Perfecting the formula: How Eagles coach Chip Kelly used New Hampshire as his laboratory to create one of football's most prolific offenses
The play call surprised nobody on the University of New Hampshire sideline. Not the head coach, not the quarterback, and definitely not the receiver who eventually found himself celebrating in the end zone.
On Nov. 4, 2000, UNH was in trouble. But after falling behind 31-3, on the road, to undefeated, soon-to-be No. 1 ranked 1-AA (now FCS) power Delaware in front of nearly 22,000 fans, the Wildcats mounted a comeback. By late in the fourth quarter, they'd pulled within a touchdown, and again had driven deep into Blue Hens territory.
Then the offense stalled. It was fourth-and-19. A field goal was worthless and options were limited; Delaware knew UNH had to throw the ball. Sean McDonnell, in his second year as UNH head coach, asked offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, 36, what he wanted to do. After hearing an unconventional answer, McDonnell replied, "Fine. Run it."
"We didn't have anything else," McDonnell says now.
UNH's quarterback, Ryan Day, knew which play Kelly had in mind. The Wildcats had practiced it before. "I dropped the ball to a back, he lateraled it back to one of the receivers," Day recalls.
The problem was, as The Boston Globe's Allen Lessels later wrote, "in practice, the first pass always went to tailback Stephan Lewis or Imion Powell. On this day, however, Lewis had left the game with an ankle injury. Powell had stayed home with his wife, who was due to deliver a baby."
"If I send you in, can you do it?" Kelly asked.
"Yep," Mallette said.
Now, down by seven to the No. 2 team in the nation with less than six minutes left, on fourth-and-19 on their opponent's 23-yard line, Kelly decided to run the hook and ladder with a player who had never even practiced the play before. Amazingly, but in hindsight not too surprisingly, the sandlot staple worked. Day hit Mallette, who pitched the ball to receiver Kamau Peterson. After almost losing the ball, he pulled it in and sprinted across the goal line. Peterson, who spent a decade in the Canadian Football League, says today that, "We knew how open it was going to be." He might be stretching the truth a little, but then again, maybe not.
Kelly was its chemist, tinkering and tinkering until his formula was perfect.
The extra point tied the score at 31, and UNH ended up winning, 45-44, in overtime. Kelly's audacious call still makes the gravel-voiced McDonnell, who remains the head coach at UNH, smile. "It was unbelievable when we did it," he says from his office. "Unbelievable. We were both out of our minds."
Thirteen years later, on a sweltering September afternoon, Ryan Day jogs off a practice field in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He stops to chat on a corner of artificial turf inside Boston College's Alumni Stadium, which has a seating capacity five times that of UNH's home field, 8,000 seat Cowell Stadium. Now the offensive coordinator at BC, the 34-year-old former quarterback is a long way from his New Hampshire days.
Still, the win at Delaware is fresh in his memory. The comeback wouldn't have been possible without Kelly, who wasn't afraid to take chances. In that era, Day described UNH as a football "laboratory." Kelly was its chemist, tinkering and tinkering until his formula was perfect.
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UNH's all-in-one field house sits at the top of a hill on the edge of the Durham campus. One wall of the Paul Sweet Oval, the facility's indoor track, has a tiny football coaches box built into it. The makeshift wooden structure is only accessible by first climbing a ladder, then perilously shuffling across a catwalk. It overlooks tiny Cowell Stadium.
Buried in the basement, underneath the indoor track, Lundholm Gymnasium, and Swasey Indoor Pool, was Kelly's football laboratory. In reality, it was just a small office. But it's where he honed an offense that was, in the words of record-breaking former UNH receiver David Ball, "his baby."
If you've watched college football at all over the last few years, you're probably familiar with Kelly's work. Starting in 2007, he spent six seasons at the University of Oregon, where his dizzyingly fast squads ran an assortment of trick plays and scored points at a historic rate. In Kelly's four years as head coach (he was the offensive coordinator in '07 and '08), the Ducks finished 46-7 and made it to four BCS bowls, including the 2010-11 BCS National Championship Game. Then, last January, he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. So far, the Eagles are averaging 462 yards per game, best in the NFL. If they ever stop turning the ball over, and their defense gets it together ...
Kelly may not have realized it at the time, but UNH was the optimal incubator for his creativity.
But long before his performance at Oregone earned him the nickname "Big Balls Chip," the iconoclast, Kelly spent 14 years as an assistant football coach at a school much better known for its hockey team. And that suited him just fine. He was in his home state, working at his alma mater, collaborating with coaches he'd known for years. Kelly may not have realized it at the time, but UNH was the optimal incubator for his creativity. He felt comfortable and had freedom to try new things. McDonnell, Kelly's longtime friend, says, "He was given a long leash here." In the coaching world, that's no small privilege.
Even as the UNH offense transformed into a record-breaking juggernaut and Kelly's reputation grew, he didn't immediately chase after bigger jobs. It's not that he wasn't pursued: He just didn't feel the need to leave. "I don't think Chip was looking for that special place," McDonnell says. "He was looking for the right place." And until Kelly found it, he was staying put.
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In reality, the Granite State had always been his home. Born on Nov. 25, 1963, in the town of Dover, Charles "Chip" Kelly was one of four brothers. Their parents, Paul and Jean, raised the family in Manchester. By the time he attended Manchester Central High School, he had already become a versatile athlete. A right wing and center on two state championship-winning hockey teams, he also ran the second leg of a champion 4x100m relay team and played quarterback.
Bob Leonard coached Kelly in both track and football. In 1981, Kelly’s senior year at Central, the Little Green won the Class L state outdoor track championship. Early in the meet, Leonard says, Kelly approached him and said, "Coach, this one’s over." And it was. That day, the Little Green dominated. For Kelly, confidence was never a problem. He wasn’t very big — maybe 5'9, Leonard recalls — but in addition to being a track star, he was one of the best QBs in the state.
Central played its home games at Gill Stadium, a now-100-year-old structure that back then had a baseball diamond running through the middle of its natural grass field. Leonard’s philosophy toward coaching Kelly, a scrambler, was this: "Here’s the ball. Go play."
He’s not exaggerating, either. On Halloween night in 1980, Kelly led the Little Green to a 14-6 upset of Trinity. With the score tied at six in the fourth quarter — he’d already capped a 99-yard scoring drive earlier in the game with an 8-yard touchdown run — Kelly took command again, scoring on a sneak to give his team the win. A few weeks later, in its regular-season finale, Central beat Keene, 19-6. "Central, who seems to have a tradition of playing extremely well once the Division 1 race is decided (and Central isn’t involved)," wrote a reporter in the Nashua Telegraph "again showed superb play last night as two backs raced for over 100 yards each." Kelly was one of them, picking up 102 yards on 12 carries. The first of his two touchdowns that evening came on a 61-yard run. For his efforts that season, he was chosen to play in the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl. (The annual summer All-Star game, between New Hampshire and Vermont, features the states’ best seniors.)
In 1981, Kelly graduated from Central. "Some people walk to work," his yearbook quote reads, "others take their lunch." His choice revealed an aversion to the expected, as most of his classmates selected pseudo-meaningful motivational quotes culled from pop music and anthologies of wisdom. And as anyone who has heard a version of the intentionally absurd expression knows, walking to work and taking your lunch are not mutually exclusive. Kelly was clever enough to know that your choices need not confine you, but whatever they were, hard work and the ability to figure things out were part of the equation.
It’s unclear whether his classmates got the joke. Even as a teenager, Kelly was inscrutable. However, just as his opponents have since learned, he probably didn’t mind that his signals were difficult to decode.
* * *
Soon, Kelly headed to UNH, where he walked on to the football team. He played defensive back for four seasons, and eventually ended up coaching at Manchester Central, the ideal place to begin his career. He was the kind of precocious young assistant kids loved. "You couldn’t help but be excited by him," says Sean Feren, who played for Kelly at Central. He changed up the offense weekly, even calling plays like the occasional halfback pass, prompting Feren to think, Wow, OK, I guess he trusts us.
He was the kind of precocious young assistant kids loved. "You couldn’t help but be excited by him."
Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. Leonard, who by then was an assistant working with the defense, says he once told him, "If you go three-and-out again, I’ll kill you." After tough losses, Kelly would run two miles home while his black Ford Escort sat idle in the stadium parking lot. "I don’t know when the guy slept," Feren says.
At the time, Sean McDonnell was an assistant at Boston University. One day, Central head coach Fred Cole and Kelly drove down to BU for a casual meeting. McDonnell, who in the early '80s coached at Central rival Manchester West, remembers their chat lasting all afternoon. "My first impression was, 'Boy, this guy’s like a sponge,'" McDonnell says of Kelly, who eventually earned his physical education degree at UNH in 1990. "He’s gonna soak everything up. And he did."
A few years later, McDonnell was an assistant at Columbia University. When a position opened up, he recommended Kelly’s name to head coach Ray Tellier. "We brought him down for an interview and he knocked it dead," McDonnell says. Kelly only spent two years in New York City though. In 1991 and 1992, respectively, McDonnell and Kelly got hired at UNH, where they’d each played for former head coach Bill Bowes.
