After a week of whirlwind rumors, it has now become clear that UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is leaving to become the offensive coordinator at Ohio State. In the last week to 10 days, Kelly is known to have interviewed for three NFL offensive coordinator jobs, (Seattle, Las Vegas, and Washington).
It has been believed for several weeks that Kelly has been looking for a way out of the college system that is dominated by NIL and transfer portal issues. But the Ohio State job is different. He and head coach Ryan Day go back decades. Day was the quarterback at New Hampshire when Kelly was the offensive coordinator. Day was also a part of Kelly’s coaching staff with the 49ers. Kelly made multiple efforts to hire Day at UCLA before Day became the head coach at Ohio State. In fact, when news broke of UCLA and USC going to the Big 10, Day and Kelly were on the golf course together.
Kelly at UCLA
Kelly just finished his sixth season at UCLA. He is 35-34 in his time in Westwood with a 26-26 conference record. His highest finish in the Pac-12 was in 2021. The Bruins finished tied for second in the Pac-12 South, qualifying them for the Holiday Bowl, a game that was never played. UCLA finished seventh in the conference in 2023 (there was no divisional play in the conference), with a 4-5 record. They finished 8-5 overall, including a win over Boise State in the LA Bowl.
In leaving UCLA, Kelly walks away from a total compensation package estimated to be around $6 million per year. It is unknown what his financial deal with Ohio State will be, but a significant pay cut is certainly probable.
Kelly was hired after the 2017 season amid much fanfare. UCLA had fired Jim Mora before the end of the season. Jedd Fisch, (now the head coach for the Washington Huskies) was the interim through the bowl game. A search committee comprised of school athletic department administrators, mega-donor Casey Wasserman, and former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman had only one target in mind for the position.
Reeling Him In
He was working at ESPN as a college football studio analyst at the time. Kelly had been fired by the San Francisco 49ers after just one season as head coach when he went 2-14. Before that, he spent three years with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was 26-21 in Philadelphia. He was fired before the last game of the 2015 season with the Eagles at 6-9.
But Aikman and company were hoping to get the Kelly who had the Oregon Ducks competing for national titles. During his four-year tenure as head coach from 2009-2012, the Ducks won four conference titles and were in the national championship in 2012, (losing by a field goal to Auburn).
UCLA had never put out the effort, or the money, for a coach with Kelly’s resume. Kelly, from his home in New Hampshire, was also entertaining offers from the Florida Gators. But after more than five meetings with representatives from Gainesville, Florida could not get the deal closed. It took only two weeks of negotiations for UCLA to get their candidate.
A Bumpy Ride in Westwood
His tenure at UCLA was bumpy. He went 10-21 in his first three seasons with approximately 82 players leaving the program during his first two years. Some left of their own volition and some left with the clarity that there was no room for them in Kelly’s big picture.
In 2021, he took the Bruins to their most successful season in his time as head coach. They finished 8-4 overall and tied for second in the Pac-12 South. They were to meet North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl. However, team officials notified the bowl committee the day of the game that they could not compete because of a COVID outbreak on the team.
Kelly went 9-4 and 8-5 overall in his last two years. But his time in Westwood has never been smooth sailing. His relationship with the fan base and local media was often prickly, particularly in the first three years. He is not a college coach who openly enjoys doing booster events or going to other athletic department events. A reporter once asked him during the 2021 season why he was not frequently seen at other UCLA sporting events like many of the coaches. “I go where they tell me to go,” Kelly responded.
Kelly becomes the second marquee school head coach to leave for a lower-level job in a little more than a week. Last week, Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley walked away from his head coaching job to become the defensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers. Both Hafley and Kelly are taking significant pay cuts to make the move, leaving the impression that these are quality-of-life changes.
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond now has the daunting task of trying to replace Kelly in early February, a time on the calendar when most significant college football coaching hires have already been done. The candidate list is smaller than it would have been four or five weeks ago. Making the task all the more critical, UCLA moves to the Big 10 conference starting in August.
Believed to be on the list of candidates is current UCLA linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. He has no head coaching experience, but this is his second stint as an assistant with UCLA. He was also on Pete Carroll’s staff at USC and with the Seattle Seahawks. D’Anton Lynn is also a likely candidate, albeit with bizarre circumstances.
Lynn was the defensive coordinator for UCLA in 2023. What had been a suspect defense for years became one of the highest-rated in the country, particularly against the rush. Four of Lynn’s players made post-season all-star games. Edge rusher Laiatu Latu is considered a top-20 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. In December, Lynn left to take the same position across town at USC. The lure was a salary nearly double that at UCLA and a sizeable housing allowance. But since taking the job, USC head coach Lincoln Riley has brought in a second defensive coordinator, essentially bumping Lynn down to co-defensive coordinator.
Fisch’s name will pop up again. He was the interim coach at UCLA that linked the Mora and Kelly coaching tenures. Fisch was a favorite among much of the fan base to get the head coaching job prior to Kelly being hired. He spent three seasons as an assistant in the NFL before getting the head coaching job for the Arizona Wildcats. He spent three seasons in Tucson, including going 2-1 against Kelly and UCLA. Last month, he took the head coaching job at Washington and has a $12 million exit buyout making his availability for the UCLA job tenuous at best.
This is not the first time Jarmond has had to survey the football coaching landscape for UCLA. In 2021, Kelly’s contract had only one year left. The coach was rumored to be enamored with filling the head coaching vacancy at Oregon. While UCLA awaited Kelly’s decision, other potential coaching candidates for UCLA took other jobs. While Kelly was never offered the Oregon job, (it went to Dan Lanning), his agent, Jimmy Sexton, turned the opportunity into a contract extension for his client.
There is no stated timetable for replacing Kelly. But with the coach leaving, the transfer portal becomes open for any UCLA player or recent signee who wishes to leave, making an expedient search critical. And with it the calendar having turned to February, the available candidates list is small.