UCLA buying in to a high-stakes game, playing with big Chip Kelly

UCLA buying in to a high-stakes game, playing with big Chip Kelly
Chip Kelly was a big success in college football during NFL stops in Philadelphia and San Francisco, he's considering the UCLA job. (Joe Mahoney / Associated Press)

Friday was nominally Senior Day, a second-rate rivalry game, the last home game of another disappointing season. Of course, it was really none of that for UCLA.

The Rose Bowl was on Chip Kelly Watch.


Kelly might or might not end up in Westwood, he might or might not be the answer for the Bruins, but their pursuit of him alone is confirmation that UCLA athletics have entered a new era.

This is less about a shift in vision or philosophy and more about an injection of cash.

The public school that once had a modest athletic budget now has the most lucrative shoe and apparel deal in college sports history, which calls for Under Armour to pay UCLA $280 million over the next 15 years.

The agreement already changed how UCLA operates, and if you don’t believe me, ask Jim Mora. There was a time when the $12 million required to buy him out of his contract would have protected him. Not anymore, which is why Jedd Fisch, and not Mora, coached the Bruins in their 30-27 victory over California.

It’s not as if UCLA didn’t want to do something like this before. The athletic department simply couldn’t afford to be that bold.

Steve Alford, the school’s basketball coach, has to be wondering what this means for his future.

This looks like a scaled-down version of the change the Dodgers underwent when they were bought five years ago by Guggenheim Baseball Management.

Under previous owner Frank McCourt, the Dodgers were frugal. They were selective. Their fans wondered why their payroll was dwarfed by teams in smaller markets.

The sale changed everything, transforming a cost-conscious franchise into a financial behemoth with a league-high payroll.

In the process, something was lost, however. The spending was funded by an $8-billion television deal that made the Dodgers invisible to a majority of local households.

What UCLA is risking is much more fundamental.

UCLA was a university first, a university second and a university third.

The majority of alumni care less about the football team’s standing in the Associated Press top 25 than the school’s place in the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.

If the football team did well, great. If not, oh well.


There was a certain charm to this, UCLA’s football and basketball teams doing the best with what they had, both in terms of financial resources and the kinds of athletes they claimed to be able to recruit because of the school’s academic standards.

The athletic department included substantial buyout provisions in Mora’s and Alford’s contracts as a means of preventing them from departing.

As for the athletes, so long as they didn’t embarrass the school with their off-the-field behavior, they were largely spared criticism. In short, don’t park using illegally obtained handicapped placards (whoops), don’t get caught shoplifting in a foreign country (whoops again), and everything would be more or less OK.

If the Bruins land Kelly and pay him the kind of money they are expected to have to pay to land him, the culture will change.

A school that wants Kelly is looking to win above anything else. Oregon was placed on probation for three years for NCAA violations that allegedly occurred in Kelly’s tenure. He received an 18-month show-cause penalty.

Kelly can be abrasive and dismissive. He isn’t transparent. He wouldn’t be a classic UCLA hire.

But he was 46-7 in four seasons with the Ducks. He coached them to a national championship game. He is innovative. He also runs that kind of up-tempo offense that could capture the imagination of this city.

If everything plays out as UCLA envisions, there won’t be many more nights like Friday, when the Bruins attracted a season-low 50,287.

The crowd was tame, years and years of disappointment draining the fans of their enthusiasm. The team’s most spirited supporters had the freedom to bang the empty seats in front of them without bothering anyone.

In the first quarter, UCLA fumbled, allowed two sacks and was flagged for a block in the back. It was as if Mora never left.

And if Kelly takes over the Bruins and fails to change this? UCLA can buy him out too. The money is there.