Over the next decade, both worked their way up the ladder. McDonnell became the offensive coordinator in 1994. Kelly, first the running backs and then the offensive line coach, served one year as defensive coordinator for Johns Hopkins in 1993 before returning to UNH and the offensive side of the scrimmage line. He was just in time to devise a zone-blocking scheme for star Jerry Azumah. From 1995 through 1998, the speedy back raised the profile of UNH football as he rushed for what was then an FCS record 6,193 yards. There was nothing very fancy about UNH’s approach; they pounded the ball down teams’ throats.
But after the 1998 season, Bowes retired, and in the spring of 1999, the Chicago Bears drafted Azumah. McDonnell took over as head coach, and Kelly became his offensive coordinator. Things were about to change. That August, at media day, McDonnell told reporters, "The thing that has to change this season — and you guys know this — we better be able to pass the ball."
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In one of the first speeches to the offense, Kelly explained his philosophy. "We want to run 80 plays offensively," Kamau Peterson recalls Kelly saying. "If we don’t get to 80 plays, we’ve failed." Remember, this was 1999, long before the proliferation of the lightning fast no-huddle offense.
Brian Barbato, now an assistant coach at UNH, also played for Kelly then. During his senior year at nearby Exeter High School, Barbato’s team ran the old-school Straight-T offense and threw the ball about a dozen times a game. When the lineman got to UNH in 1999, he was, well, overwhelmed. "I was playing center, in the shotgun," he remembers, "saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a second.’" He ended up redshirting his freshman season to catch up.
Ryan Day, a Manchester kid who played high school ball at Central, had been a family friend of Kelly’s for years. The quarterback says that when Kelly got in his face at an early practice, he knew the honeymoon was over. But it was clear right away Kelly wasn’t just a screamer. On Kelly’s first day as offensive coordinator, he taught Day how to quickly determine whether a defense was in an "over" or an "under" alignment. Until that point, Day hadn’t figured it out. "He had a great way of simplifying things for you," Day says. Kelly explained that all his quarterback had to do was find the one player, the "shade," whose alignment changed the configuration of the defense to either the strong or the weak side. "He says, ‘Ryan, all you have to do is find the shade. If the shade’s strong, it’s under, if the shade is weak, it’s over.’"
He knew he didn’t have a huge arm or much speed. But Kelly helped him make quicker on-field decisions. In 2000, Day, a junior, led the Wildcats to a 6-5 record. During the epic win over Delaware, he completed 37 of 65 passes for 426 yards and four touchdowns, including a 53-yard bomb to Randal Williams that sent the game to overtime.
Kelly used his vacations to visit other football programs, picking the brains of coaches, observing closely and borrowing liberally.
Day spent hours in the Kelly’s office, watching tape and discussing strategy. "He would throw the kitchen sink at me every week," says Day, who graduated in 2001 as UNH’s career leader in touchdowns (53) and completion percentage (59.9). "I used to love it." His grade point average, he adds, always rose after football season ended.
For Kelly, class was always in session. "Some guys were going on spring break, and he was going to Wake Forest and Clemson," Day says. Kelly used his vacations to visit other football programs, picking the brains of coaches, observing closely and borrowing liberally. "I got this from Nevada, we’re going to call it Nevada," David Ball remembers Kelly saying at practice after one fact-finding mission. "Here’s the signal, we’re gonna dress it up. We can run it five ways …"
Sure, Kelly made stops at schools like Georgia Tech and Auburn, but preferred programs whose limitations forced them to be creative. "He was never going to Ohio State," Barbato says. "They’re a big FBS school, they have better players than you do. He was going to the Utahs" — in other words — "the teams that were overachieving."
But for all of Kelly’s ingenuity, UNH wasn’t exactly a powerhouse — at least not right away — something impatient Eagle fans might keep in mind. In his first five years as offensive coordinator, the Wildcats finished with a winning record only once. McDonnell says he and Kelly, old buddies, used to argue about the direction of the offense. "You gotta slow down, Chip," McDonnell would tell Kelly. "We’re not good enough defensively. His whole thing was, ‘We’ll score 60.’" Neither realized one day soon that they’d actually have the players to make that happen.
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Barre is a two-Dunkin’ Donuts town in Central Vermont, geographically next to the capital, Montpelier, and in spirit, far away from the more crunchy parts of the state. It's home to massive granite quarries, not posh ski resorts, and working class heroes, not slacker snowboarders. This is where David Ball grew up. In 2002, he graduated from the local high school, Spaulding, where he recently returned to coach and teach P.E.
