He is high on a list of several celebrated sports figures who have recently come to town, but Chip Kelly wanted to make one thing clear.
“Let’s slow down there,’’ he said with a smile. “Me and ’Bron? Let’s not.’’
But isn’t LeBron James to the Lakers what Kelly is to UCLA football, a rescuing superstar, a new savior?
“To put me and LeBron in the same sentence, that fact that we’re both residents of Los Angeles is about as far as that one goes,’’ he said.
Then Kelly laughed, and it was a hearty self-deprecating laugh, the kind of laugh you’d share with a buddy standing around your grill on a warm summer Los Angeles night, and I was struck with a question that doesn’t yet have an answer.
Is that laugh really him?
Can UCLA’s famously distant and distracted new football savant really promote the program as well as he coaches it? For the first time in 20 years, can somebody really make UCLA football not only relevant but fun?
It was Pac-12 media day Wednesday, it was a Hollywood ballroom, it was a friendly news conference, so maybe it was just a show.
But for the better part of 30 minutes, notoriously crusty Chip Kelly charmed.
I asked again about where he fits into the starry constellation of Hollywood.
“I think the cool thing about L.A. is that there are so many cool people here that everybody kind of fits in,’’ he said. “The other good thing about L.A. is I know for a fact I am not the prettiest person in the room.’’
I asked the usual new-UCLA-football-coach question about being in the shadow of USC.
“The short time I’ve been in Los Angeles, there aren’t many shadows because there aren’t many clouds in the sky,’’ he said, smiling. “So we’re not concerned about the shadow part of this deal.’’
He was asked about adapting the Bruins to an Oregon program where he led the Ducks to four consecutive BCS bowl game appearances and once finished one last-second field goal from potentially winning a national championship.
“I think when I first came into this league there weren’t many spread offenses and we were the only team that had shiny helmets,’’ he said. “Now everybody runs the spread offense and everybody has shiny helmets.’’
He was asked if he was going to roll out about dozen different uniforms like he did in Oregon; he said there were no plans.
“When I talk to the Troy Aikmans of the world, he likes our uniforms,’’ he said, shrugging. “So if Troy likes them, I like them.“
On Nov. 3, the Bruins play at Oregon, so Kelly was asked about his expected reception.
“If we don’t have any wins, they’ll be excited when we come showing up,’’ he said. “Maybe if we go undefeated, they’ll really like us.’’
The guess is that a completely remodeled Bruins team with only eight seniors and two graduate transfers will be fortunate to win half of their eight games before playing at Oregon. Kelly is installing an entirely new operation in Westwood. The Bruins were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South. Don’t be surprised if they struggle early.
Kelly will need this sense of humor. He’ll need to be this publicly embraceable. He’ll need to quickly learn the secret to succeeding as coach of this team, at this school, in this town.
Because that shadow across town is big, and it’s real, the UCLA football coach must not only win, he must sell, to his boosters, to his university, to his town. Just look at the recent list of former Bruins head coaches. It is filled with those who could not do both.
Jim Mora won, but he didn’t sell. Rich Neuheisel sold, but he didn’t win. Karl Dorrell didn’t do much of either. The last Bruins coach to both win and entertain and sell this town on his vision was, not coincidentally, the last coach to lead this team to a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl appearance.
For a very brief moment, Bob Toledo got it right.
About a week before the beginning of training camp, Kelly seems to be starting in the right direction, although it’s uncertain whether his entertaining attitude will remain once the hitting starts. After all, at age 54, he’s made a career out of appearing uncomfortable anywhere beyond the sidelines.
After the news conference, I asked him about the dual nature of his job, and he wasn’t, well, sold on it.
“I think our job is to develop student-athletes and win games,’’ said Kelly. “If you win, that’s what sells. You can be greatest salesmen in the world but if you go 0-11 it doesn’t matter.’’
He added, “I bristle when people say you sell. We’re trying to develop young men. That’s what you’re selling.’’
That’s true. And his players are already buying, note the astute amazed observation from linebacker Josh Woods, who said of Kelly’s four-year Ducks career, “He lost seven games at Oregon, we lost seven games last year.’’
But in this town, that’s not the only thing you’re selling. That’s not the only reason UCLA gave him $24 million to rescue its biggest athletic cash cow.
For now, while they still haven’t appeared in a Rose Bowl game in 20 years or won a national title in 64 years, UCLA needs not only what Chip Kelly brings them on the football field, but also some of what he gave them at media day.
I noted that the couple of dozen media members surrounding him Wednesday was a much larger crowd than that usually attending a UCLA football briefing.
“That’s means we’re doing good things,’’ Kelly said.