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The Kelly era at Oregon: BCS bowl games, lots of victories

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT  - NFL talk has been swirling around Oregon Ducks coach Chip Kelly in the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl.GLENDALE, Ariz. — Chip Kelly’s final game with the University of Oregon could be today.

Win or lose in the Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State, Kelly’s final public moments with the Ducks would be spent where he feels most comfortable and with the people who mean the most to him — the guys on the UO football team.

If Kelly bolts for the NFL, he’ll leave a legacy of winning. His record will be 46-7 or 45-8, with four consecutive BCS game berths — not too shabby for a guy nobody in these parts knew about when then-coach Mike Bellotti plucked him from NCAA Division I-AA New Hampshire in 2007 to be his offensive coordinator.

Counting his two years as coordinator, after today Kelly will be a part of 65 or 64 wins in six seasons.

The option to a new career in the NFL is for Kelly to stay and try to lead Oregon to even greater heights — a national championship — and face the possibility of NCAA penalties because of the Willie Lyles recruiting scandal.

Questions about his interest in the NFL ranged from “no” to “not talking about it” to completely dismissing any media inquiries at the Fiesta Bowl with “I think too many people live in the future. We live in the moment. ... My heart is to win the day, that’s it. ... My job is to coach the University of Oregon football team, and I love doing it.”

Charles “Chip” Kelly has been quite a personality in the pantheon of Oregon sports figures. A great football coach. A control freak. A stubborn and blunt individual of the stereotypical East Coast kind.

“Chip puts on a tough exterior that’s hard to get through or break through,” longtime UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti says. “But Chip is really a lot of fun to work for. He’s funny, he’s witty, he keeps things light in the office.”

Aliotti also says Kelly is “very generous,” a trait exemplified by the head coach’s strong support of the U.S. armed forces.

Kelly has a teeming intensity, born from being a football junkie committed to performing his job at a high level. He’s 49 and has never been married — his planned nuptials with fiance Kobi Biagini never went through after Kelly became head coach in 2009 — and he had a huge house built outside Eugene, which, according to various sources, sports only a couch and a TV in the living room. He’s a private individual with close ties to friends in New Hampshire.

Says Aliotti: “Socially, I don’t do much with Chip because we’re in a different place in life. I’m married with two kids. He’s not. ... It’s a lot easier (to coach football) when you don’t have those things going on in your life. Football is his world. That’s why he’s really good at it. ... He’s just a competitor, like a lot of us in this profession. Chip wants to win. Chip’s not going to leave any stone unturned. He’s a good manager of people. He knows how to get to the kids. I just think he’s done a tremendous job.”

Citing Oregon’s offensive statistics and accomplishments in Kelly’s tenure would take a long time. Suffice to say, the Ducks have made 50 points and 500 yards offense look like child’s play. Meanwhile, the Oregon defense has enjoyed its share of success under Kelly, who has adeptly managed his defensive coaches by not micro-managing.

Aliotti says Kelly has maybe “once” mentioned something to him over the headset during games. And, it was something innocuous. Defensive coaches and players know their jobs, which include stopping the opposition, no matter how many plays or minutes on the field it takes.

“Chip has been outstanding to me,” Aliotti says. “He’s given us complete autonomy, which is neat. I would think that’s rare. He’s a smart guy, he knows what we’re doing. He cares about the football team, but his love is in that offensive engine.”

Says linebacker Michael Clay: “If you’re not running to the ball, he’ll chime in. On the defensive side, we know what we’re supposed to be doing. He expects us to practice at 110 percent every day. He gets really excited to see how hard we practice.”

Defensive end Dion Jordan says players know that Kelly’s eyes are always watching them, however.

“He does a great job of motivating players, on the offensive and defensive side,” Jordan says. “Early in the season, Coach Kelly is going to do a lot with us, making sure of his presence on the defensive side. You’ve got to perform. He’s a great guy. He’s a football genius, I think. This is his offense, and he controls a lot of the offense. He could come over on defense and teach us some things, too.”

