Chip Kelly showing little, telling less ahead of UCLA debut
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Leave it to Chip Kelly to move to Hollywood and still do his best to stay completely out of the spotlight.
UCLA’s heralded head coach has revealed little and promised even less during the months leading to his much-anticipated debut Saturday against Cincinnati.
He is both charming and no-nonsense with reporters and fans in the nation’s second-largest media market, yet he also closes his practices to observers and deflects simple questions about the Bruins’ basic philosophies. He waited until 48 hours before his debut to name Michigan transfer Wilton Speight as his starting quarterback in a four-sentence news release.
Kelly appears to be aware of the anticipation surrounding his return to the Rose Bowl, both among the UCLA faithful and around the country. Hype and the other ancillary aspects of football are just not something that interests him as he prepares the Bruins to perform in the next chapter of his compelling career.
“We don’t have any expectations,” Kelly said. “I’ve never been an expectation guy, because I think if you want to be real happy in your life, then set really low expectations. We’re really happy, because we don’t have any expectations. My only expectation, to be honest with you, is that they play hard. We’ve been getting great effort, so I think that part has been accomplished.”
For a football lifer who has obsessively evaluated every quantum of information about his sport for most of his adult life, Kelly has rarely professed much interest in helping outsiders do the same — well, except for last year, when he took a job as a commentator.
With control of a well-funded college program desperate to join the upper echelons of the sport, Kelly has narrowed his focus again onto practices, games and little else. He’s not doing one-on-one interviews, leaving journalists to piece together information about his mindset and direction.
Away from the public eye, Kelly’s new players are just starting to understand him, and to understand what it means to play for one of the most intriguing and inventive coaches of his generation.
“You really don’t know somebody if you watch from the TV screen, you know,” defensive back Darnay Holmes said. “Once he came in, he was far away. He was observing more and talking less. But now he’s definitely getting into the flow. He knows who the guys are, how people are reacting.”
The Bruins largely speak about Kelly from a reserved point of view — no surprise given their brief acquaintance with a famous coach who didn’t recruit most of them. But they seem to know they’re in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, and they seem buoyed by the immediate benefits of Kelly’s focus on conditioning and good habits.
“I think he’s just trying to bring a winning culture to the team,” tight end Caleb Wilson said. “And making sure every single day we compete, and how the habits we create on and on the field affect our mission. Everyday habits as far as rest, as far as diet, as far as how you prepare, how much film you watch, how you treat each other.”
UCLA could be an ideal fit for Kelly, and not just because of the gleaming $75 million Wasserman Football Center on campus as a monument to the ambition of the program’s deep-pocketed backers. The Bruins will be a big deal in Westwood and across Los Angeles if they win, yet Kelly is unlikely to receive the daily scrutiny facing any coach in the South or the Midwest.
Put it this way: Kelly lost seven games in his four years in charge at Oregon. The Bruins lost seven games last season as Jim Mora’s once-promising tenure grinded to a halt.
UCLA hasn’t won a Pac-12 title since 1998. Kelly won three with the Ducks.
Players say the Bruins’ practices under Kelly are a blur of activity and repetition, but that’s no longer revolutionary. Most teams strive to play fast and work fast these days, thanks significantly to Kelly’s success in doing it at Oregon.
Despite his no-nonsense mien, Kelly hasn’t shied from a few Hollywood touches, either: Mark Wahlberg spoke to the Bruins about work ethic during fall camp after Kelly and the actor were connected through mutual friends from their native New England.
“The main thing (Kelly) is bringing to this team is chemistry,” Holmes said earlier this month. “In this generation, we always be on our phones, so like a few days ago, he got on all the team for being on their phones and not chopping it up with each other. He wants to make sure we’re all in it together.”
The Bruins aren’t deep, with only nine seniors. They aren’t particularly healthy, either, after losing senior linebacker Josh Woods and freshman defensive back Kenny Churchwell to season-ending knee injuries.
Kelly is working with what he’s got, and his players are learning each day.
“I went in with an open mindset,” offensive lineman Jake Burton said. “I told myself, ‘Don’t be surprised by anything. It’s going to be all new.’ The biggest thing is definitely the tempo. I mean, in practice you’re flying around everywhere, and that’s what he stresses. Just go hard in everything you do, and just be as fast and physical as you can.”
Despite Thursday’s announcement, Speight’s three-man derby with returnee Devon Modster and freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson apparently will continue into the season. Before choosing Speight, Kelly said the winner of the competition doesn’t have the position locked down for any period of time longer than the first snap.
“I understand it, why everybody is concerned with the quarterback,” Kelly said Wednesday. “But I haven’t had one question on who our nickel (back) is, and that’s an ongoing battle, too. We’d better make sure we have a good nickel. … For a coach, every single position battle is huge.”
When asked who’s starting at nickel back, Kelly smiled and declined to say.