UCLA goes all in on Chip Kelly, and it's a gamble

UCLA goes all in on Chip Kelly, and it's a gamble
Chip Kelly led Oregon to 33 wins in 36 Pac-12 Conference games over four seasons. (Travis Heying / Wichita Eagle)

The Gutty Little Bruins, a lovable yet frustrating moniker that lived with the UCLA football team for 52 seasons, died a spectacular death Saturday.

It was crushed with the hiring of Chip Kelly.

A nickname that was attached to the Bruins after their 1966 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan State was demolished with the acquisition of a football coach who instantly changes the marquee.

UCLA football is now the Glitzy Big Bruins, with both wonderfully giant expectations and frighteningly big risks.


Kelly is arguably the most celebrated coaching hire in the school's history. He was the hottest coach on the market, one of the most innovative coaches in the game, a bold and brainy football outlier.

He is also a convicted NCAA cheater who was essentially banned from coaching college football for 18 months as punishment for rules that were broken with him in command of Oregon’s program.

Kelly pushes the envelope both on and off the field. He plays fast and loose with both his offense and the rules. He was once the perfect hire for Oregon, which was willing to risk its ethical reputation for a chance at national relevance. UCLA pulled up to the same craps table and is rolling the same set of dice.

Everything Chip Kelly is, UCLA is not, some good, some bad.

While running the sort of high-speed offense that should thrill Bruins fans, Kelly ruled the Pac-12 Conference during his four seasons with the Ducks, leading Oregon to a 46-7 record from 2009 to 2012 while winning 33 of 36 league games.

The Bruins have not won a national football championship in 63 years; Kelly took the Ducks to the national championship game just seven years ago.

The Bruins haven't been to the Rose Bowl game in 19 years; Kelly led the Ducks to two Rose Bowls in four years.

Yet the Bruins' football program also has avoided serious NCAA troubles; Kelly left the Oregon football program on probation.

During Kelly's final year at Oregon, the NCAA discovered a $25,000 payment to a recruiting service with ties to high school prospects being pursued by the Ducks. The football team was placed on three years' probation, and Kelly was issued an 18-month show-cause order, which meant any school wanting to hire him during that span needed to justify its choice to the NCAA.

The ban meant nothing because Kelly already had run off to the NFL, where he was truly punished. He had difficulty dealing with professional players, opposing defenses figured out his schemes and he went 28-35 with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

Another coach once came to town without a championship NFL resume, and Pete Carroll worked out pretty well, so you can’t use pro failure as a standard. There’s no question that Kelly was a great college football coach — he was the most accomplished coach without a job — and he will bring excitement at the potential of recapturing that magic.

But he's also a dangerous college football coach, and this sudden change in the Bruins' athletic mission will work only if Kelly wins fast and wins big.

UCLA fans have long pointed a finger at USC and claimed that the Trojans' football superiority during the Carroll era was built on cheating. With Kelly's history, Bruins fans no longer can take that high road. And with Kelly's known dislike of recruiting, the glare on the inner workings of a UCLA program that has operated in the shadows grows large.

Are the Westwood football offices suddenly going to be the Wild West? Are the Bruins setting themselves up to trade three or four years of sizzle for a drought in the probation desert? You can bet the NCAA will be watching.

UCLA also has long prided itself as a community leader that values and embraces diversity. Yet in the rush to hire Kelly, there were no candidates of color even interviewed for the job. While Dan Guerrero's first football hire as an athletic director was Karl Dorrell — he went 35-27 in five seasons — this time, the Bruins missed an important opportunity to provide exposure and opportunity to the broadest pool of future coaches.

Guerrero rushed this hiring at UCLA-record speed, with the whirlwind courtship taking less than a week. Guerrero is paying Kelly with UCLA-record dollars, more than $4 million a year.

A Bruins culture that always acted like a college program suddenly feels like an NFL outfit, which will be great if it works, but will smack of blind desperation that could later haunt the school if it doesn't.

There has been speculation that desperation comes from Under Armour's desire to recoup on its record $280-million sponsorship deal. Other people feel Guerrero, who was not thrilled with airplanes flying banners calling for his job, is feeling the pressure to leave a football legacy before his impending retirement.

It's probably both things, plus a third nagging theory backed by credible sources that the Bruins are still trying to make donors forget they have yet to fully discipline three basketball players caught shoplifting in China.

LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill still could play for the Bruins this season, a possibility that is causing outrage in the Bruins community and will continue to fester until a final suspension is issued.

Chip Kelly's arrival will deflect attention from that furor while putting the UCLA football program on the national map for the first time in years. That's a good thing. Whether the Bruins can stay on that map for all the right reasons is a scary thing.

Regardless, the Gutty Little Bruins are gone, may they rest in peace. Survivors include UCLA football fans preparing for the ride of their lives.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke