Kelly transformed the game at Oregon
The coaching record books won't recognize the change that Chip Kelly wrought in the Pac-12 Conference before he left Wednesday to coach the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly served as head coach at Oregon for four seasons, and the NCAA record-keepers don't get out of bed for anyone who hasn't coached for 10.
About those numbers -- they're damn good. Kelly went 46-7 (.868) overall, 34-3 (.919) in the league, and won three conference championships in four seasons. In that fourth, non-championship season, the one just concluded, Oregon went 12-1 and finished second in the nation.
If those numbers aren't good enough for the record book, fine. The rest of us have all the evidence that we need. You don't have to know an X from an O to understand that the Pac-12 and the entire sport of college football transformed over the past four seasons because of Kelly's brand of football.
Until Kelly came to Oregon, the West Coast belonged to USC and Pete Carroll. Until Kelly came to Oregon, tempo was just an old Ford sedan. Until Kelly came to Oregon, the road to the BCS rarely veered north and west through Eugene.
His predecessor, Mike Bellotti, hired Kelly in 2007 from New Hampshire, where he had been offensive coordinator, for the same job at Oregon. We didn't know it then, but the power shift in the Pac-10 began in that first season, when No. 9 USC lost at Oregon, 24-17.
The Trojans went on to win their sixth consecutive league championship that season. But that's only because quarterback Dennis Dixon, the former minor-league baseball player whom Kelly transformed into the Heisman Trophy favorite, blew out his knee on a November Thursday at Arizona. The No. 2 Ducks lost their last three conference games and finished the season at the Sun Bowl.
Two years later, Bellotti moved upstairs to become athletic director and promoted Kelly. His tenure started with a 19-8 loss at Boise State on a Thursday night. The offense gained 14 yards in the first half. Tailback LeGarrette Blount coldcocked a Bronco linebacker on the field after the game. But when the season ended, the Ducks had finished 10-3 and won the Pac-10 championship.
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Kelly transformed Oregon by combining a spread offense with fast players and a fast tempo. Plays that didn't work in the first quarter broke open in the third, when the defense couldn't match the Ducks' pace. When Oregon stepped up its pace, the 40-second clock rarely ticked past :25, and often even didn't make it to :30.
In the sincerest form of flattery, coaches from around the country began to adopt the Ducks' tempo. Kelly even swapped ideas with New England coach Bill Belichick, as the Patriots showed last Sunday in their victory over Houston.
Kelly had an eye for the players he needed that would fit his system. His quarterbacks -- Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and, this season, Marcus Mariota -- haven't attracted much attention from NFL scouts. But each one has been able to run, pass and, most important, make the quick decisions that Kelly's offense demands.
In 2010, Oregon finished the regular season undefeated and played Auburn in the BCS National Championship. Even though they had no one as remotely talented as Auburn quarterback Cam Newton or Tiger defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Ducks played the Tigers to the last play of the game, losing 22-19.
As Kelly won more, Oregon began to recruit and sign more talented players. In February 2011, Kelly swiped DeAnthony Thomas, the best running back-returner in Los Angeles, away from USC. Kelly also had a commitment from Kerrville, Texas, quarterback Johnny Manziel. When he decided to play close to home at Texas A&M, Kelly signed Mariota, a quarterback from Hawaii rated 123rd by ESPN.com. Mariota made All-Pac-12 as a redshirt freshman last season.
Kelly began his time at Oregon as an open book, remarkably frank with the media. He gradually closed the book over his four seasons, especially after he had to field questions regarding the NCAA investigation of the program regarding a $25,000 payment for scouting services to Willie Lyles. That inquiry remains open, and it will stain Kelly's legacy if the NCAA finds reason to penalize the Ducks.
Stain, perhaps, but not define. Kelly's legacy is that he took over a good program and turned it into a national power. New head coaches typically have a FEMA-type cleanup job to do. Very few get the head start that the next Oregon coach will have. That fact may not be good enough to put Kelly in the NCAA record book. But it is a fact nonetheless.