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Not a happy homecoming for UCLA's Chip Kelly

Not a happy homecoming for UCLA's Chip Kelly
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly roams the field before playing Oregon on Saturday. (Thomas Boyd / Associated Press)

The beauty of the autumn afternoon and the blissful nostalgia of Oregon’s homecoming weekend were lost on UCLA coach Chip Kelly. He was stonefaced as he paced the sideline of Autzen Stadium, that madhouse of green and yellow and raucous noise, and his return on Saturday to the scene of his greatest football coaching success was no happy homecoming.

At Oregon, Kelly had the famous blur offense. At UCLA, he has a blurry offense: It’s indistinct, inconsistent, operates in fits and starts, and too often gets derailed by dropped passes and sloppy, needless penalties.

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At Oregon, where he led the Ducks to four BCS bowl games — including the national championship contest in January 2011 — he lost only seven games in four seasons. At UCLA, he has lost seven games in his first season. The most recent addition to the loss column came on Saturday in a 42-21 victory by the Ducks, who are still trying to forge a post-Kelly identity and are employing their third coach since Kelly left for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles after the 2012 season.

At Oregon, he spent two years on the coaching staff before he took over as head coach. He knew his players and assistants and they knew him. It’s different at UCLA, and he’s a different coach. “Older, grayer,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “We’re byproducts of our experience. It was a great experience I had here. A special place. I had a chance to spend part of my career here and I’ll never forget that.”

Before the trip, Kelly had said he didn’t expect to have time to see his old haunts or his old friends. UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight — who was efficient in replacing an injured Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the third quarter — said Kelly treated the buildup as “just another game week.” But Kelly made time to see some friends on Friday night and embraced others during warmups on Saturday. Those hugs were some of the best wrapups the Bruins pulled off all day.

Fans welcomed him back warmly when the public-address announcer noted Kelly’s presence before the game by saying, “Put your hands together and welcome back former Oregon coach Chip Kelly.” He was showered with applause, with only a few boos mixed in. “It was nice. These fans are awesome. My six years here was an unbelievable experience and this just kind of solidified what I thought,” he said. “They’re special people that have a special passion for their school and it’s a really cool place.”

Speight said Kelly was affected by the recognition and applause. “I think it was cool that pregame they acknowledged that this was his return and everyone kind of gave him a standing ovation,” Speight said. “He’s lying if he said that didn’t feel good. That’s just human nature. A cool feeling.”

It was one of the few pleasant emotions Kelly experienced on Saturday.

Losing at Autzen Stadium is a novelty for Kelly, whose home record with the Ducks was 26-2, but he kept his face expressionless for most of Saturday’s game. That mask broke early in the fourth quarter, when the Bruins’ kicking game betrayed them again by botching a field goal attempt and a look of disgust briefly crossed his face. And who could blame him? This has been an ugly season. It’s no better than the last two seasons of the Jim Mora era, and there’s precious reason to believe it’s going to get better any time soon.

Kelly insisted he was proud of the way the Bruins fought back after falling behind 21-0 early in the second quarter. There were many teachable moments, he said, and he plans to reinforce each of those lessons. But when asked to assess the team’s progress since the season began, he demurred. “We’re a micro operation right now. We’re going game-to-game,” he said. “Our whole focus was what are we doing to play Oregon, and when we get back [Sunday] we’ll make the corrections from this game and get ready to play a good Arizona State team, so that’s kind of how we look at it. We don’t have time right now to kind of look at where did we start, where are we on this journey and how is this going. There’s a lot of things that we need to correct and we need to get back to work tomorrow.”

Between the first and second quarter the sound system featured a song called “Coming Home (Oregon),” whose lyrics include the line, “I left my heart in Oregon.” Kelly might not have left his heart here, but he reached his coaching peak here. Whether he can replicate that success with UCLA remains an unanswered question.

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