To appreciate just how profoundly Chip Kelly has transformed Oregon's football program, consider that the Ducks are the second-ranked team in the country, in the hunt for their second BCS championship game berth in three years, and no one is the least bit surprised.
Oregon is 42-6 in four seasons under Kelly. It's won three straight Pac-12 championships, more outright conference titles than the program had claimed in its entire previous history. Whereas reaching the Rose Bowl once constituted a dream season, now, after two appearances in three years, anything less would be considered a letdown.
But as the 8-0 Ducks enter the stretch run of their latest Pac-12 and BCS championship quest beginning with Saturday's trip to 6-2 USC, there's a pervasive sense that this golden era of Oregon football may be nearing its expiration date. While the Ducks have shown no signs of fading anytime soon, questions abound as to how much longer Kelly will remain the coach.
Kelly's first hint of wandering eyes came last January, when he very nearly became the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Reports at the time indicated Kelly accepted the job on a Sunday night before changing his mind around midnight. (Kelly insisted he never told the Bucs yes.) It was a serious enough scare that AD Rob Mullens was prepared to promote offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to replace him, but Kelly ultimately stayed, citing "unfinished business to complete at the University of Oregon."
At the time, the NFL opportunity seemingly came out of nowhere. With no prior NFL coaching experience and a very un-NFL style of offense, few would have pictured the former New Hampshire offensive coordinator as anything other than a college coach. Now, however, he's not just on the NFL's radar; he's suddenly the hottest name in the business.
Last week, NFL.com profiled seven coaches most likely to be targeted by franchises that change coaches this offseason. Kelly, 48, sat on top of the list, ahead of five current pro coordinators and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.
Much like Jim Harbaugh during his final season at Stanford, Kelly has become the default go-to name for fan bases of nearly every struggling pro team and the media that covers them. On NBC's Oct. 21 Sunday Night Football show, SI's Peter King suggested that the Cleveland Browns will look at Kelly as a possible replacement for the struggling Pat Shurmur. And Twitter was abuzz with Kelly's name during last Sunday's games. "If you're Chip Kelly, Eagles situation looks pretty tempting for move to NFL," NFL draft writer Matt Miller tweeted.
Imagine Michael Vick running the spread-option.
On the one hand, it's surprising that conservative NFL types would be interested in a coach whose unorthodox system is so drastically different than theirs. Old-guard execs generally smirk at NFL outsiders. But many teams are already implementing aspects of Kelly's up-tempo approach, and Kelly's NFL credibility likely shot up a few rungs with last month's revelation that Patriots czar Bill Belichick implemented his own one-word no-huddle play-calls following meetings in New England with Kelly.
"It's a personnel-driven game and I think the coaches that are the best at it can adapt their systems to the NFL," Kelly told a Seattle radio station this summer.
Those who admire Kelly's acumen are enamored with more than just his fast-paced offense; it's his entire operating mantra. Much like Alabama's Nick Saban or Kansas State's Bill Snyder, Kelly's players seem fully committed to his system, and it shows in the program's annual consistency.
In 2010, after Kelly dismissed established quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for running afoul of the law, the coach plugged in then-sophomore Darron Thomas and rolled to a 12-0 regular season. This year the Ducks had to replace Thomas, star running back LaMichael James and, two weeks into the season, veteran guard Carson York. With redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota now at the helm, Oregon is averaging its usual 53 points and 540 yards per game. It's yet to win a game by fewer than 17 points.
"He runs the best practices I've ever seen," an NFC executive told NFL.com. "I would hire him in a second if I ever had the opportunity."
For their part, Oregon fans are mostly fixated on the current season and the Ducks' BCS prospects, but they do seem to be getting nervous. Last week The Register-Guardran a poll asking "Will Chip Kelly be Oregon's head coach in 2013?" Only 35.6 percent of the nearly 2,900 respondents answered: "Yes, definitely." A larger chunk chose "Yes, unless Oregon wins the BCS title," presumably in response to Kelly's "unfinished business" comment.
But coaching is a business, and coaches have egos. If Kelly decides to leave, it likely won't be because Oregon did or did not hoist a trophy. He believes unabashedly in his visionary system and will likely be tempted to prove it can work at the sport's highest level -- provided it's the right situation.
There's also the ongoing NCAA investigation into Oregon's recruiting practices to consider. Granted, if Kelly was truly worried about fallout from the program's reported ties to middleman Will Lyles, he probably would have escaped to the Bucs when he had the chance. But the NCAA has now been processing Oregon's case for more than 19 months; it's hard to believe the resolution will be a mere slap on the wrist.
One thing's for certain: Ducks fans probably don't have to worry about losing Kelly to another college team. Oregon may not be one of the sport's bluebloods like Ohio State or Alabama, but today's generation of players and recruits view the Ducks as every bit the same national power. Their flashy uniforms and offense are ubiquitous. And thanks to mega-booster Phil Knight, the program doesn't lack for resources. It already has some of the spiffiest facilities in the country and is currently building a new $68 million football complex next to its existing structure. Kelly, who in September signed a contract extension worth $3.4 million a year, is not lacking for anything a college coach might desire.
But the challenge of the NFL is a different story. Granted, many a successful college coach before him -- Saban, Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Bobby Petrino -- have flopped at the next level. But every coach believes he's the exception, and at least a couple (Jimmy Johnson, Harbaugh) have successfully bucked the norm.
The question is, if or when Kelly leaves, has he built the program to the point where someone else can pick up where he left off? Helfrich, an Oregon native and Kelly's only offensive coordinator, would be the logical successor, even if Mullens had time to conduct a national search. The 39 year old knows Kelly's system and could carry the torch the same way Kelly did from Mike Bellotti and Bellotti did from Rich Brooks before him.
"He'll be a big-timer," Helfrich's former Colorado boss, Dan Hawkins, told The Register-Guard in January. "Where people might have been saying, 'Holy smokes,' in a few years they'll be saying, 'How can we keep him?'"
Certainly, Oregon's program has reached a level where it can reasonably expect success no matter the coach. But Kelly's current run -- an .875 winning percentage, 30-2 Pac-12 record and what appears increasingly likely will be a fourth BCS berth in four seasons -- is truly astounding. If he wins a national title, he will arguably exceed the heights once enjoyed by this week's opponent, USC, under former coach Pete Carroll. And as the Trojans are finding out with Lane Kiffin, hiring the guru's protégé doesn't guarantee the same degree of success.
So enjoy the heck out of these next five or six games, Ducks fans. The program's ascension began under Brooks more than a decade before Kelly arrived and Oregon will remain a player in the Pac-12 even if the NFL does come calling. But winning 12 games every year and beating teams 52-21 every week is not nearly as easy to achieve as Kelly's teams make it look. If its coach moves to Cleveland, Oregon may return to normalcy even faster than a De'Anthony Thomas touchdown run.