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There is No Winning for UCLA with Chip Kelly
Dan Guerrero's last gift to Bruin fans is a no-win situation with their prime revenue generator.
It’s hard not to look at the current state of UCLA Bruins football and not feel anything except existential dread. Any hope for the 2020 season appears to have been dashed by a 48-42 loss to Colorado in which the Bruins looked ill-prepared to start and lacked any sort of urgency. Colorado was one of only two games that the Bruins looked to be favored in this season. So, losing that game, and in the fashion they did, was a gut punch in so many ways.
The most pressing concern for Bruin fans at this juncture is the continued employment of Chip Kelly. Kelly has now gone 7-18 as head coach of UCLA. In that time, he has overseen a program that has slowly eroded away into a shell of itself. Recruiting is down, on-field performance is stagnant, and the athletic department continues to climb further and further into debt. The nadir of sadness came in the 2nd quarter of Saturday’s game, when ESPN’s sideline reporter did a piece talking about UCLA football’s exorbitant dining options, recently the topic of deep-dive by the LA Times. As the sideline reporter went on, Colorado tore off a solid run to the outside where the Buffalo rusher ran over two UCLA defenders, prompting the ESPN booth to simply laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
At this point, it feels clear that the end of Kelly’s tenure is rapidly approaching, but it leaves UCLA with a huge problem, because there is no clear answer to when that actually should take place.
Let’s consider a statement: UCLA really cannot afford to keep Chip Kelly in charge of the program anymore. We have often been upset about the idea of UCLA being mired in mediocrity, but those days of 6-6 records are quaint compared to the current situation. This is a true mediocrity, especially relative to UCLA historically. According to Simple Rating System numbers, UCLA has posted a negative season rating in the past two full Chip Kelly seasons; Rick Neuheisel was the only other coach to have two negative seasons, and the last UCLA coach to do so before him was Bill Barnes in 1963. The only Blur Kelly brought to UCLA was how fast it was for him to dismantle the program.
There is nothing redeeming about UCLA football at the moment. The offensive system, which Kelly is apparently welded to, does not work with the personnel Kelly has recruited and deploys. The defense has gone through various iterations with no actual success. There isn’t much in the way of player development. If we go further and look at recruiting, where UCLA has slowly lost ground to the rest of the Pac-12, let alone rest of the country. UCLA has only gotten one top 20 recruiting class via 247Sports class rankings under Kelly; the worst ranking Jim Mora ever got was #20 in his last year. Kelly was able to sell the idea of rebuilding UCLA to recruits in the past, but it’s harder to do when recruits can see the product you are currently putting on the field. It is hard to look at the program in its current state and believe Kelly would be able to turn things around in time to give UCLA a return on their investment.
Financially, UCLA is suffering under Kelly. Yes, a lot of UCLA’s current athletic budget deficit is the result of costly buyouts handed out by Dan Guerrero, but revenues from football dipped the past two years as fans stopped supporting a bad program. The deficit is almost assured to grow this year with no fans, but is it reasonable to expect attendance figures to be above even 2018 levels should Kelly remain? Especially if he has another disaster of a season as it appears will happen at the moment? Toss in things like the giant dining cost and the loss of Under Armour (yes the pandemic did not help here either, but you have to imagine Kelly’s historic underperformance played a part in UA trying to get out of the deal) and the choice to cut losses from Kelly feels fairly clear.
But UCLA also cannot afford to fire Kelly at the moment. Again, UCLA athletics is deeply in debt, with a large amount of donor fatigue stemming from two major buyouts in the last three years. It’s hard to imagine donors are clamoring to add a third buyout of $9 million to the books, especially in a year when they are most-likely being leaned on to help cover some of the shortfall from the pandemic. Martin Jarmond may be coming to UCLA with the reputation of being an excellent fundraiser, but even that might be a bridge too far.
Let me be quick to point out that, while we have mentioned the idea of UCLA invoking the force majeure clause to get out of Kelly’s contract without having to pay him, there is no real possibility UCLA would actually go through with it. The force majeure clause is a nuclear option that would have solved UCLA’s Chip Kelly problem, but, with the season now being played, it would be really hard to argue in favor of it.
If anything, UCLA may be forced to hold on to Chip Kelly for four years, if only to prove to their next coach that they are willing to give them the time to succeed. I will be fair here and say that hiring Chip Kelly when they did and for the contract they did was absolutely the correct decision. Kelly was the best potential head coach on the market and UCLA was signaling to the rest of the country that it was willing and able to spend the money necessary to have a winning program. That the results have not born out does not mean that the process was flawed (though there are some parts I can quibble about). If UCLA fires Chip Kelly after four seasons, especially if his current trajectory continues, it would be hard for naysayers to argue that UCLA did not give Kelly every possible chance to succeed. That would set up Jarmond much better for the next coaching search.
But, as I’ve pointed out, keeping Chip Kelly around for another season after this one would….keep Chip Kelly around for the remainder of this season and all of next season, and doing so would almost assuredly dig the hole deeper for the next coach. And so the cycle of when UCLA should fire Kelly continues.
The question UCLA fans were asking prior to this season was whether UCLA could become a good program in Chip Kelly’s third year. That question feels rather answered at this point, and has given way to a more pressing question:
When will UCLA choose to let Chip Kelly go?