Kelly’s offense has rung up such huge numbers, it has given cushion for the UO defense over the years. Kelly has focused on the run game with Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, while making stars of quarterbacks Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota and establishing an identity of fast pace, speed and conditioning.

Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, considered to be Kelly’s possible successor as head coach, says he has learned much from his mentor. Helfrich joined the staff upon Kelly’s hiring as head coach in 2009.

One example: how and who the Ducks recruit.

“We have a value system of just never making an exception,” Helfrich says. “So many times in recruiting where we’re talking about player ‘A,’ and he has this and this and this, but he has this (negative) — and the guy’s out. It goes back to our culture. The chemistry and attitude of this football team is incredible. It’s rare. That’s not an accident. That starts in recruiting, not making exceptions. We’re not reform school, we don’t have to deal with (problems). ‘The guy wouldn’t survive in our type of atmosphere.’ ”

Kelly offered Mariota a scholarship before the QB had even started a game at St. Louis High in Honolulu. Kelly witnessed Mariota’s skills and makeup at a UO summer camp.

“Even though a lot of head coaches are not accessible, he’s that type of guy who’s very into his players. That makes me very comfortable,” Mariota says. “You understand he’s behind you.”

Mariota remembers Kelly making the home visit during recruiting, and Mariota’s buddies asking the coach for autographs. “He was a fun guy to be around. Cracked jokes. He was very outgoing, very nice to people around me,” Mariota says.

Barner spent 2008 on the defensive scout team, a redshirting defensive back. He didn’t even know Kelly.

“I promise you, I didn’t,” the senior running back says. “All I knew were the defensive coaches, and Coach (Tom) Osborne and Coach Bellotti. Crazy. I can’t remember any interaction with him.”

Upon Kelly’s hiring as head coach, Barner moved to running back. He has marveled at Kelly’s spread-option offense, which helped make James and Barner two of the greatest running backs in UO history.

How has Kelly changed in four years?

“He doesn’t yell as much,” Barner says. “Coach Kelly is learning how to deal with different players on a different level.”

Indeed, Kelly has dealt with transgressions by Blount, Masoli, James, Cliff Harris and Kiko Alonso, and many more. In emphasizing academics, Kelly often makes class checks on players. His theme throughout: Get with the program, or get out, star or not. He booted Masoli and Harris off the team and moved on. Kelly has been a master of making do with the players available, shooting for the stars in recruiting and missing often — QB Terrelle Pryor and running back Bryce Brown among the many misses — but still producing the four consecutive BCS bowl teams.

It has been a highly dramatic four years with Kelly as head coach — with a multitude of media control measures — and a thrilling six years with the former New Hampshire backup player running one of the country’s most entertaining offenses.

Will the Fiesta Bowl be the end of the Oregon road for Kelly?

“I have no clue,” Barner says. “Like I said when he was talking with Tampa Bay (after last season), Coach Kelly has to make the best decision for him. It’s business. Whatever the best business situation is for him, it’s the decision he has to make.”

As for Kelly’s potential as an NFL coach, Barner adds: “I think he’d do just fine. Everybody questions whether his offense will work in the NFL — he doesn’t have a problem adapting to any situation. When you have the understanding that Coach Kelly has in the game of football, it may take a year, but the adjustment that he makes, it’ll blow people away.”

Would the Ducks promote Helfrich, the Coos Bay native and life-long UO fan who played quarterback at Southern Oregon College?

“Everybody’s talked about that,” Heflrich says, of Kelly leaving and his hiring. “All it is right now is talk. There are so many hypothetical things that go into all that stuff,” such as Kelly finding an optimum job in the NFL, with a good relationship with an owner and general manager.

“I think Chip would be great at Oregon for a long time. I hope he stays at Oregon forever. Um, we’ll see. Obviously, given the success we’ve had, there’ll be (NFL) people interested in talking to him. That’s very understandable. If that’s his hope and dream, that’s very understandable — if nothing else, listen (to NFL teams). We’ll see. We’ll cross that bridge.”

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