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UCLA coach Chip Kelly isn’t a fan of holding football games in empty stadiums

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches the Bruins take on Utah at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 26, 2018.
Coach Chip Kelly watches the Bruins take on Utah at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 26, 2018.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Chip Kelly’s motivational playbook may be just as handy in a pandemic as a college football season.

Phrases favored by the UCLA coach such as “Control the controllables,” “So what, now what?” and “Win the day” are equally applicable to players preparing to play a game as they are to dealing with a deadly virus.

That’s why, in the early weeks of a COVID-19 crisis that shows no sign of abating, stranding his players at home and forcing them to commence solitary workouts while taking classes online, Kelly said his message hasn’t changed.

“Let’s not worry about when we come back or anything like that,” Kelly said Thursday during a teleconference with reporters. “ … We’ll continue to go in this manner until someone tells us that we’re going to shift. None of us know when that’s going to happen, so let’s not worry about that; let’s just worry about having a really good Thursday.”

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Kelly being in the business that he is, he was naturally asked whether the fall might include college football Saturdays. He said he was preparing as if a 2020 season scheduled to start against New Mexico State on Aug. 29 at the Rose Bowl would play out as previously expected while understanding that the decision would be guided by medical experts.

Former UCLA tight end Matt Lynch tweeted that he was headed back home to Colorado, where he’ll play for the Buffaloes immediately once sports restart.

Kelly said it would take about six weeks of teamwide, in-person training before a season could be safely played. While several professional leagues have contemplated resuming games in empty stadiums, Kelly said he didn’t foresee a scenario in which that was feasible without abandoning proper safeguards.

“I mean, if it’s not safe for fans to attend the game, then I don’t know why it would be safe for players to participate in the game,” Kelly said, adding that collegiate governing bodies would not be the ultimate arbiter. “The NCAA may weigh in on it, but the governors of the states and the mayors are going to be the ones who tell you whether we can do it because the NCAA can say, ‘Hey, you guys are all going back’ and if [California] Governor [Gavin] Newsom says, ‘We’re not going back’ then we’re not going back.”

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Kelly’s belief that sports should not be prioritized above public health was reinforced during a recent conversation with ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso.

“His comment to me was that the game of football is not more important than one person’s life,” Kelly said of Corso. “I think he’s 100% correct and I agree with him 100%. This is a lot bigger than intercollegiate athletics. It’s a pandemic that’s spread throughout the world. We as a human race need to get a grasp of it and whatever we can do personally to prevent the spread, it’s our responsibility to do that.”

Ignore the leagues, mute the coaches, and listen to the science regarding COVID-19. It might be time to bench the sports world until 2021, Bill Plaschke writes.

None of his players had tested positive for COVID-19, Kelly said, though there were no assurances that would remain the case with nearly 20,000 confirmed infections in California as of midday Thursday.

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“The numbers will tell you that it’s coming,” Kelly said. “I think if we practice proper social distancing and try to do our part and make sure that we can help prevent the spread, we’ll see, but … if you look at the numbers compared to where we were at the beginning of March to where we are now, it’s working at least in California.”

The Bruins had held three spring practices when team activities were halted last month. The Pac-12 Conference later canceled all spring sports and UCLA announced it would not hold its spring football game scheduled for April 18.

Just a sprinkling of players remained on campus as UCLA started spring quarter last week and all classes moved online. Linebacker Jeremiah Trojan, receiver Matt Sykes and tight end Evidence Njoku enrolled, becoming the newest Bruins. Coaches and players have focused on establishing academic and workout routines while acknowledging that it’s impossible to throw a fade route over a computer screen.

“The way that it’s dealt, you can’t steer it one way or another, you just have to deal with it as it comes,” Kelly said of the situation, “and I think through the first week and a half here, our players have done a really, really, really good job of saying, ‘All right, things have changed up, I’m working from home, how does this work and let’s work through that situation.’ ”

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Kelly said the Bruins would stay in work mode until someone with the expertise of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told them it was time to play.

“When he says ‘Go,’ ” Kelly said, “we’ll go.”

That would also allow Kelly, unusually patient and accommodating with reporters over the phone, to resume his prickly ways.

“I really, really look forward,” Kelly said in his final words on the call, “to seeing you guys in person.”


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