Commentary

Kelly runs emotion gamut in first game

Originally Published: September 9, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Ivan Maisel was embedded with Oregon coach Chip Kelly for the Ducks' entire time in Boise.

BOISE, Idaho -- Oregon coach Chip Kelly did not wait for the Ducks to finish filing into their cramped, cinder-block locker room at Boise State on Thursday night before he called for them to gather. Kelly stood on the edge of the scrum, dwarfed by the muscular young men in his charge. With metal lockers and open showers, the acoustics would have driven a sound engineer to find another line of work. Kelly couldn't have spoken calmly if he'd wanted to.

Kelly
Eric Evans/Oregon Athletics Chip Kelly's postgame message rang loud and clear in the Ducks' locker room.

He didn't want to.

It would have been one thing to lose 19-8 and look bad doing it. But that wasn't Kelly's only problem. Senior running back LeGarrette Blount had gotten into some sort of fight after the game. Kelly didn't know what had transpired, only that Blount had lost his head.

"We all feel the same way," he began. "We're going to stick together. Everybody has to understand that. We're going to have days when things don't go your way. But you're going to learn to fight through those situations and understand when we face adversity, we have to learn to play with emotion and not let our emotions play with us."

Kelly began to illustrate that last remark. The timbre of his voice rose. If his tongue had a tachometer, it would have been red-lined. At times, he spoke so fast he bordered on unintelligible. Once, his voice cracked, the way a voice does when the throat swells and the tear ducts flood.

"It's a long-ass haul!" Kelly shouted. "And it's a freakin' hard game! And if you can't face adversity, then you can't play this game! It will test you to the bottom of your soul! But you better learn to fight back and rally around the guys in this room. And we're going to be OK. ... One loss does not define this football program! And one loss does not define you as an individual!"

One loss does not define this football program! And one loss does not define you as an individual!

-- Chip Kelly

Kelly began to address the fight. He didn't know that Blount had responded to the taunting of Boise State defensive end Byron Hout by coldcocking him, or that Blount, on his way back to the locker room, had to be restrained from going after fans behind the south end zone. But Kelly knew enough to access his inner drill sergeant.

"That stuff after the game," Kelly said, "I will be able to take care of that tomorrow. That's not how we play! That's not what we do! That's not how we represent this university! Is everybody clear on that?"

"Yes, sir!" the players cried in unison.

"Is everybody clear on that?" Kelly repeated, a little more insistently.

"Yes, sir!" the players shouted.

"When we lose, we lose with pride, and we do it the right way!" Kelly screamed. "We ain't going to be a bunch of spoiled kids [who], when we get beat by somebody ... we're going to fight back after the whistle. You guys fight for 60 minutes before that s--- starts. Does everybody understand me?"

"Yes, sir!"

"If you don't buy into it, your ass will be done. I'm telling you that right now. We have a good football team with a bunch of great kids in this room, and we will continue to fight! This game will not define us! What we will find out is what type of character we have, whether we bounce back from this. Does everybody understand me?"

"Yes sir!" the Ducks cried.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Eric Evans/Oregon Athletics Nothing could prepare Kelly for what he experienced in Boise.

Kelly capped that volcano of emotion and stepped outside the locker room to meet with the media. He never raised his voice in 15 minutes, never let on that he had just chewed out his team. He spoke in his New England-fast, just-the-facts monotone, repeating several times that he had seen neither the punch nor the replay that played -- and played and played -- on the Bronco Stadium video board.

When Kelly concluded, he walked toward the stadium in conversation with Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti. By the time Kelly returned to the locker room and showered, the locker room had emptied.

"Well, that wasn't a lot of fun," Kelly said. "That's not in the manual. We lost to a ranked team on the road, and a player fought. Not good."

Kelly blamed himself and his coaching for an offense that did not make a first down until the third quarter. He talked about the pain of losing. And as he finished putting on his suit and packing up, Kelly said, "When you win, you get 24 hours. When you lose, you get 24 hours. You feel bad for a day."

Not with this loss. Not with this fight. The rise of Kelly, 45, from obscure FCS assistant to Oregon head coach had a storybook quality about it. But an evening that began with such promise ended with a harsh reminder that plays, games and coaching debuts are not scripted.


