UCLA coach Chip Kelly has been called a football savant, a man whose offseason hiring was considered a pivotal moment for the Pac-12 Conference as it tries to repair its flagging national image.
Reality is this: Kelly hasn’t won a regular-season game since Christmas Eve in 2016, when he was coaching in the NFL and his San Francisco 49ers edged the Los Angeles Rams 22-21 in the city where he now resides, breaking a 13-game losing streak.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Washington Huskies at the Rose Bowl, this revolutionary coach previously known for the hurry-up offense and hurry-up results is 0-4 in his new job—the Bruins’ worst start since 1971. Combine this current misery with his single-season 49ers stopover, and he’s lost 17 of the past 18 games he coached.
Yet Kelly remains the most visible, discussed and mysterious coach in a league full of vanilla personalities. He’s a sarcastic, intelligent, controlling and secretive football leader who doesn’t give a whit how he’s perceived. He mixes an aloofness with the occasional witticism, imitating a poor man’s Bill Belichick. Once landing in Westwood after mulling coaching offers from Florida and elsewhere around the country, he described his eventual employment decision as “Chippy goes to Hollywood.”
Kelly was near unbeatable at Oregon, finishing 10-3, 12-1, 12-2 and 12-1 and earning a promotion to the pros, but has been a pushover so far at UCLA. Unlike Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who was visibly upset last weekend after dropping to 0-4 in his debut season, the new Bruins leader stoically goes about his business while waiting for things to swing in his favor. In last Friday’s 38-16 loss at Colorado, he sent 21 freshmen and redshirt freshmen onto the field and his body language never changed when the game turned on him and got out of hand. He’s guided by an unflinching approach.
“I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say,” Kelly once said.
His followers seem willing to cut him a lot of slack in this harder-than-envisioned rebuilding project. It’s still fair to ask, as the losses have piled up from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Los Angeles—he’s 8-27 since 2015—whether Kelly represents a once-trendy coach whose time has come and gone.
Have defenses become more sophisticated and figured out his up-tempo attack? Can he find another quarterback as talented as Marcus Mariota to pull the trigger for him? Can he win again?
While all that plays out, Kelly joins a UCLA football coaching fraternity that’s often leaned to the complicated side and been full of unusual characters. He’s attempting to turn things around while his two coaching predecessors handle national broadcast roles and can sit in studios and grade his efforts.
Kelly inherited the Bruins job from Jim Mora, who was fired last November after six seasons, a day after losing to USC 28-23. The first four years were successful, the last two a struggle. Mora compiled a 46-30 coaching record, 2-2 in bowl games. He now works for ESPN2, as a Saturday college football studio host—filling a job previous held by Kelly, who took a year off from coaching.
Mora, of course, previously coached in the NFL with Seattle and Atlanta and played college football for Washington. In 2006, while still with the Falcons, he went on a KJR radio show and made his employers somewhat uncomfortable when he jokingly said the following about someday coaching the Huskies, “If that job’s open, you’ll find me at the friggin’ head of the line with my resume in hand, ready to take that job. … I don’t care if we’re in the middle of a playoff run, I’m packing my stuff and coming to Seattle.” Ironically seven years later, Mora had just completed his first season at UCLA when the opportunity arose for him to return to the UW and he very publicly said he would stay put with the Bruins.
Mora inherited the UCLA job from Rick Neuheisel, who was fired in 2011 after four unproductive seasons at his alma mater, two days after getting embarrassed 50-0 by USC. He was a favored son, a fairytale Bruins walk-on quarterback who worked his way into the lineup and became the 1984 Rose Bowl MVP. Neuheisel, who compiled a 21-28 record, was hired by UCLA six years after getting fired at Washington for his involvement in an in-house NCAA tournament betting pool. He was extra cocky—“Scoreboard, baby!”—and took chances in finding success with the Huskies; he toned down his act in a big way with the Bruins and became too predictable and didn’t win. Neuheisel currently serves as a Saturday college football studio analyst for CBS-TV.
Before that, the Bruins answered to the coaching likes of Karl Dorrell, Bob Toledo, Terry Donahue, Dick Vermeil, Pepper Rodgers and Tommy Prothro. UCLA grew impatient and fired Dorrell and Toledo. Donahue, UCLA’s longest-serving coach, retired after 20 mostly successful seasons. Vermeil and Prothro left for the NFL, Rodgers for Georgia Tech.
Kelly joined the Bruins at a time when a program milestone cropped up that the school won’t celebrate in any fashion. When the new leader opened camp this past August, the moment coincided with the 60th anniversary of the death of Henry Russell “Red” Sanders—a man known as UCLA’s most successful football coach.
Sanders coached the Bruins from 1949 to 1957 and compiled a 66-19-1 record. He won a national championship with an unbeaten team in 1954. He guided UCLA to a pair of Rose Bowl appearances. He received a 10-year contract, a new Cadillac and a booster-big-ticket birthday dinner. Unfortunately, he met a scandalous end.
On Aug. 14, 1958, sixteen days before welcoming his team back to fall practice, Sanders turned up lifeless and shirtless on the floor of a room at the Lafayette Hotel in Los Angeles. The coroner ruled that he died from a heart attack. Sanders was 53.
Ernestine Drake, a blonde woman in her 30s, a flowery dress and high heels, casually sat in a chair near the coach’s body when police arrived and described herself as a model but she was found to be a prostitute previously arrested in Beverly Hills. The room was rented to one William T. Grimes, who described himself as a friend of the coach but had served prison time at San Quentin. There was nothing innocent at all about this setting.
News of Sanders’ unseemly death covered much of the front page of the Los Angeles Times the next day, overshadowing reports of a Dutch airliner crash in Ireland that killed all 99 people on board. No one could rightly explain the married coach’s impulsive actions without being shocked or snide about it.
Sanders was replaced at UCLA by his lead assistant coach, George Dickerson. After a 1-2 start, Dickerson suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. The job went to the next assistant up, Bill Barnes, giving the Bruins three head coaches within a month on their way to a 3-6-1 record.
Kelly might agree that an 0-4 start at UCLA isn’t so bad after all. Things could be worse, much worse.