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'I Never Had My Doubts': After Five Straight Losing Seasons as a Coach, Chip Kelly Is Back

After a four-year rebuild, UCLA overpowered LSU in the Rose Bowl as the man in the visor outdueled 2019 national champion Ed Orgeron.

PASADENA, Calif. — Beneath that visor of his, Chip Kelly watched the team across the way carry out warmups.

They were big and they were fast. They were tall and they were quick. They resembled the teams he sees playing on Sundays.

“You’re like ‘Holy smokes! That’s a pretty team!'” Kelly says.

LSU brought its five-star talent here to the Rose Bowl on Saturday evening. It brought its 20,000 fans. It brought its high-priced coaches, its national championship pedigree, its SEC might, its No. 16 ranking.

And then it left, run out of the stadium by the UCLA Bruins in a 38–27 drubbing that surely cranks up the heat on Ed Orgeron’s seat and thrusts Kelly’s club into the national spotlight.

Chip is back, at least for one night. He’s back to successfully out-scheming opposing coaches, to winning games maybe he shouldn’t, to comfortably exchanging pleasantries with reporters.

chip-kelly

There’s a new kind of wizard in Westwood. This one wears a visor, is at times brutally honest and maybe finally has himself a good football team.

But don’t tell him that. No, no, don’t do that.

“It don’t mean s--- on Monday,” he says.

This is one game, one week. Remember last season, when Mike Leach and Mississippi State opened the year by beating this same LSU team in Baton Rouge? Remember that, he asks?

“I watched the game and I was like ‘Holy smokes!’ Look at Mississippi State, they just knocked off the national champs,” he says. “I looked it up. They lost their next four games.”

Kelly also acknowledges, unprompted, that this wasn’t a “typical” opener for LSU. They’ve gone through a lot, he says, evacuating to Houston from Hurricane Ida earlier this week.

But that changes nothing about how this result transpired, in a most thorough and shocking way. UCLA dominated an SEC power in an area in which it usually excels—at the line of scrimmage. Look no further than yards rushing: LSU 48, UCLA 215.

It was somewhat fitting. While walking into the stadium, television cameras caught Orgeron playfully calling a UCLA fan a “sissy” and proposing the fan enter the stadium to find himself a fight.

Hours later, it was Orgeron’s team that got knocked around.

It was the Pac-12 team that wore down the one from the SEC. The Pac-12 team created wide running lanes for its tailbacks and hounded the opposing quarterback. The Pac-12 team burned the clock and milked away the game. It popped explosive plays against busted coverages (at least four completions of at least 35 yards). It had two running backs shatter the 90-yard mark and it, the Pac-12 team, pushed around the SEC team up front.

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“We never talked about it,” Kelly says. “It wasn’t the Pac-12 against the SEC, because they didn’t bring Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama. Thankfully, my God.”

Afterward, Orgeron acknowledged his team got beat at the point of attack. What happens to an LSU team that struggles, against UCLA, to run the ball, stop the run and protect its quarterback? The Tigers have games this season against Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M.

It feels like the end is inevitable—a second straight subpar season and a coach whose leash, despite winning the 2019 national championship, is short (they don’t make long leashes in Baton Rouge for their football coaches).

“One game does not define a season,” Orgeron said afterward, “but we do understand that was a letdown for our fans and I take responsibility for it.”

And, boy, did his school bring fans. Lots of them. Their booze-fueled tailgate scene spilled into the Rose Bowl, painting nearly half of the stadium in purple and gold—a West Coast Mardi Gras in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.

In fact, one LSU section of fans drank one vendor out of beer (don’t worry—they restocked eventually!).

It’s a good thing, too. They needed to be sauced up for such a sour exit. Early in the fourth quarter, they began streaming out of the stadium to chants of “Ov-Er-Ra-Ted”! And a few minutes later, blue and gold confetti rained down onto the field. Fireworks exploded in the air. And music rocked from field-level speakers.

Players made confetti angels, and a few fans even (illegally) stormed onto the field. And there was that visor, bobbing and weaving, cutting through the crowd as it headed for the exit.

Later on, in an interview with SI, along a dark pathway within the bowels of the Rose Bowl, Kelly briefly looks back at the program he’s built, the crippled one he took over in 2018, when he had only 57 total scholarship players.

It took him four years of recruiting for UCLA to reach the normal amount of 85 scholarship guys. This group has maturity, he says. It has experience. And it has talent, too, not all of it from the high school level either.

The Bruins have worked the transfer portal, adding key pieces like former Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet (11 carries for 117 yards on Saturday) to go with long-tenured Bruins like tight end Greg Dulcich (three catches for 117 yards).

It’s all coming together, Kelly’s masterpiece shaping into beautiful form after 10 combined wins over his first three years and five straight losing seasons dating back to his pro days.

“I never had my doubts,” Kelly quips.

You thought he was done? You thought the man who brought electricity to the offensive game, who led Oregon to a national title game, you thought he had lost it?

Think again.

Chip is back, it appears. A new wizard’s in town.

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