Kelly gained so much respect in two seasons at Oregon that few people questioned his ability to make a smooth transition. In 2007, Kelly turned a former minor league baseball player named Dennis Dixon into a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback. The Ducks climbed to No. 2 in the polls before Dixon tore his ACL at Arizona late in the season. Last season, Oregon led the Pacific-10 Conference in scoring, rushing and total offense.

Nevertheless, Kelly's promotion to replace Bellotti came as a surprise. For one thing, Kelly says he never pined to be an FBS head coach. He had come to Oregon after 13 seasons as an assistant coach at New Hampshire, an FCS power.

"It just happened," Kelly said of his promotion. "My goal is to enjoy the job that I have."

For another, in a business of career climbers, Kelly's outlook puts him in the minority of assistant coaches.

"I spent many hours talking to Chip about where he may end up," New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano said via e-mail. "I remember like it was yesterday that he said he'd probably like to be a head coach at a place like [Division III] Williams because he really respected the intelligence of those kids. Yet he is one of the most fierce competitors that I've ever known."

Kelly
Eric Evans/Oregon Athletics Kelly took over for Mike Bellotti (right), Oregon's all-time winningest football coach.

Kelly arrived at Oregon as the youngest assistant on a staff full of veterans who had worked for Bellotti for years. Fewer than 24 months later, Bellotti designated the new guy as his successor.

The woods are filled with staffs where one assistant gets promoted and eight others get angry. But five of Kelly's colleagues stuck around to work for him.

Asked why, secondary coach John Neal said, "Because he's that good, and if you don't know it, you're an idiot. He's made a difference in our program. Not just X's and O's. His people skills. He's a dynamic personality. He's extremely smart. ... The right guy at the right place at the right time."

Kelly's lack of public ego is ideal at Oregon, where the head football coach will never be the demigod that he would be at one of the SEC football factories.

He doesn't want to be a public figure. He wants to coach football. Becoming a head coach means giving up some of the former to become the latter.

"You can't be a selective participant," Kelly explained. It is a lesson he imparts to his players. Everything matters. At 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, fifth-year senior tight end Ed Dickson walked into the offensive meeting room at the hotel. Kelly accosted him.

"What is our one rule?" Kelly asked.

Dickson, eyes wide, replied, "Be on time."

Trap sprung.

"You're five minutes early!" Kelly said. He grinned and extended his right arm up to Dickson's shoulder. Kelly may be the Pac-10 leader in shoulder clasps. Dickson smiled and relaxed.

I love LeGarrette Blount. What I told LeGarrette when we met together is I don't want people to see the LeGarrette Blount that they saw last night. That's not him.

-- Chip Kelly

"But you were nervous," the coach teased.

Kelly walked out, then returned. Blount, one of the last players into the room, was carrying three bags of spicy nacho Doritos. "Got to take care of my RBs," Blount said.

Blount, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior, figured to be one of the Ducks' most potent offensive weapons. He rushed for 1,002 yards and scored a league-high 17 touchdowns last season, all without starting a game.

The offense studied Boise State video. A few minutes in, a Broncos defensive back was poised at the line, ready to blitz.

"You can stay up on those, LG," said Kelly, using the team's nickname for Blount. "You're bigger than he is. Shoot, you keep eating those Doritos, you'll be a noseguard."

Sarcasm is Kelly's métier, and he is a master. But Kelly prefers to pat butts, not kick them. The message that he delivered to his players in the 24 hours leading up to the game remained constant: Do not play out of fear. Don't be afraid to be special.

"I don't want kids to be afraid of making mistakes," Kelly said Thursday afternoon. "I've learned that as I've gotten older, that sometimes they are more scared of the coach getting mad at them for making a mistake than they are just going to play. I think you have to hold them to a very high standard. Sometimes their standard isn't as high as your standard. But you also have to know that they're human, and they're not trying to make mistakes. And I want our players to understand that, especially in a game like this. We're such a young team. Just go out and play. Cut it loose."

After the pregame meal and before the team's final meeting at the hotel, Kelly met with the coaches to go over who would play. He started with running backs coach Gary Campbell.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Eric Evans, Oregon Athletics Kelly's first season as Oregon's OC in 2007 produced the highest-scoring team in history. The team broke the record the following season.

"Make sure the big man knows," Kelly said of Blount, "that he will get a ton of carries, but he's probably coming out the second play. He'll be in [play] one, out two, in three through seven. ... I guarantee he'll be tired by the end of the night."

