An ambivalent Chip Kelly changes his mind; becomes the Eagles' head coach
First he did. Then he didn’t.
Then, a year later, he said he would. But once again he decided he wouldn’t.
Until, upon second thought, Chip Kelly finally decided to just do it.
The Eagles, meanwhile, never wavered. From the moment Jeffrey Lurie fired Andy Reid – and possibly even earlier – the team had one man in mind to be their next head coach.
On Wednesday, Lurie pushed all his chips in and named Kelly, the innovative Oregon coach who had been ambivalent about jumping to the NFL, the 21st head coach in Eagles history.
“It’s a very difficult decision for me,” Kelly told an Oregon television station just before he boarded a chartered flight to Philadelphia. “It took so long to make it just because the people here are special. The challenge obviously is exciting for me, but it’s an exciting time [and] it’s a sad time.”
It will be labeled a gamble. Kelly has never played or worked in the NFL, normally a prerequisite to becoming a Super Bowl-winning coach. But Lurie obviously thought the potential for reward – finally winning a championship for a football-obsessed city – far outweighed the risk.
“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” Lurie said in a statement. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh, energetic approach to our team.”
Lurie has taken risks before. His last head coaching hire was denigrated by many critics and fans. Fourteen seasons later, Reid, who was a little known quarterbacks coach when the Eagles plucked him up in 1999, was the winningest coach in franchise history.
Kelly, 49, represents a different challenge. Reid wanted nothing other than to be an NFL head coach. He wasted no time finding his next job when he was named the Kansas City Cheifs’ new leader four days after being fired on Dec. 31.
Kelly, though, has made it clear that he wasn’t sure that coaching in the pros was his ultimate goal. Last January, he accepted an offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to decide hours later that he was staying in Eugene, Ore.
Despite his hesitancy, teams were still interested a year later. The Eagles, Browns and Bills interview Kelly following Oregon’s victory over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3. Kelly came into the meetings assuring the teams that he was serious this time.
However, after a nine-hour interview with Lurie, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and team president Don Smolenski on Jan. 5, and less than 24 hours of deliberation, Kelly elected to stay once again.
There were reports that Oregon alum and Nike co-founder Phil Knight had ponied up more money to keep Kelly. But that was never confirmed.
Spurned by yet another college coach – they had Penn State’s Bill O’Brien second on their list but he, too, stayed – the Eagles moved onto Plan B. But as they went about interviewing a variety of candidates, Plan A crept back into the picture.
Two days after Kelly announced his decision, the Eagles’ contingent was in Nashville to interview Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Both Kellys were there for an NCAA coach’s conference. The Eagles didn’t run into Kelly, but a mutual friend of Roseman’s and Kelly’s approached Lurie and company at dinner, according to a team source.
The friend told Roseman that Kelly was very impressed with the Eagles during the interview stage and wasn’t 100 percent committed to staying at Oregon.
Roseman then reached out to Kelly and his agent, David Dunn, the source said. The conversations were light at first, but gained in intensity by Saturday when the Eagles were in Atlanta to interview Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for the first time.
In all, the Eagles interviewed 11 candidates. Bradley was the only one to get a second meeting. He flew to Philadelphia on Tuesday and the 46-year-old coach met with the Eagles for six hours at Lurie’s Wynnewood mansion.
Many thought the Eagles would clinch the deal then, but few knew that negotiations had heated up with Kelly. After Bradley left, the Eagles resumed talks with Kelly and came to terms on a contract late Tuesday night.
The deal wasn’t finalized until Kelly told his players on Wednesday morning. Bradley, who would have been offered the job had it not been for Kelly’s about face, flew onto Jacksonville to interview with the Jaguars.
After informing Oregon and his players that he was leaving, Kelly flew to Philadelphia and landed at Northeast airport around 7:30 p.m., where he was greeted by Roseman, Smolenski, a media horde and a handful of fans.
While reaction to the news has been mixed, Kelly should enjoy a honeymoon period with Eagles fans and the local media. Following Reid will be daunting, but after 14 seasons there was fan fatigue. It turned toxic over the last two seasons when the Eagles went a combined 12-20.
“I know there’s a rabid fan base here, which is good,” Kelly said upon his arrival in Philadelphia, courtesy of NBC10. “I got a text on the plane that I was getting tracked like Santa Claus, which was flattering until I remember the Philly fans booed Santa Claus. I hope they don’t boo me. I’m just excited to be here.”
There are many words that have been used to describe Kelly. “Brilliant,” “funny,” “engaging,” “difficult,” “sardonic,” “arrogant,” are just several. The unmarried Kelly was born and raised in New Hampshire, played football at the state university and eventually coached there.
That is where he honed his craft. In 2007, Oregon lured him west to become the Ducks’ offensive coordinator. Two years later, he became head coach. In four seasons, Oregon went 46-7, although they never won a national championship.
His innovative spread option, hurry-up offense intrigued NFL coaches. Patriots coach Bill Belichick recently implemented some of his tactics. Former Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden attended his efficient practices years ago to crib ideas.
Still, there are questions if Kelly’s scheme will translate to the NFL, or if he will be able to adapt and change to the new league.
“There’s a lot of ways to play football,” Kelly said earlier this month. “Trends go one way and the other. … If you weren’t in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else.”
Aside from the pressures of winning in a football-crazed, Northeastern town, Kelly faces a host of other challenges. The Eagles don’t have a franchise quarterback. Michael Vick isn’t expected to return and Nick Foles, who just finished his rookie season, is an unknown quantity.
The roster will need significant turnover. The defense has been below par since former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson died before the 2009 season. Kelly favors an aggressive, attacking-style defense and will likely change the Eagles’ scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4, a source familiar with the coach’s thinking said.
There will be time to figure it all out. But Kelly won’t be given that much of a grace period. The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl and their last title came in 1960. The last coach the franchise hired out of college was Dick Vermeil in 1976. The Eagles reached the Super Bowl four seasons later, but lost.
There have been college coaches that came to the NFL and won titles – the Cowboys’ Jimmy Johnson was one of the most prominent. But more often than not, there are far more failures that success stories.
Perhaps that is why Kelly hemmed and hawed.
It doesn’t matter know. He’s in the NFL.