One of Chip Kelly’s mantras in leading UCLA to a record of one game over .500 in six seasons was “Habits reflect the mission.”
The coach lived up to those words in his departure from the school that continually backed him despite his middling results. His interviews with other teams before agreeing to reunite with longtime friend Ryan Day as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator reflected his mission to leave UCLA at an inopportune time for the Bruins.
A little more than two months after UCLA athletic administrators backed the beleaguered coach amid calls for his job, Kelly rewarded their support with an unexpected vacancy on the eve of spring practice and a move to the Big Ten Conference. In doing so, he will be taking what amounts to a demotion to prop up his own future prospects with a team that annually competes for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano expressed his shock at the move with a tweet featuring two mind-blown emojis.
Kelly also was linked via media reports to several offensive coordinator jobs in the NFL, including openings with the Las Vegas Raiders, Washington Commanders and Seattle Seahawks.
In a message to UCLA alumni and fans, Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond thanked Kelly for his time at the school, wished him well and said a national search for a replacement had already commenced.
“We understand the importance of the timing of this search,” Jarmond wrote, before referencing the school’s most famous coach, “and will heed the advice of Coach [John] Wooden, to be quick but not to hurry.”
Kelly’s ties to his new boss go back decades, Day having played quarterback at New Hampshire from 1998 to 2001 while Kelly was the school’s offensive coordinator. Day’s first coaching job came under Kelly’s guidance while Day served as New Hampshire’s tight ends coach in 2002. When Kelly took a job as coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, he hired Day as his quarterbacks coach.
Kelly and Day were on the golf course together in New Hampshire in the summer of 2022 when they learned that UCLA was heading to the Big Ten and that they would be reunited; they never could have imagined just how closely.
Kelly’s departure comes at an abysmal time for the Bruins given that the coaching carousel has spun to a crawl and few, if any, highly coveted replacements remain available.
UCLA could go with an interim coach for next season or choose from a list of emergency replacement candidates who could include Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White, a former UCLA linebacker; former Washington Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who was once the Bruins’ running backs coach and recruiting coordinator; former Stanford coach David Shaw, whose son Carter will be a sophomore wide receiver on the team next season; former USC and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll; and Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Tommy Rees, whose father, Bill, was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for 15 years under Terry Donahue.
UCLA offensive tackle Josh Carlin made his preference known in a tweet directed at Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond, saying the candidates should be former UCLA running backs coach DeShaun Foster — who now holds the same post with the Las Vegas Raiders — or Bruins defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe.
It’s unclear how much roster turnover that Kelly’s move could prompt; players are allotted an extra 30-day period to enter the transfer portal if there is a coaching change.
UCLA is expected to return quarterback Ethan Garbers as part of a veteran offense next season, but Kelly’s successor must navigate a treacherous 2024 schedule that includes games against Louisiana State, Penn State, Oregon, Washington and USC. Things could get incredibly awkward in 2025, when the Bruins are scheduled to play at Ohio State and any UCLA fans traveling to Columbus will be tempted to boo Kelly.
After trumpeting “friendships, relationships and championships” at his introductory news conference, Kelly guided the Bruins to a 35-34 record and one title — in the L.A. Bowl — while undoubtedly straining his ties on campus given his abrupt exit. His teams never finished higher than tied for second in the Pac-12 South.
Kelly’s pro-style offenses were often elite starting with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and featured several running backs who went on to play in the NFL, including Zach Charbonnet, Josh Kelley and Demetric Felton Jr. After UCLA finished the 2022 season ranked No. 4 nationally in total offense (503.6 yards per game), the Bruins took a giant step backward last season to No. 32 (427.1 yards) in part because Kelly no longer had a dual-threat quarterback upon the departure of Dorian Thompson-Robinson to the NFL.
Kelly’s critics derided his refusal to fully embrace the importance of name, image and likeness endeavors, not to mention high school recruiting, though Kelly continued to recruit until shortly before his departure.
His recruiting efforts were largely futile. Even including 11 transfers, UCLA’s most recent class was ranked No. 58 nationally by 247Sports.com, the Bruins’ worst showing since recruiting rankings began to be compiled several years before the turn of the century. UCLA lost two recruits who were expected to become Bruins before changing their allegiance amid the recent uncertainty over Kelly’s status.
His players were known for a “books and ball” culture popular with administrators, but support for the coach waned considerably after late-season home losses to Arizona State and California. A few plane banners were flown over campus in late November, one with the message, “READ THE ROOM — FIRE CHIP KELLY.”
Barring a settlement, Kelly, who will turn 61 in November, must pay UCLA a $1.5-million buyout as part of his contract. His contract with the Bruins runs through the 2027 season.