In the locker room before the game, Kelly stood in the middle of his team and said, "We got nothing to do but play our style of football."

He brought up Boise State's home record of 64-2, best in the FBS during the past decade. "We accept the challenge, from the opening whistle to the last whistle," Kelly said.

At the end, when the Ducks gathered for their break chant, Kelly shouted the questions. The team shouted its answers.

"What are we?"

"Fast!"

"How do we play?"

"Hard!"

What do we do?"

"Finish!"

In fact, the offense never got started. Oregon gained 14 yards in the first half. A young offensive line opened few holes for the running game. Blount got tackled in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter that extended the Broncos' lead to 10-0.

As the offense sputtered, and Boise State went ahead 19-0, Blount's ton of carries never materialized. He did convert a two-point conversion in the third quarter after the Ducks' lone touchdown.

In the fourth quarter, on third-and-3 at the Boise State 24, Blount gained 2 yards. On fourth-and-1, Blount never made it to the line of scrimmage. The 1-yard loss left him with minus-5 yards on eight carries.

And as the world became aware, Blount didn't respond well to it.


The team plane landed in Eugene after 2 a.m. Friday. Kelly reached his office by 7 a.m. An hour later, the videos arrived at his desk.

"I had the TV feed from the Oregon Sports Network, then I watched a copy of what ESPN had," Kelly said Monday. "After I watched the whole thing, he wasn't suspended for the punch. It was the combination of the whole thing."

Kelly met with Bellotti, then with university president Richard Lariviere. He went over the incident with several assistants, including wide receivers coach Scott Frost, who had escorted Blount off the field and, along with police and stadium personnel, helped to bear-hug him away from the altercation with fans.

"And I met with LeGarrette," Kelly said. "I wasn't going to make the decision before talking with everybody that could let me know what transpired and how it transpired."

Was there anything Blount could have said that would have changed Kelly's mind about suspending him for the season?

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Eric Evans/Oregon Athletics Kelly spent eight seasons as the University of New Hampshire's offensive coordinator.

"No," Kelly said, "but it's only fair. There could have been a mitigating circumstance. I wanted to find out, Was there something that I was unaware of?"

At 1:30 p.m. Friday, Kelly and Bellotti sat in front of a news conference to announce the suspension. Blount may remain in school, receive on-campus counseling and participate in practice, if he so chooses.

"I love LeGarrette Blount," Kelly said Friday. "What I told LeGarrette when we met together is I don't want people to see the LeGarrette Blount that they saw last night. That's not him. That moment last night will not define him as a person. We'll provide him with instruction if that's necessary for him to succeed. He's going to practice with this football team. He's going to get student support services. He's going to go to class. ... If this is a teachable moment for him, then he can bounce back."

In essence, Kelly decided to kick Blount's butt and pat it at the same time. The coach placed a foot at each end of the spectrum of punishment. Blount may not play anymore at Oregon, but Kelly is doing everything he can to help him.

Kelly publicly thanked Monday all the people who have been in contact with him. He has named only former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, former NBA player Kermit Washington and Miami head coach Randy Shannon.

"I wanted to give him support and tell him, 'Hey, you're not the only one who went through it,'" Shannon said Tuesday morning. Shannon served as the Hurricanes' defensive coordinator in 2006 when the team engaged in a midgame brawl with players from Florida International.

"When these things happen, it's out of frustration," Shannon said. "You have to remind your team, 'It's one game. It's not a conference game. You have 12 more games to play. You lose and keep going. If you put yourself in that situation, you embarrass yourself, your mom, your dad, your university and your teammates.'"

Shannon and Kelly have never met.

"It's hard to coach these days," Shannon said. "I told him, 'Whatever you need, I'll be there for you.'"

Kelly didn't want to address what Shannon or anyone else said to him. In four days, he received an education that it takes most coaches years to accumulate. It's not something that he would wish on anyone. But you can't be a selective participant.

Blount attended practice Tuesday in street clothes. He watched his teammates prepare to play Purdue on Saturday.

On Thursday, a few hours before the game, Kelly began to describe how much he loves to coach. "I get irked when [a coach] tells me he's grinding," Kelly said. "You know, 'This head coach really makes us grind.' Seriously? You're watching video! In an air-conditioned room! We're griiiinndding."

By Monday, Kelly looked and sounded as if he had been grinding. Or ground down himself.

"We all need to move on," he said.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com