The number connoted a spot the Bruins have not occupied in the Pac-12 Conference in nearly two decades. They have not finished atop a national poll since winning their only national championship, in 1954.
Kelly’s hiring as UCLA’s coach, those close to the process said Monday, was intended to help the Bruins reach college football’s summit once more.
“Conference championships are great,” Troy Aikman, a former UCLA and Hall of Fame quarterback who was a leading voice on the search committee, said after Kelly was introduced on campus, “but I want us to compete for national championships.”
Kelly made no grandiose promises during a lively news conference before more than 300 donors, season ticket-holders and media inside a swanky Pauley Pavilion club room. The coach known as an offensive innovator offered a host of one-liners but few specifics, except to suggest he intended to win in his first season.
“We’re going to open up next year and we’re not going to say, ‘In two or three years when we get our guys in here …’” said Kelly, a former Oregon coach who recently signed a five-year, $23.3-million contract with the Bruins. “I met with my guys today and I’m excited about those guys that are currently part of this program.”
UCLA could have as many as nine starters on offense and defense back from the team that awaits its bowl fate after finishing the regular season 6-6 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12. Among those mulling their futures is junior quarterback Josh Rosen, who probably would be a top pick in the NFL draft if he decided to forgo his final season of eligibility.
Kelly said he met with his players Monday morning but would not be involved in bowl preparations other than to support players or interim coach Jedd Fisch as needed. Fisch and the current staff will remain through the bowl game but face uncertain futures.
Kelly dropped one of several John Wooden references when asked about his new coaching staff.
“There was a great coach that once said, ‘Be quick but don’t hurry,’” said Kelly, referring to the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won 10 national titles in his final 12 seasons. “And that’s really the philosophy that we’re going to follow.”
Asked whether he would use the same hurry-up-and-tire-out-the-defense scheme he ran at Oregon, Kelly quipped, “No, those players have all graduated.”
Aikman hailed Kelly, who turned 54 on Saturday, as UCLA’s greatest coaching hire. It came only six days after the abrupt firing of coach Jim Mora, who went 46-30 in six seasons but won only 10 of his final 27 games.
Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero said that Mora’s dismissal before the end of the season allowed UCLA to pursue Kelly, who also met with Florida about its coaching vacancy. Kelly was widely considered the most coveted college coaching candidate in the country after going 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon from 2009-2012.
Guerrero said he first met with Kelly on Nov. 20 in San Francisco as part of a UCLA contingent that also included senior associate athletic director Josh Rebholz and chancellor Gene Block. Mega donor Casey Wasserman also was part of UCLA’s search committee in addition to Aikman.
“He was excited from Day 1,” Aikman said of Kelly, “so there wasn’t a big sell. He was excited about UCLA from the very first moment I spoke with him.”
Kelly’s hiring was consummated Friday, though school officials waited until Saturday to announce the move because they did not want to distract players and coaches from the Bruins’ regular-season finale against California.
Kelly said his vision for what he wanted to achieve in his return to coaching after spending the last year as an ESPN analyst following four seasons in the NFL closely aligned with that of UCLA officials.
“Sometimes it’s a lot easier,” Kelly said, “when everybody’s already rowing the boat in the right direction.”
Guerrero said that UCLA spoke with former Oregon players and two NCAA enforcement officials while vetting Kelly, who was issued an 18-month show-cause penalty in 2013 over a recruiting violation that landed the Ducks on probation for three years. Kelly said Monday that he accepted “full responsibility for what happened” and was already working with UCLA officials to make sure there would be no repeat of the transgressions.
Guerrero cited former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel’s spotless compliance history with the Bruins following his firing from Washington over alleged dishonesty in participating in an NCAA tournament basketball pool as reason to believe Kelly would follow suit. (Neuheisel later reached a $4.5-million settlement in a wrongful termination suit against the NCAA and Washington.)
“As you know, I hired a coach that previously had a history of NCAA issues and he came here and was a compliance dream,” Guerrero said, “so I don’t anticipate any issues in that regard.”
Guerrero said the $12-million buyout that UCLA gave Mora wouldn’t have been possible early in his tenure as athletic director, which started in 2002; funds from the school’s record $280-million deal with Under Armour and its new media partnerships made the transaction possible.
Guerrero acknowledged that UCLA expected a return on its investment through increased season-ticket sales from an energized fan base.
“There have been spikes already that we’re very pleased to see,” Guerrero said, “but of course it’s a long process and we’re hoping that we get a lot of folks who may have dropped off back into the fold.”
Considering that Kelly went 33-3 in conference games while at Oregon, the biggest uptick UCLA expects might be in the win column.
“If you look at Chip Kelly’s record in this conference,” said Cade McNown, the last Bruins quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl, on Jan. 1, 1999, “it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s not going to be successful in this conference again.”