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Chip Kelly his own man while building Ducks’ dynasty

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, at 11:28 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

— Chip Kelly bristled at some of the questions being thrown his way during Monday’s Fiesta Bowl media day.

Flippant to some, out-and-out annoyed at others, ask him about the NFL or his future as coach of the Oregon Ducks and risk his wrath.

But the questions don’t stop, and neither does the speculation that Kelly will leave Eugene after the most successful four-year stretch in the program’s 113 years.

Kelly is getting paid $3.5 million this year to coach football — which he does as well as anyone in the country — and, to some extent, face situations like the one he found himself in on Monday, as seven NFL coaches were handed pink slips and his name quickly popped up as a candidate to replace Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Pat Shurmur in Cleveland.

His take on the goings-on isn’t complicated, but is as telling into who the man is as anything he says the entire time.

“If you were worried about what other people think of you, it means you value their opinion more than your own,” Kelly said. “I don’t pay attention to that.”

• • • 

Kelly approaches his job with a simple philosophy — enjoy what you do and you’ll never feel like you’ve worked a day in your entire life.

“It’s special to be able to do what you love every day,” Kelly said. “Because of that, it doesn’t feel like work. I don’t take that for granted.”

Kelly grew up in Manchester, N.H., and went to work for Columbia University as the secondary and special teams coach for the freshman team immediately after graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1990.

The job paid $4,000.

“I never had that light-bulb moment where I knew that (coaching) was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Kelly said. “I knew I really enjoyed working with other coaches and the collective process that went into getting a team ready. I thought that was unique from the very beginning.”

Kelly’s career ascension over the next two decades was methodical — and successful — as he moved up to coach outside linebackers and safeties on Columbia’s varsity the next season, back to his alma mater for one year coaching running backs, then to defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins for one season and back to New Hampshire in 1994, where he was eventually named offensive coordinator in 1999.

In his eight seasons leading the offense, New Hampshire averaged more than 400 yards of offense and 30 points seven times.

In 2004, New Hampshire broke 29 school records. In 2005, the Wildcats finished second nationally in total offense (493.5 yards per game), third in scoring (41.7 points) and fifth in passing (300.1 yards).

By that point, Kelly’s reputation was growing and he was attracting national attention for his interpretation of the spread offense — a frenetic, up-tempo pace that resembles more of a fast break in basketball then a football team trying to move the ball up the field.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti hired Kelly as offensive coordinator in 2007 and the Ducks instantly flourished, leading the Pac-10 in scoring and offense for two season before Bellotti became athletic director in 2009 and promoted Kelly to head coach.

Up until this point, Kelly’s role in the program had been centered around his ability to coach football — not his personality.

That would change after his first game, a season-opening loss at Boise State in which running back LeGarrette Blount sparked a national controversy when he struck Boise State linebacker Byron Hout in a postgame skirmish on the field.

In the days after the game, an Oregon fan sent Kelly a letter demanding he be reimbursed for his travel costs to the game.

Kelly sent the fan a personal check for $439.

“It wasn’t for publicity,” Kelly said. “Old news.”

The Ducks went on to win the Pac-10 title that year and made it to the Rose Bowl — the first of four trips to BCS games, including a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the 2011 championship game.

The Ducks were one loss away from playing in the title game this year — just like K-State —losing 17-14 to Stanford on Nov. 17 in Eugene.

“We understand if you lose once, you’re out of it,” Kelly said. “The regular season is your playoffs ... maybe you can find your way (into the title game) if someone stumbles, but the one time we’ve went undefeated here in the regular season, we played for the title.

“We try to approach every game the same way, and that’s making it as big as we can. People might laugh and joke about us doing that, but that’s our approach. That’s what works for us.”

• • 

Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich is a patient man, but even he began to grow weary of questions about Kelly’s future this week, turning to a stock answer after awhile.

“Chip is not gone, he’s right here,” Helfrich repeated. “He’s in the Valley of the Sun, he’s coaching the Fiesta Bowl.”

And Helfrich, like Kelly’s players, have a fierce sense of loyalty when it comes to their coach.

“(Kelly) loves Oregon football, he loves his players,” Helfrich said. “I don’t think people get that.”

Kelly has never addressed the NFL rumors to his team — he turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last January in the weeks after the Ducks beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

“I never said a word to our guys about it,” Kelly said. “They understand what the task is at hand. They don’t think about it, so....”

What the players do think about when it comes to Kelly is defending his legacy, of making sure anyone that asks them know where they stand when it comes to their coach.

“Four BCS games in four years, winning, innovation, teaching us about how to be successful in life,” said Oregon senior guard Ryan Clanton said. “That’s how he should be remembered.”

Reach Tony Adame at tadame@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6284.

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