A few years ago, Chip Kelly’s Oregon legacy was a lot easier to outline. There was no Willie Lyles, there was no NFL flirtation, and there was more quick-witted humor than quick-witted piercings for journalists.
A few years ago, we thought Kelly’s destiny would be that of the man who elevated Oregon football and punctuated the Oregon brand to previously undreamt heights. It made sense – a simple, sterling legacy for the straight-shooting coach who talked fast and had an offense that ran even faster.
But things changed very quickly for Kelly in Eugene. First there was the Chip-Flop, a momentous night in January 2012 when Kelly accepted, then turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coaching job. In the midst of that, the Lyles scandal exploded, and Kelly lost friends in the media and became more controlling of the program.
No practices open to the media. No injury reports. No real insight into Kelly’s football team or state of mind.
Kelly’s 2013 NFL merry-go-round smacked of the stubbornness that has become his number one personality trait.
Cleveland can’t give me this? Fine, I won’t show up to dinner.
Philadelphia won’t give me that? Fine, I’ll go back to Oregon.
Oh you will give me this, this, and that, Philadelphia? Well then, you’ve got yourself a new head coach.
We saw Kelly’s stubbornness on the field as a play-caller. I’ve never seen a coach so unwilling to compromise in game, so unwilling to concede even the slightest victory to an opponent.
In 2010, Andrew Luck’s Stanford and Oregon were trading blows in a primetime top-10 game at Autzen Stadium. The team that could keep the touchdown-every-possession pace up was going to win. The Ducks lost a possession and were down 21-10. What did Kelly do? Onside kick. He stole a possession back. Oregon won 52-31. They outscored Stanford 42-10 after the onside kick recovery.
Kelly is just unwilling to play by anyone’s rules but his own. Why does Kelly go for it so much on fourth down? Because he hates going a single possession without putting the ball in the end-zone. That’s true of all coaches, but Kelly is often too stubborn to punt.
We also saw Kelly too stubborn to change his in-game strategy at Oregon, which hurt the Ducks against USC in 2011 and Stanford in 2012. In both games, Kelly would refuse to stop running the ball, even though the Ducks were getting beaten up on the line and the passing game was making inroads.
In some cases, the stubbornness helped the Ducks, in some cases, it hurt. But what defined Kelly most at the end of his tenure at Oregon was that the straight-shooting coach had become a master of deception and misdirection.
Basically, Kelly mastered the Dark Arts.
Let’s not forget, when an angry season-ticket holder demanded his money back after seeing the Ducks beaten up on the blue turf in Boise and then beat up Boise after the game, Kelly sent the season-ticket holder a check covering his ticket and travel expenses.
There was no note. Just a check.
That’s how Kelly played it when he first got in the game. But as time wore on, and Kelly’s star grew, things became less straightforward.
There were the dealings with Lyles, which were shady and can’t be described as anything but blatant cheating. Then there was the way Kelly handled himself this past offseason, keeping an entire coaching staff and football team in the dark as he blew off the Cleveland Browns, blew off the Philadelphia Eagles, said he was returning to Oregon without actually making a statement, and then skipping off to Philly out the back door when the Ducks least expected it.
Kelly was harder to read than his offense. Where was the honesty, the straight-forwardness that we loved the guy for?
Kelly is a charismatic guy. Anyone as whip-smart as Kelly, anyone as sharp and biting as the Ducks former head coach was has a chance to be a real leader. Kelly has done a lot of good things. He went to Africa last offseason and volunteered, playing with kids and learning just how privileged he is.
Then he came back to Oregon and went through the motions in what turned out to be his final season, looking tired and disinterested. You can forgive Kelly for wanting more of a challenge than the ten blowout wins Oregon got, but he certainly wasn’t a leader last year.
The final touches on Kelly’s legacy will be shaped in the coming years, as we find out how much of Oregon’s success was Kelly and how much of it was the school’s brand appeal and status.
If Coach Mark Helfrich goes to the BCS this season, we’re not missing Kelly very much. If Oregon wasn’t built to last and things regress under Helfrich, then the true measure of Kelly’s coaching talent will be felt.
If Kelly jumped to the NFL with Tampa Bay in 2012, I would have cheered for him to succeed. After how he exited Oregon, I will be no Eagles fan in the coming years. Kelly got meaner as he became more experienced in coaching, more ruthless, and his ego became so inflated, he felt he could blow off two proud NFL franchises and get away with it.
Turns out, he did get away with it. Kelly got the Eagles job in the end, and the coach has gotten away from the mess he created with Lyles. But he can’t get away from the Ducks without a tarnished legacy. Kelly had four years at Oregon, and he was surlier with each passing campaign. How sour would the next four have been?
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports