Thursday seemed like a swan song from the start.
There was a sense of resignation in the the way things would play out with Chip Kelly and the NFL for many around Oregon during their time in Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl last week. There were glimmers of hope here or there, of course. But most thought the win over Kansas State would be Kelly’s last as coach of the Ducks.
Some had cautious optimism. Their hope was that the coach – a sassy New England-born contrarian – would return for one more run at a national title with perhaps his best team yet despite the riches awaiting at the next level.
Turns out they were right. Thursday’s Fiesta wasn’t a swan song, but rather the latest milestone.
As ESPN initially reported Sunday night, and I’ve subsequently confirmed with personnel associated with Kelly’s agent and the Oregon football program, the most successful Oregon coach in program history is staying put. Athletic director Rob Mullens’ transition plan – likely a quick, orderly hand-off to an assistant already on staff – is back in the filing cabinet every AD keeps for their football team.
“I love Chip; I hope he stays,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said after the Fiesta Bowl. “Whatever happens here, happens. This place, these kids… you hang out with these guys long enough, you understand what a special thing we have here. Those are the guys that are churning this thing along.”
At the end of the day, Kelly agreed. He listened like he said he would. He entertained the NFL teams like everybody thought he would. But those kids, that title shot, the fun that awaited at Oregon were but a few reasons why the mad scientist of offense will be back.
His players were prepared for what could happen after their bowl game. Some were resigned to losing the man who recruited most of them to Eugene. Many thought it was simply business as usual in the collegiate coaching ranks.
The Ducks’ second-straight BCS bowl win in last week’s Fiesta Bowl probably was the apex of the program’s history. Afterward, most players seemed confident about the future of Oregon regardless of who was in charge. That was, in most respects, a compliment to the fact that Kelly had not only maintained the culture but elevated the status around Oregon athletics. Some seemed resigned to losing Kelly but also reflective on their time with the man that brought them to the Ducks.
“Coach Kelly did a great job here for us as players. He challenged me a lot as an individual and I had to rise to the challenge,” said senior Dion Jordan. “Because of the coaches and people he’s brought here, I feel like this program is going to continue to be successful.”
“It’s not about him at all; this program is about developing better people,” tight end Colt Lyerla added. “Chip did his four-year tenure here and if he wants to move on to bigger and better things, you can’t blame him. We don’t worry about that.”
In the end, Kelly did exactly what he said he would: He listened. It wasn’t enough to convince him that a mid-level NFL opening was better than the top-tier college job he already has.
Some Ducks fans perhaps are upset about the back-and-forth the past two offseasons between Oregon and the NFL. The thing to keep in mind at this point however is that the program is bigger than one man. From Rich Brooks to Mike Belotti to Kelly, things have transitioned fairly smoothly in Eugene and worked out well. Most of the assistants have been on staff for quite some time and won’t bat an eyelash upon seeing a new name on the corner office door. Luckily, they don’t have to worry about that in 2013.
For the fifth straight season, Kelly and his assistants are staying put as a staff. That’s a rarity in the game today and a testament to both the people and the program.
There’s a talented team coming back as well, something that the Ducks’ head coach knows more than anyone. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and speedster De’Anthony Thomas will form a dangerous duo on offense, and 2013 might be Nick Aliotti’s best defensive unit yet. At this point the only uncertainty surrounds an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing but, as many around the program like to say, the Ducks can only control what they can control.
And when it comes to the NCAA, things are most certainly out of their hands.
“It goes to the next day, really,” a calm Mariota said of the future. “Tomorrow we’re going to come back and get better. This is a solid foundation for us and it’s a bright future.”
Oregon should be thankful to Kelly for elevating the program from a regional draw to a national power. The Ducks appeal to top recruits from coast to coast. The program’s close relationship with Nike is partly why. But it’s Kelly’s revolutionary offense that truly put Eugene on the football map of late.
Chip Kelly will always have a place in Oregon history. He lived his mantra and won many days.
Now he’ll be back to win more.
UPDATE: This report has updated since first published. The detail regarding Oregon football personnel and Kelly’s agent’s office was added.