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Chip Kelly taking a demotion to get out of UCLA is a gut punch for the Bruins

There are plenty of ways to spin it that Chip Kelly leaving the head coaching position at UCLA to become the offensive coordinator at Ohio State isn’t a sign of the apocalypse for the Bruins.

Kelly is 60 and he's already made a lot of money. Head coaching jobs are a grind. He’s never gotten the program truly rolling the way it was expected. Hired to much promise, his Bruins have gone 35-34 overall, 26-26 in league play over six seasons. It’s possible he was on the hot seat.

Even last year’s 8-5 record — ostensibly OK on paper — was built off a weak non-conference schedule and featured just one victory over a ranked opponent (Washington State).

Besides, being the OC at Ohio State is a pretty good gig, likely to pay close to, if not above $2 million per year. You’re going to win games, coach talent and compete for championships. After being the head coach of Oregon and UCLA in college and Philadelphia and San Francisco in the NFL, that’s not a bad deal.

Still …

When the head coach of UCLA just up and quits to become an assistant somewhere else, it should make you question everything.

After all, the reason Ohio State needed an offensive coordinator is because Bill O’Brien left the job to become the head coach at Boston College. So BC is more desirable than UCLA?

Transitively it now is.

Start with this, UCLA hasn’t been good in a long, long time. This century, the Bruins have appeared in the final AP Top 25 just four times and have zero 10-win regular seasons.

From Bob Toledo to Karl Dorrell to Rick Neuheisel to Jim Mora to Kelly, the school has attracted some talented and accomplished coaches who all thought they could win with the combination of elite academics, prime location, brilliant weather and plenty of local talent.

Instead all spun their wheels.

Now the job will require not succeeding in the Pac-12 where UCLA, even in a cash-strapped program with a home field far from campus, had plenty of built-in advantages. Starting next fall it heads to an 18-team Big Ten juggernaut.

Maybe the competition was too much for Kelly. UCLA jumped to the Big Ten not because it serves its student athletes or goals of fielding winning programs. It did it for the money.

Over the last five years, the UCLA athletic department has posted deficits of $36.6 million (2023), $28.0 million (2022), $62.5 million (2021), $21.7 million (2020) and $18.9 million (2019). Desperate for a lifeline, it jumped to the financial higher ground of the Midwest, where the Big Ten promised massive $60-$70 million annual payouts.

FILE - UCLA head coach Chip Kelly stands on the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Stanford, Calif. Chip Kelly has informed UCLA officials that he is stepping down as coach of the Bruins, a person with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.(AP Photo/Scot Tucker, File)
Chip Kelly posted a 35-34 record in six seasons at UCLA. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The money should help stop the bleeding, but it will take time that Kelly likely didn’t have. In terms of actually winning games? There has been no perceived bump of recruiting or transfer interest in the Bruins since the announced move to the Big Ten. This isn’t going to be easy or fun.

Some of that falls on Kelly — UCLA is still UCLA, after all. He had his moments in recruiting, notably landing five-star quarterback Dante Moore out of Detroit in 2023. Kelly then promptly lost him to Oregon after Moore's freshman season.

Whomever is coming in has to figure out how to change that. A passion for recruiting has to be the key character trait. Kelly’s offense at Oregon was innovative and explosive, and the belief was that he could duplicate what he did with the Ducks if he was given easy access to the athletes of Southern California. Instead he never got it done.

Roster building will have to be everything going forward, even as the UCLA collective will need to work to get up to par with Oregon, let alone Ohio State.

There is still an enormous amount of high school talent in Southern California and just two major programs — UCLA and USC — where they can stay home and play. Getting people to transfer in shouldn’t be impossible.

The unsolvable issue is fan support and the location of the Rose Bowl. It’s a famed stadium in a beautiful location. It's also more than an hour drive from Westwood, which makes drawing students, let alone much of Los Angeles, a significant challenge. Crowds of 40,000 feel empty in that big bowl.

If you are a local kid, it’s true your family will be able to come see you play, but it’s possible not a whole lot of other people will. Unless you start winning.

Still, someone can make this work. There are too many positives. Too many advantages. No, it isn’t perfect but no one in Westwood is expecting a national championship, just an above-average team that might contend every few years for a spot in the new expanded playoff.

Kelly wasn’t going to be that guy. Six full seasons in, that was fairly clear. Change was inevitable and he seemingly knew it. Might as well make the move on his own terms.

It may be jarring for UCLA — UCLA! — to know its head coach would choose to be an assistant elsewhere, but good candidates will arrive, the money will begin to come in, and maybe, just maybe, something can be built, even in the mightier Big Ten.

Maybe.