Chip Kelly won eight games, stomped his biggest rival and won a bowl game at UCLA last season. Still, on Friday, he determined his best career move — one of the latest to rock the sport — was to take a massive pay cut to remain in the same conference and .
Of course, it made sense. Of course, it made no sense.
Welcome to college football in 2024. It’s a-maze-ing.
The year is only 40 days old, yet some of the game’s top programs, rosters and minds are scrambled.
Jim Harbaugh began January under NCAA investigation on two fronts while trying to figure out how to beat Washington. He’s still under investigation, but life is a lot better where investigators can’t touch him: in the NFL with the Chargers.
On the same afternoon Kelly left UCLA for Ohio State — eight weeks after the season ended —after serving 21 days as the Buckeyes offensive coordinator. At least that was a promotion by title.
This migration by Kelly?
The 60-year-old who had spent 14 years as a college or NFL head coach took a big pay cut (from $6 million per year) to become a coordinator for the first time since 2009. He saw a better future calling plays at Ohio State than following up on the best three-year run (25 wins) by any UCLA coach since 2015. This despite the Bruins being in the process of joining the Big Ten next season.
Coaches everywhere preach loyalty. The profession might have cornered the market lately on rental properties.
Kelly’s move was unprecedented and yet not altogether surprising. He has a relationship with Ohio State coach Ryan Day, his quarterback at New Hampshire while Kelly was the offensive coordinator. Kelly remains a respected play caller who, at his base, wants to establish a punishing running game. That fits the ethic at Ohio State.
It takes some inside and institutional knowledge to figure out the rest.
Kelly, no doubt, saw a difficult future in Westwood. While he wasn’t going to get fired after going 8-5, Kelly was not hired by current athletic director Martin Jarmond, who gave his coach a vote of confidence after last season’s USC win.
That explains why Kelly was interviewing with NFL and college teams in the first place: one sub-par season and security becomes a hot seat.
Still, Kelly had leverage. He had been offered extensions after the 2021 and 2022 seasons. His buyout this year was $8 million, which surely played a role in UCLA deciding to ride with him despite a 35-34 overall record. This year’s recruiting class was ranked 87th — last in the Big Ten — so there may be little disappointment all around.
Critical UCLA fans get their way. Kelly gets a new job. Day gets his old coach back.
In a weird twist, becoming Ohio State offensive coordinator may be Kelly’s best route to becoming a head coach again. UCLA is upside down financially. The move to the Big Ten was partially based on those difficulties. The Bruins have no collective for NIL. Some UCLA fans argue Kelly’s presence was the main reason, but third-party influence is where the playbook begins lately in the Power Four.
Succeed at Ohio State, and Kelly may be able to pick his next job. The downside, of course, is what O’Brien no doubt sensed. Another loss to Michigan, and Day’s whole staff could be out by the end of November.
In a weirder twist, the recruiting class Kelly finalized two days ago are now literally free agents. The NCAA gives players an opportunity to transfer without restriction for a period of 30 days when they lose their coach, regardless of whether the transfer portal is open at that time.
No matter who the Bruins hire, expect mass transfers. The rebuild isn’t exactly close to what Deion Sanders faced at Colorado — the Buffaloes were 1-11 in 2022 before Coach Prime arrived — but it is something significant.
In perhaps the weirdest twist, the defensive coordinator Kelly hired away from USC ust 10 weeks ago (D’Anton Lynn) couldn’t have seen this coming. However, Lynn will be listed as a candidate to replace his boss, who himself left to become … a coordinator.
The first decision to be made by Jarmond is philosophical. Does he want an interim “bridge” coach to guide the Bruins through this crisis or go after the best name available? The issue is there are few “best names” available in the second week of February.
Kelly seemed like he had it all figured out two months ago. His comments about the future of the sport.
“Something needs to be done to protect this game,” Kelly told CBS Sports recently.
Here’s a start: Make it begin making sense again.