Monday, February 26, 2024
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Chip Kelly just wants to coach ball, but his exit from UCLA is concerning amid college football’s hazy future

Chip Kelly wanted out. Not just out of UCLA, but out of being a college-level head coach. How else can you reasonably explain his decision to give up a $6 million salary for the 2024 season and the $4 million buyout he would’ve received after he was (likely) fired following that season … all to reportedly become the offensive coordinator at Ohio State?

The opportunity for such a stunning move wouldn’t have been there at all if Bill O’Brien hadn’t left Ohio State to become the Boston College coach. But with Kelly’s reported interest in NFL offensive coordinator gigs ultimately not reciprocated, the Buckeyes are a good enough landing spot to get out of dodge. 

Yes, Ohio State will pay Kelly well, but it won’t pay him nearly as much as the $10 million he’d have received just waiting for the other shoe to drop in Westwood. Kelly has made plenty of money as a coach at the college and NFL levels, but you only walk away from $10 million with the proper motivation to do so.

There will be plenty of reasons given for why Kelly decided to leave, and most will have validity. UCLA may be getting more money in the future from its new life in the Big Ten, but right now it doesn’t have the money to compete at the top of the conference. UCLA’s crosstown rival USC saw the fantastic job D’Anton Lynn did as Kelly’s defensive coordinator and decided it wanted him. All it had to do was double Lynn’s salary, and he was a Trojan. 

And just in case being unable to compete financially to keep Kelly’s staff intact wasn’t enough, UCLA has struggled to compete on the name, image and likeness (NIL) front as well, making it harder to keep players in blue and gold.

While those are valid reasons and undoubtedly played a role, I’ll never be convinced that Kelly’s ultimate motivation isn’t that he simply wants to coach football.

Following the 2017 season, two programs were reportedly going after Kelly: Florida and UCLA. Florida fans seemed convinced Kelly would come to Gainesville because why on Earth would a football coach choose UCLA over Florida? You can win national titles at Florida!

I wrote at the time that Kelly was more likely to end up at UCLA. He’s always been an offensive innovator. Even when his Oregon teams were at their peak, he seemed more interested in drawing up plays than recruiting kids to play in his offense. His approach to recruiting didn’t make sense for what Florida wanted, as Dan Mullen later found out, and UCLA felt like a better fit for Kelly.

Things have changed a lot since then. When Kelly took the UCLA job, there wasn’t a transfer portal. There wasn’t NIL. There weren’t conference games against Rutgers. All of those things exist now, and yes, there are a lot of football coaches who don’t enjoy this new college football landscape. The complaints about being more of a cat wrangler than a football coach are well-founded.

This doesn’t mean college football has a coaching crisis. We will not see coaches leave their high-paid positions for lesser titles and lower salaries in droves. While some may want to, they all need somebody on the other end offering them the job to pull it off. However, the start of 2024 has been a whirlwind. Nick Saban, the greatest college coach of all time, retired. Jim Harbaugh won a national title and bolted for the NFL, taking a significant portion of his coaching staff with him. Boston College’s Jeff Hafley willingly packed up his office and went to Green Bay to be a defensive coordinator.

Now Kelly is doing the same thing, but he’s not leaving for the NFL. He’s not even leaving his conference.

All have different reasons for doing what they did, but you’re kidding yourself if you pretend the uncertain future of college sports doesn’t play a role in each of their choices. Not every symptom is a sign of a deadly disease, but it’s a symptom of something all the same.

Chip Kelly wanted out, and he isn’t the only one.

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