UCLA remained in a holding pattern with Chip Kelly on Friday while he pondered interest from Oregon as well as from the Bruins, who are believed to want to retain the coach who has guided the team to its best season since 2015.
Kelly is among the candidates the Ducks are considering, according to multiple people familiar with the search who were not authorized to discuss it publicly, as they seek to replace Mario Cristobal after his departure for Miami (Fla.) earlier this week. A report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday said Oregon would announce the hiring of Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning as the Ducks’ new coach as soon as Monday, but several other news outlets disputed that account.
Even after posting an 18-25 record that is the worst four-year stretch for any UCLA coach, Kelly is considered desirable because of his ability to construct offenses that are among the most prolific in the nation. The Bruins averaged 36.5 points this season, leading the Pac-12 Conference and ranking No. 16 nationally.
Kelly also has UCLA on the upswing after posting a better record each season, going from 3-9 in 2018 to 4-8 in 2019 to 3-4 in 2020 to 8-4 in 2021. If the Bruins defeat No. 18 North Carolina State (9-3) in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Diego, they will have nine wins for the first time since going 10-3 in 2014.
The flip side is that UCLA has not defeated a team with a winning record this season and has not seriously contended for the Pac-12 South title since Kelly’s arrival. The Bruins finished in a tie with Arizona State for second place in the division this season but only after winning their final three games.
Oregon doesn’t need to be sold on Kelly’s potential. The Ducks enjoyed four of their greatest seasons in school history under Kelly, going 46-7 and appearing in four major bowl games before he departed for a far less prosperous stint in the NFL.
A return to Eugene would allow Kelly to leverage Oregon’s stockpile of talent while reuniting with longtime friend and billionaire Phil Knight, who is widely believed to possess considerable sway in guiding the Ducks’ coaching search.
But there would also be significant concern about Kelly’s ability to sustain the recruiting pipeline Oregon built under Cristobal as well as his inability to preside over successful defenses since coming to UCLA.
The Bruins’ losses to Fresno State, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah this season largely resulted from a defense that gave up 26.8 points per game, ranking No. 75 nationally.
It’s nothing new. The Bruins’ defenses surrendered an average of 34.1 points in 2018, 34.8 points in 2019 and 30.7 points in 2020, leading to widespread calls for the dismissal of defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. Kelly has remained loyal to Azzinaro, who has followed Kelly to every coaching stop since serving as his defensive line coach at Oregon starting with the 2009 season.
For Kelly to remain at UCLA, he would presumably need to agree to an extension of the contract that is set to expire after the 2022 season. Kelly’s reciprocal $9-million buyout ends on Jan. 15, 2022, meaning he could leave after that date without compensating UCLA as long as a new agreement elsewhere was not put into place.
Whatever Kelly decides, he will inhabit a drastically different Pac-12 coaching fraternity after USC snagged Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley in a bold move that could quickly transform the Trojans’ sagging fortunes, and Washington hired Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer in another potential upgrade.
Both Oregon and UCLA have strong incentive to get the situation settled quickly with the early signing period set to begin Wednesday. The Bruins’ 2022 recruiting class, which includes five four-star players, is currently ranked No. 4 in the Pac-12 by 247 Sports.
UCLA is scheduled to hold bowl practices Saturday through Monday, though Kelly will not be made available to the media.
Sam Yoon, an offensive tackle from Los Angeles Loyola High who intends to sign with UCLA on Wednesday, said Bruins coaches had not addressed the uncertainty surrounding Kelly in their most recent correspondence with him.
One way or another, the situation doesn’t figure to remain in doubt much longer.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.