When he arrives in the gray building’s lobby on a rainy morning in early September, a plastic stabilizing cast prevents him from shaking hands. Chip Kelly is responsible. In July, Ball’s cell phone lit up with a text message. It was from Kelly, and the coach asked if Ball, who’d had short stints in the NFL and CFL, was in shape and ready to catch a few footballs. Ball said yes, and after the two hammered out a few logistical details, Kelly wrote back, "Get out here and ball out. No pun intended. LOL."
Unfortunately, while in training camp with Philadelphia, the receiver mangled his right pinky during a drill. In order to catch the ball after the injury, he had to invert his right hand awkwardly. The damage — a dislocation, torn ligaments and multiple fractures — required surgery. Now he has two pins in his finger. "It was like a bomb went off in it," he says, pointing to his thickly gauze-wrapped pinky.
The team cut Ball in early August, ending a dream that was still alive only because Kelly is now an NFL head coach. At 29, Ball knows he may never get another shot. The consolation, if there is one, is that "his guy" has become a star. "I’m going to watch UNH-style football for the rest of my life," Ball says from his office, which is brimming with VHS game tapes. In a corner sits a pair of Nike shower sandals on which "No. 83," his number in his short time with the Eagles, is written in black marker. "That brings a big smile to my face," he says.
What is rarely mentioned in the standard Kelly biography is that if Ball didn’t end up at UNH, there is a chance Kelly may not be where he is today. Ball had a stellar high school career, but nobody was knocking down his door. He was, after all, from a small town in Vermont, a state not exactly known for the quality of its high school football. Even after spending a post-graduate year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy, where the three-sport star was named the school’s athlete of the year, Ball remained unwanted by a major college program. With few other options, Ball decided to enroll at UNH, and managed to walk on to the football team in the summer of 2003. "I love UNH. I bleed blue," Ball says. "But I fell into their lap."
On the first day of preseason practice, the freshman receiver retrieved a stray football by hopping a four-and-a-half-foot fence from a standing position (Ball still holds Vermont’s schoolboy high jump record). Kelly saw that and became instantly enamored with his new prospect. Ball managed to put together a decent rookie season, catching 38 passes and scoring four touchdowns for the 5-7 Wildcats, but he felt overmatched. "I came out of high school football not really knowing the difference between man and zone defense," he says. "So going into Chip Kelly’s offense, I was deer in the headlights, jaw dropped, cotton-mouthed every time I had to go out and try to pick up on all those damn signals."
If Ball’s arrival was fortuitous, then what happened next, to put it bluntly, was an act of fate. Ricky Santos is well aware of that fact. In the summer of 2004, he started practice as UNH’s fourth-string quarterback. But by the time September rolled around, the third-stringer had quit and the second-stringer had gotten hurt. Just like that, Santos was the backup. Early in the season opener — against defending national champion Delaware, no less — the starter, senior Mike Granieri, tore up his knee. Santos, a scared redshirt freshman from Bellingham, Mass., entered the game and promptly led his team to a 24-21 victory. He even hit Ball for the winning touchdown. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
That season, Santos threw for 3,318 yards and 31 touchdowns. More importantly, UNH finished 10-3 and made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Yet Kelly, Santos now says, was tough on him. In his early days as a starter, he now admits to avoiding the coach’s office. "The first couple years, I wasn’t in there as much as I’d liked because I was intimidated by Chip," says Santos, who’s now an assistant coach at UNH. "He was so hard on some of the young guys, I just didn’t want to get the extra film work because I was going to get yelled at."
Ball, on the other hand, felt that it was his duty to loosen Kelly up. Once, on Valentine’s Day, which happened to fall in the middle of vomit-inducing morning workouts inside UNH’s stuffy indoor track, the receiver left a note and six candy hearts under Kelly’s office door. When the coach emerged, Ball says, he looked like he had been up almost all night. "You always seem to amaze me," he deadpanned. Ball hoped that at least for a moment, he had managed to get Kelly to stop thinking about football.
I would walk by him and I knew damn well in his mind there’s, like, a film session going on.
"There were times I would walk by him and I knew damn well in his mind there’s, like, a film session going on, there’s plays being run," Ball says. "You know, some people took that as him being standoffish. But he’s not." The two had an understanding. "He had a relationship with football," Ball says. "I can relate in a sense."
But Kelly was far from humorless. In November 2005, a nationally televised playoff game against Colgate was delayed by insufferably long commercial breaks. During one extended pause, says former UNH tight end Sean Lynch, Kelly huddled up the offense and, lisp and all, started talking like Lou Holtz. The impression, Lynch says, even included "Holtz" asking, "What’s Chip Kelly gonna run next?" He didn’t know it yet, but soon Holtz and every other football analyst in the country would be expressing that same sentiment.
