his best work with guys who waited a couple of years to contribute.”

“Clearly, we’d love to win a national championship. That’s the goal of every program,” Aikman says. “At one point in my senior year, we were No. 1 in the country for two weeks. I know that this team can compete on a national level. You give yourself an opportunity to go out and play at a high level and compete for championships each and every year, and that’s not unreasonable with Chip coming in.”