ABOVE PHOTO: Chip Kelly
(Photo by Webster Riddick)
By Mike Bruton
Chip Kelly could prove to be an exception to the rule that coaches who go straight from college ranks to head coach of an NFL team ultimately fail.
Usually, the transition from an atmosphere where the head football coach is a demi-god in the collegiate setting to the rigors of unrelenting and unforgiving pressure of being the boss man in the National Football League is too much for these men, regardless of their leadership and talent, to bear.
Among those on the list of coaches who have fell victim to this phenomenon are Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, Nick Saban, Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson and Pete Carroll – albeit he made it on the second try.
In the last 20 years only three coaches, Barry Switzer being most notable, have successfully made the jump from the campus to the big leagues.
Kelly, 49, follows Andy Reid as head coach of the Eagles in a city where the aforementioned pressure is multiplied at least by a factor of five but the witty, self-aware, gridiron technocrat might just make it. He has a chance because as confident as he comes across, he is secure enough to understand to be successful he has to listen to others in order to lead.
Coming from a highly successful stint at Oregon where he amassed a 46-7 record as head coach from 2009 to 2012 with three Pac-12 titles and four BCS game appearances, Kelly seems to be a man who likes to lead by consensus rather than fiat.
Kelly is not a Bear Bryant-styled my way-or-the-highway leader, he has a style that seeks to capitalize on every and any aspect that running a football team offers whether it is new technology or using the innovations of his staff without taking sole credit for any success that arises.
“I made a real conscious decision because I came from the college level to here, that I wanted to hire coordinators that had NFL experience,” said Kelly, during a news conference at the Eagles NovaCare training facility last Monday. “In Pat Shurmur (offense), Billy Davis (defense) and David Fitt (special teams), we’ve got that.”
Kelly extends that attitude to his entire staff, which has diversity in experience, age, ethnicity and point of view.
“I wanted a diverse group,” said the Dover, New Hampshire native, “I wanted a group that had a lot of varying experiences in terms of where they were coming from.
“No one really has an ego. We all have the same goal and that is to win.”
When the videotape has been studied for the umpteenth time and the whiteboard is full of the smears from Xs and Os, Kelly wants an open floor instead of an audience.
“I want to be challenged,” he said. “We want to be challenged as a group. You want a guy to say, ‘Hey, we did this way,’ and it makes you think of a different way to do it. It’s the ability to create the identity of this football team moving forward and not this is how I did it at Oregon. This is how we’re going to do it here.”
The winner of six national Coach of the Year awards in 2010, Kelly speaks rapid-fire from the side of his mouth and often fashions unconventional answers during news conferences that have come to be known as “chipisms.”
And, to top it off, he’s funny.
Kelly, who has visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and is vocal supporter of the U.S. Armed Forces, was asked if he would use military-styled training and discipline to prepare the Eagles for the season.
“I’m not going to have face paint on, I can tell you that,” said Kelly, drawing laughter from the press gallery, before commenting on the methodology his sports science coordinator Shaun Huls, who according to the Eagles, was previously the strength, conditioning and “combatives” coordinator for U.S. Navy Special Warfare. “Where Shaun has been in recent years … It’s different experience he brings to the table. Are we planning to attack a foreign country? No.”
Having a sports science coordinator on his staff is a manifestation of Kelly’s belief that technology is an integral part of football and can be exploited without losing the value of old-school, smash-mouth play.
“The game has evolved,” Kelly said. “We coaches have to evolve with it. I want to know why we do things …everything we do whether it’s the athletic training room or the strength and conditioning room.
“If you go back 50 years ago, people training in football weren’t allowed to have water during the game. There was a bucket on the sideline and they had a ladle and when you scooped it you had a sip but if you drank water you were soft.”
Kelly brings with him a fast-paced offensive attack that features a spread formation with as many as four receivers lined up wide at times and a zone-read running game similar to that used by the San Francisco 49ers.
Though, that formation is often viewed as a passing attack lineup, Kelly’s teams have mauled opponents with a physical running game that features plays that require players to make split-second decisions on the field.
This is an extension of the coach’s consensus-building style.
“If you tell players today to do something because I told you so,” Kelly explained when he was at Oregon, “you will not reach them. We explain to our players why we do the things we do. That gives them a bit of ownership and they understand much more.”
Defensively, though Kelly’s teams have used a 3-4 alignment, the coach said personnel will determine how the Eagles’ front seven will line up and they might line up differently depending on what down it is.