Long known for hiring football coaches who either had ties to the school or were fallback options, UCLA veered sharply away from tradition Saturday.
The school hired offensive innovator Chip Kelly, its top choice to replace Jim Mora and a coach whose arrival in Westwood signaled a dramatic shift in the athletic department’s commitment to winning. Kelly signed a five-year contract worth $23.3 million, more than double the five-year, $11.235-million contract Mora signed upon his hiring six years ago.
Kelly, who turned 54 on Saturday, will be introduced at a news conference on campus Monday afternoon. His hiring only six days after Mora was fired triggered elation and near-disbelief among players and alumni of a program used to more modest results from its coaching searches.
“The world is upside down,” said Scott Altenberg, a former Bruins walk-on who coaches at Gardena Serra High. “This is the first time UCLA is getting its top choice. It never happens.”
The deal represented the most tantalizing hire in the history of UCLA’s football program, given that Kelly guided Oregon to the national championship game after the 2010 season as well as three conference titles in his four years at the school.
The Bruins have not won a conference title since 1998, which also was the last season they appeared in the Rose Bowl game. UCLA’s only national championship came in 1954.
“I am thrilled to welcome Chip Kelly to Westwood,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement announcing the deal that includes a $9-million reciprocal buyout. “His success speaks for itself, but more than that, I firmly believe that his passion for the game and his innovative approach to coaching student-athletes make him the perfect fit for our program.”
Dismissing Mora last week before UCLA’s final regular-season game allowed school officials to pursue Kelly, who also was being courted by Florida to fill its coaching vacancy. Guerrero thanked senior associate athletic director Josh Rebholz, mega donor Casey Wasserman and former star quarterback Troy Aikman for their roles in helping bring Kelly to campus as part of the search committee.
“It is an absolute honor to join the Bruin Family, and I am grateful to Chancellor [Gene] Block and to Dan Guerrero for this incredible opportunity,” Kelly said in a statement. “UCLA is a world-class institution with a distinguished history in athletics, and we will do our part to uphold its tradition of excellence.”
Among the coaches Kelly could court as part of his new UCLA staff are former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and California defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. Helfrich and Azzinaro coached under Kelly at Oregon, with Helfrich succeeding Kelly as head coach of the Ducks in 2013 and Azzinaro following Kelly to the NFL that same year as part of Kelly’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Several current and former Bruins started a campaign on social media to retain defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure, who has been a member of UCLA’s coaching staff since 2007, tweeting #KeepAngusMcClure. McClure and Azzinaro had a lengthy discussion on the field before UCLA defeated California 30-27 in its final home game Friday to improve to 6-6 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12 Conference.
Kelly became only the second coach in NFL history to win a division title in his first season; the Eagles went 10-6 during the 2013 regular season but lost their opening-round playoff game. Philadelphia also posted a 10-6 record in 2014 but failed to make the playoffs, and Kelly was fired before the end of the 2015 season after his team went 6-9.
Kelly went 2-14 with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 before being fired. He spent this season as an ESPN analyst.
It was not immediately clear whether any buyout money Kelly was owed from the Eagles and 49ers might offset part of UCLA’s salary obligations.
Kelly is known for running offenses that spread the field and play at a frenzied pace, tiring defenses and creating coverage problems. A book about Kelly’s 2014 season with the Eagles was titled “Controlled Chaos.” His final Oregon team, in 2012, averaged 49.6 points and a staggering 82.8 plays per game.
UCLA tight end Caleb Wilson acknowledged the Bruins’ expected shift in philosophy when he tweeted, “I better get my cardio up.”
Kelly guided Oregon to major bowl games in each of his four seasons as head coach, including two appearances in the Rose Bowl, one in the Fiesta Bowl and one in the 2011 Bowl Championship Series national title game, where the Ducks lost to Auburn 22-19 on a last-second field goal. His teams went a combined 46-7 and finished in the top four in the Associated Press poll three times.
Kelly’s success at Oregon was accompanied by trouble with the NCAA. Shortly after Kelly left for the NFL, the Ducks were placed on three years’ probation by the NCAA after a $25,000 payment was found to have been made to a recruiting service with ties to high school prospects being pursued by Oregon. As part of the punishment, Kelly was issued an 18-month show cause order, meaning any NCAA school that wanted to hire Kelly during that span would have to show justification for its choice to the NCAA..
Kelly also faced some controversy when he coached the Eagles. After Kelly’s team traded running back LeSean McCoy and cornerback Brandon Boykin, who were both black, the players intimated that Kelly was racist. Boykin then changed his stance, saying that Kelly only had trouble relating to players.
Kelly won support from black players throughout the league last year when he backed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem in protest of social injustices
UCLA fired Mora on Sunday after he went 46-30 in six seasons. Mora took UCLA to the Pac-12 championship game in 2012 and a bowl game in each of his first four seasons before a steep decline in which his teams went 10-17 since late in the 2015 season.
UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was made the interim coach and is expected to remain on staff, along with the other Bruins assistants, through a bowl game next month.
Kelly inherits a UCLA program in the midst of a historic downturn; the Bruins’ 19 consecutive seasons without an appearance in the Rose Bowl are the longest drought in more than half a century.
UCLA was nationally ranked only briefly in each of the last two seasons. The Bruins opened 2016 with a No. 16 ranking but fell out of the polls after a season-opening loss to Texas A&M. UCLA was ranked No. 25 after starting this season with victories over Texas A&M and Hawaii but became unranked after a loss to Memphis.
UCLA could feature as many as nine returning starters on offense and defense next season, depending on how many juniors decide to forgo their final season of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft. Quarterback Josh Rosen is a possible top draft pick, and left tackle Kolton Miller and receiver Jordan Lasley also could opt for the NFL.
Lasley said Friday he had not decided whether to return to UCLA but acknowledged that the school’s choice of its next coach could factor into his decision.
“I mean, of course I feel like it would,” Lasley said after becoming the first Bruin in school history to log back-to-back 200-yard receiving performances.
Kelly has less than a month to make recruiting pitches before the new early national signing day that starts Dec. 20. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the quarterback from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High who is considered the Bruins’ top recruit, reaffirmed his commitment Saturday when he tweeted a video of actor Will Smith dancing along with the caption “Mood: 4sUp,” a reference to UCLA’s recruiting slogan.
With Kelly on board, the Bruins are showing off some new moves.