Chip Kelly and Florida a mostly perfect fit
GAINESVILLE — What started as a fascinating but seemingly unlikely weekend rumor now appears increasingly possible: Florida might hire Chip Kelly as its next head football coach.
First, Pete Thamel confirmed that Florida was, in fact, vetting Kelly as a candidate to replace Jim McElwain, who “parted ways” with Florida following the school’s 42-7 defeat to Georgia late last month.
Now, reputable South Florida sports agent and two-time Florida alum Darren Heitner reported Monday that Florida had received the blessing of the SEC office to hire Kelly, if they choose, clearing yet another necessary, and perhaps the most difficult, obstacle in employing the former Eagles, 49ers and Oregon head coach.
I’m now hearing that SEC commissioner has chosen to not stand in way of Florida hiring Chip Kelly if he is the school’s selection. Reporting with @biggamejames36.
— Darren Heitner (@DarrenHeitner) November 14, 2017
The permission was necessary thanks to a now-expired “show cause” penalty that Kelly picked up following his tenure at the University of Oregon. But despite the period of the NCAA’s penalty phase of the show cause having elapsed, the SEC recently passed a rule mandating that commissioner approval be obtained on all hires where a “show cause” had previously been in effect. Heitner’s report indicates Florida has taken this step, the latest sign in a mounting pile of evidence that Florida has zeroed in on Kelly as either the top, or one of the top, candidates for their head coaching vacancy.
Show cause aside, Kelly, who has an astounding 46-7 as head coach at Oregon before darting to the NFL, has an outstanding resume and certainly would be a splash hire for a program that has not made the “big hire” since it signed Urban Meyer up for the gig in 2004. At the time, Meyer was coming off a 12-0 year at Utah and was easily the hottest young name on the coaching market.
Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator also appears to meet one of Scott Stricklin’s key requirements for Florida’s next head coach.
At the press conference announcing Florida was moving on from Jim McElwain, Stricklin said that he’d look for a coach who could make Florida football fun again.
“Being in this league for 25 years, when Florida has been really good, from a distance it has looked really fun and I want it to be really fun,” Stricklin said. “Our fans, they deserve it to be really fun. I want our players and student-athletes to have a lot of fun, like this is a rewarding experience to come here and get a degree from a top-10 public university and to play at one of the storied football programs in the country.”
Hiring Kelly would certainly check that box, and provide an instant jolt of momentum to a Florida offense — and program — mired in mediocrity for most this decade.
But after Florida won a news cycle or two and Kelly won the press conference, is it a good fit?
The thinking here is it’s an outstanding one.
For one, Kelly is an offensive guru, the architect of a high-tempo, high-flying diabolically smart spread offense that took the Pac-12 and nation by storm at Oregon. Including Kelly’s years as Oregon’s offensive coordinator (2007-08), here’s what his offenses looked like with the Ducks:
For a Gators offense that has spent most the decade around the century mark in both of the categories above, that’s a revelation.
What’s more, Kelly’s preferred formula, which involves coupling elite athletes with a spread system, is similar to the one Urban Meyer used to capture two national championships and compete for a third in Gainesville. The only difference is Kelly would be given the keys to the program of the flagship university in Florida with all its attendant recruiting advantages, instead of Oregon, where Kelly had minimal talent in-state and had to claw and fight and scrap across the rest of Pac-12 territory to get the players he needed to execute his preferred style of offense.
Florida has tried pro-style offenses for nearly a decade and failed. The Gators have ruled the SEC roost when they’ve stayed mostly original and coupled an innovative system with their innate recruiting advantage and access to in-state speed. That’s a perfect match for what Kelly wants to do.
There’s some merit, of course, to the idea that Chip Kelly isn’t particularly fond of recruiting. But there’s a difference between the tough, yeoman’s work of recruiting at Oregon, a school with almost no in-state recruiting base, and recruiting at Florida, where as the flagship university, UF has a host of internal advantages, even in the cutthroat world of the SEC. It seems likely simply hiring a “name” like Kelly would help initially, and Kelly — no dummy — could fill his staff with lethal recruiters the way Jimbo Fisher has done at FSU.
Second, there’s a misnomer going around that Kelly’s offense excelled in a weaker, smaller, less fast Pac-12. That’s pure applesauce, Finebaum fanboy fiction.
In reality, Kelly’s spread eviscerated powerful defenses in the Pac-12, led by brilliant coaches. Ask Pete Carroll what happened in 2009 (600 yards, 47 points). Ask the father of the Tampa 2, Monte Kiffin, if he still has nightmares about 2012 (62 points, 700 yards!) Ask Bret Bielema, Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge about the Rose Bowl when they surrendered 600+ yards and 45 points to the Ducks. Or Vic Fangio, now the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, about the 600 yards and 52 points Richard Sherman and Stanford gave up to Kelly’s offense in 2010. With Florida speed and athletes, there’s no reason this offense can’t do similar wonders in the SEC.
The same is true of the NFL failure critique.
Steve Spurrier’s high-flying offenses revolutionized the SEC, but he was average at best with the Redskins. Nevertheless, he didn’t forget how to coach, and took South Carolina to historic levels by Gamecocks program standards when he returned to the SEC. Like Spurrier, Nick Saban also failed in the NFL. His return to college has gone decently. Chip Kelly — like every coach from here until the end of the planet — is unlikely to emulate Saban’s accomplishments at Alabama. But NFL failure doesn’t signpost failure upon return to college football.
The football reality is Kelly’s offenses, with the right personnel, took the NFL by storm, at least initially, until Chip Kelly “GM” got in the way. In his first two seasons with the Eagles, Kelly’s offenses finished 2nd and 5th in yards per game, and over the two years, according to Football Outsiders, finished first in rushing yards, yards per play, and rushing yards per attempt.
Having success offensively at both levels should help Kelly recruit.
Finally, while many in Gator nation may long for someone with ties to the culture- Charlie Strong, for example — or the “next great young thing” — Scott Frost, perhaps — the reality is Kelly is a proven winner.
Strong is a Gator through and through and a defensive mastermind, but his background in defense and failures at Texas would disappoint the fan base.
Frost is the hot young coach, to be sure, but Kelly is only 53. For perspective, Mark Richt took the Miami job at 57, and has the Canes unbeaten in Year 2. Nick Saban was 56 when he took the Alabama job, for more perspective. Frost is also part of Kelly’s coaching tree, getting his big break in coaching when Kelly hired him to coach receivers at Oregon. Why hire the protege when you can hire the master?
In other words, if Scott Stricklin can pull this hire off, it’s a home run — and one that comes at a time when people were beginning to again question what the longterm ceiling was for a Florida program that had appeared to retreat into the wilderness it had wandered for most of eight decades until Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990.