"Happy St. Patrick's Day!" exclaimed the new top Duck, who, it turned out, was making up for lost time. He'd forgotten it was St. Paddy's Day until a post-lunch staff meeting. "I saw it in my day planner," he said. "It's not like [defensive coordinator] Nick Aliotti's gonna remind me."
While he wasn't sporting green on Tuesday, Kelly will soon be taking home a lot more of it. Four days prior -- and a year earlier than most people expected -- Mike Bellotti announced he'd coached his final football game in Eugene. Bellotti will now ascend to the AD's office, where he will serve as oracle and sounding board for Kelly. The 45-year-old Kelly has never been a head coach, and as recently as 2006 occupied a pantry-sized office at Division I-AA New Hampshire, where, as offensive coordinator, he spent his time devising schemes to move the ball against the likes of Hofstra and Rhode Island.
A junkie for offensive football, Kelly loved nothing more than a road trip -- "research and development," he called it -- to talk to other coaches about what was working for them. Boston College, Clemson, the Carolinas -- UNC and N.C. State -- Georgia Tech, Florida State, Wake Forest, he hit up them all. "Everybody was always really receptive," he told me, "because no one was ever playing New Hampshire."
He was especially intrigued by overachieving offenses -- coaches doing more with less, "schools having more success than they were supposed to be having," he said.
Kelly will be the first to tell you that description no longer applies at Oregon. That is the principle legacy Bellotti left, and he set a generous table for his heir. It's easy to take for granted what Oregon football is today: a post-season fixture -- 12 bowls in the last 14 years -- with space-age facilities and a legacy of great quarterback play. But those parts are less then the sum of Bellotti's signal accomplishment.
As Eugene Register-Guard columnist Ron Bellamy wrote, Bellotti "made people care about Oregon football. Not just in Oregon, and not just Oregon fans. In his 14-year tenure as head coach, the Ducks became nationally relevant, and the university became known for an athletic program beyond track and field."
Following the '04 season Bellotti brought in fellow spread-head Gary Crowton, who was more than happy to share his wisdom with a I-AA coach on a fact-finding mission -- a guy by the name of Kelly. They stayed in touch. Shortly after the 2006 season, on his final day at a coaching clinic, Bellotti got a call from Crowton, whom LSU was wooing.
"I've just spent five days with seven thousand coaches," Bellotti later recalled, "and the day I'm leaving, Gary said, 'By the way, I'm probably going to take this job."
Before he bailed, Crowton recommended Kelly, who seemed a reach -- New Hampshire? -- until he unlocked the potential of a spindly playmaking quarterback named Dennis Dixon in 2007. With a mind-bending array of zone reads, play action and, when the need arose, straight power, Kelly's bunch led the Pac-10 in scoring and total offense, finishing ahead of USC, whose late-season loss in Autzen Stadium cost the Trojans a shot at the national title.
With Kelly transforming another rough diamond quarterback into a polished, dangerous weapon -- this time sophomore juco transfer Jeremiah Masoli -- the Ducks improved on '07, winning 10 games and finishing the season ranked No. 9 in 2008. Bellotti and his masters had seen enough. They anointed Kelly successor last December and he joined a growing college football caste known as head-coach-in-waiting (See Texas, Florida State, Purdue, Kentucky).
He didn't have long to wait. After wavering last week, Bellotti finally pulled the trigger on Friday the 13th, resolving to begin the next phase of his career.
Now, Kelly will attempt not only to sustain Bellotti's success, but to build on it. It's up to him to prove he's more than just some mad scientist with a head full of X's and O's. He's already known as a tireless, effective and unapologetically ambitious recruiter. More than ever, the Ducks are willing to go after the best players in the country. Oregon made Terrelle Pryor's short list last year, and finished third in the Bryce Brown sweepstakes last week. After choosing Tennessee, Brown, the Wichita-based running back, opined that, while Oregon's offense was "nice and flashy," the Vols' system would better prepare him for the NFL.
"I must not have done a good enough job educating him," Kelly said, "on how productive our backs are. Our offense produced two thousand-yard rushers this year" -- Jeremiah Johnson (1,201 yards) and LaGarrett Blount (1,002). "And I'm not exactly sure, but I thinkJonathan Stewart was the 13th pick in the draft" after the '07 season. "I guess we gotta get a kid in the top 10."
The Granite State native possesses a slight edge that Oregonians tend to attribute to his roots "back east." Asked to cite the main differences between himself and Bellotti, he says: "I talk a lot faster."
Where Bellotti acted as a CEO, Kelly will be more hands-on. "I'm still going to be really involved in what we're doing offensively," he said. "I got the job because of my offensive background, so I'm not just gonna sit back and let someone else run the offense."
That's good news for Ducks fans, who have become accustomed to leading the Pac-10 in scoring. They'd love to see the balance of power in the Pac-10 shift back to the Northwest, where it resided in the early part of the decade before Pete Carroll returned USC to greatness.
Speaking of 'SC, the Trojans must break in a new quarterback next season, and won't be as smothering on defense. But Kelly's not making any predictions.
"No bulletin board material here," he said, laughing. "All I know is, we're extremely focused on our opener against Boise State."
So focused, in fact, that he forgot St. Patrick's Day.