* * *
With Santos and Ball on board, the offense took off as Kelly finally had the players to execute his innovative approach. Ball finished his UNH career with an FCS-record 58 receiving touchdowns, topping NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s mark of 50. In 2006, Santos won the Walter Payton Award, which is given annually to the best offensive player in FCS football, and the quarterback’s name still dots the FCS record book. He’s fourth all time in passing yards (13,212), third in touchdown passes (123), and — this one surely still pleases Kelly — first in total plays (2,140).
In his final four years as a coordinator at UNH, Kelly’s unit averaged nearly 36 points per game, and starting in 2004, the Wildcats have made the postseason nine straight seasons.
Naturally, success brought suitors. Both the University of Connecticut and the New York Giants reportedly wanted Kelly to join them as an assistant, and he said no to both. Still, he’d come a long way. Only a few years before, in the late '90s, he was receiving and turning down offers to be a head coach at the likes of Plymouth State University, a Division III school about 70 miles northwest of UNH. "I always say to people that Chip made a big mistake," jokes Plymouth’s former athletic director Steve Bamford, "I offered him [$42,500]."
Kelly is a mad scientist, the man who devised football’s best offense at a hockey school.
Like others in the Canon of Football Coaches, Kelly has his own mythology. If Nick Saban is a dictator, Rex Ryan a goofball and Bill Belichick is a genius, then Kelly is a mad scientist, the man who devised football’s best offense at a hockey school. But he likely doesn’t think about it like that. He simply knew how good he had it at UNH. In a profession that offers few chances to cash in, that is rare. "He turned down jobs because he wasn’t going to get that, what’s the word?" McDonnell says, pausing. "Autonomy."
Finally, Kelly relented. In January 2007, Oregon offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, a former UNH assistant who Kelly had flown out to visit the year before, left for Louisiana State University. With a vacancy to fill, Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti, who’d previously made stops at Cal State Hayward and Chico State, pushed for Kelly. At one point, McDonnell says, Kelly asked Bellotti why he’d hire a 1-AA assistant. "Well," Bellotti supposedly responded, "they hired me and I was a Division II assistant coach."
Throughout the excruciatingly long interview process, Kelly kept McDonnell updated. "It’s getting close," he said. "It’s tough." At that point, McDonnell says, "We knew." Then, in early February, Kelly signed a two-year contract worth $200,000 annually. "The way I look at it," Kelly told reporters at the time, "[Bellotti] offered me a full scholarship and I accepted."
In 2008, after a big senior season, Santos began his professional career. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, but was cut and bounced around the Canadian Football League for the next few years before joining the UNH coaching staff this past March. He still raves about Kelly’s tenure in Durham. "I’m sure he went to these Division I programs [to visit] and was saying, ‘They should be doing it more like we do it,’" Santos says. "I’m sure he kept it to himself. But he probably thought like that."
But without Santos and Ball, would Kelly have made it this far?
"That is the age-old question right here," Santos says. "Most likely, but you never know. All that success helped him get the interview at Oregon. Let’s be honest. But why did we have that success? He put us in that position. Chicken or the egg?"
Asked the same question, Ball pauses briefly, and says, "Wow."
Then, after thinking about it for a few moments, he offers this:
"I think that his climb was so fast that I can say I cherish the fact that I was a big piece of that. But I also see the product and know that it was a matter of time. You know what I mean?"
* * *
When Ball arrived at the Eagles training camp this summer, a new teammate approached him and confessed that he found Kelly to be intimidating. Ball’s advice was pretty simple: When you see him, start a conversation. "I need a few months for that," the player said. "I can’t just approach him." But Ball says Kelly hasn’t changed. He’s still the same coach he was at UNH.
Due to his finger injury, Ball’s stay at Eagles camp was brief. But, he says, if that was his last chance at cracking an NFL roster, then he’s fine with it. Kelly — "My guy," Ball calls him — was his coach again. It couldn’t get much better than that. After all, playing for Kelly at UNH was, and likely always will be, the highlight of his football career.
In 2007, Ball, an undrafted rookie, was briefly a member of the Chicago Bears’ practice squad. He never actually played in a game for the Bears, but was allowed to watch from the sideline in sweats. One Sunday, long after the nervous excitement of training camp had worn off, he suffered a minor existential crisis.
"I don’t remember who we were playing," Ball says, "but I was just like, ‘This is hard for me to watch. This is just so different.’"
The plodding Bears offense made him yawn uncontrollably. He wasn’t even tired, but all he wanted to do was go to sleep.
Football without Chip Kelly had rendered him hopelessly bored.
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