Chip Kelly’s words spill over his lips like they always have. Clipped, quick and saturated from a northeastern upbringing that took place not far from the Canadian border.
He’s one of the offensive innovators whose spread philosophies transformed football.
But before the great Oregon teams, before the Philadelphia Eagles and San Fransisco 49ers there were the 13 seasons spent coaching FCS football at his alma mater, New Hampshire.
“It was a great experience,” Kelly said, driving the point home again. “It was a great experience. I loved it. I really enjoyed it. Worked with some great people. Had the opportunity to coach some unbelievable kids.”
Now at UCLA, he will help stage one of 2018’s more attractive coaching matchups along with Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. Sure, Kelly’s Bruins (0-1) are 30 1/2-point underdogs Saturday (Noon, FOX), but that’s trivial by comparison.
Riley, who turned 35 on Wednesday, might become known as the nation’s best offensive coach over time, but the 54-year-old Kelly returned to college football just in time to vie for the title again.
“He’s an offensive wizard,” said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who as Arizona’s head coach went 0-4 against in Kelly in the Pac-12. Oregon averaged 49.2 points in those games.
Kelly didn’t develop into this by restricting himself to offensive study. He played quarterback and defensive back at New Hampshire. He has coached strength-and-conditioning, defensive backs, linebackers, running backs, offensive line and even been a defensive coordinator.
Coaching in the New England wilderness allowed him freedom to shapeshift. He could see football’s many angles more clearly, revealing how space on a football field could best be utilized.
Kelly’s run at Oregon from 2009-12 demanded attention. He won 87 percent of his games and the Ducks never averaged fewer than 36 points. They played in the Rose Bowl twice, the Fiesta once and lost in the national championship game in 2010.
Variations of spread offenses have emerged over time, but his remains among the upper echelon. The creativity and flash fit Oregon’s brand, with the university’s gaudy uniforms whipped up by Nike and changing shapes and colors every week.
Riley’s Air Raid offense — which is shifting itself with OU’s growing commitment to running the football — is not the same as Kelly’s system. But most spread schemes are committed to play-packaging, which allows quarterbacks choices in the run or pass game within a single concept.
That’s where Kelly got people’s attention.
“I think everybody’s looked at that a little bit,” Riley said. “I think maybe the principles and packaging were always eye-popping, and I thought they were always creative too.”
So effective it was at the college level, UCLA and Florida entered a virtual arms race to hire Kelly last offseason. The Bruins signed him to a school-record contract worth $23.3 million over five years.
Kelly’s next challenge was getting UCLA’s players to believe his system works, which sometimes takes a few victories. Riley had the same task in 2010 at East Carolina, but as offensive coordinator. Even in 2015 when he arrived at OU in the same position, players didn’t fully believe until a 55-0 victory over Kansas State, he said.
UCLA lost at home to two-touchdown underdog Cincinnati last week, with starting quarterback Wilton Speight injuring his back in the process. True freshman QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson is expected to start against OU.
“I do think there’s a little bit of a breakthrough that’s got to happen mentally,” Riley said. “He [Kelly] has done it more than me. So he would know more than me.”
Kelly wouldn’t mind breaking through on Owen Field. In some ways he’s back to square one. The Bruins have won 10 games over the last two seasons.
But his experience is broad enough to lean on. The years in New Hampshire’s piney woods were fruitful, with Kelly’s coaching office in Durham free from strains of million-dollar contracts and an antsy fan base. It became his science lab.
Riley compared the small-college football setup to coaching in high school, but in a good way.
“We honestly take more from high school than we do pros,” Riley said. “I think there’s so much creativity everywhere. … It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
UCLA at No. 7 OU
Time: Noon, Saturday
Place: Owen Field
Records: OU (1-0); UCLA (0-1)
Line: OU (-30 1/2)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7