It was a night to assess who might be making their final appearance at the Rose Bowl, where UCLA was about to lose more than another game.
Redshirt junior guard Michael Alves, who has another season of eligibility remaining, walked with the departing seniors in a pregame farewell ceremony. Junior cornerback Darnay Holmes, widely considered a prospect for the 2020 NFL draft, did not.
A few hours later, the Bruins’ most polarizing figure appeared to solve the mystery surrounding his status.
Coach Chip Kelly described his commitment to the Bruins as “the same since I’ve been here; it’s been 100%.” He also disputed media reports that he might abandon UCLA after only two years and head back to the NFL as an offensive coordinator.
“I don’t know where they came from and I have not had any discussions with anybody,” Kelly said after his record with the Bruins fell to 7-17 following a season-ending 28-18 loss to California. “We have a banquet [Sunday] at 1 o’clock and we’ll see our seniors off in a manner that they should be seen off and then we hit the ground recruiting, so that’s kind of our plan.”
Did Kelly anticipate being UCLA’s coach when it finally broke through for success after four consecutive losing seasons, including a 4-8 finish in 2019 that was only a one-win improvement over his first season?
“I hope so,” Kelly said. “I’m going to do my part.”
There was less certainty when it came to Kelly’s most beleaguered assistant coach. Kelly would not address whether he intended to make changes to a staff that includes defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, who orchestrated a defense that finished the season ranked No. 112 out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense (456.3 yards allowed per game), No. 115 in scoring defense (34.8 points per game) and No. 129 in passing yards allowed (310.8 per game, a school record).
UCLA also gave up 6.71 yards per play, the most by the team since at least 1945, when records in this category started being tabulated.
It’s the sort of resume that might make him employable as a defensive coordinator only at UCLA, where his $650,000-a-year contract expires in February. Kelly is known as fiercely loyal to his assistants and would not comment on whether he was contemplating any dismissals or reassignments.
“You’ve got to look at everything that goes on and we always assess everything after the season — scheme, personnel, everything,” Kelly said. “We’ll look at everything. We’re always trying to improve and trying to make ourselves better. This isn’t the time to talk about anything like that.”
Kelly has three years remaining on the five-year, $23.3-million contract he signed in November 2017. The return on investment has been staggeringly low two years into the deal, with Kelly making $6.8 million and producing slightly more than one victory for every $1 million in compensation. Next year, Kelly’s contract calls for him to make $4.3 million.
UCLA is also struggling at the box office after completing a season in which its average attendance of 43,849 for games at the Rose Bowl was its lowest since first calling the stadium home in 1982. That means millions of dollars lost in ticket sales and required athletic department donations as part of season ticket packages.
Kelly maintained he had seen growth in a team that could return as many as nine starters on offense and seven on defense. Senior running back Joshua Kelley, one of the departing standouts who will be difficult to replace after topping 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons, ticked off a list of playmakers whom the Bruins could lean on in 2020, mentioning receiver Kyle Philips, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running backs Kazmeir Allen, Keegan Jones and Demetric Felton Jr.
“It’s gonna be special for these young guys coming up these next few years,” Kelley said. “You guys can see it’s gonna be incredible.”
Senior linebacker Josh Woods acknowledged that the defense would lose its entire starting linebacker corps but pointed to an experienced secondary, veteran defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa and developing linebackers Bo Calvert, Leni Toailoa and Carl Jones as reasons for optimism.
The returning players will be bolstered by a recruiting class that’s currently ranked No. 31 nationally and fifth in the Pac-12 Conference, according to 247 Sports. As Kelly tries to nudge those rankings higher in the final weeks before the early signing period, he’ll presumably try to sell prospects on what’s to come rather than what has been since his arrival at UCLA.
“I’m excited about what the future is,” Kelly said, “to be honest with you.”