LOS ANGELES (AP) — Chip Kelly seemed a bit surprised by the standing ovation from hundreds of UCLA fans and boosters when he walked into the upscale club room at hallowed Pauley Pavilion to become the Bruins’ new head coach.
“Not a lot going on in LA today?” Kelly asked with a grin.
Kelly was the biggest show in Hollywood on Monday, and UCLA is betting big on the former Oregon coach’s ability to transform its up-and-down program into a must-see attraction.
The most coveted coach on the college football market formally accepted his new job with quiet confidence, declining to make any vows about winning Pac-12 championships or national titles. Instead, Kelly began his tenure by expressing respect for his predecessors at UCLA — and not just in the sport that he fundamentally changed with the Ducks only a half-decade ago.
“If you’re a coach, the unofficial mentor of probably all coaches is the great John Wooden,” Kelly said. “I think every coach that has ever put on some shoes and grabbed a whistle and got out and tried to educate young men and women has learned from his Pyramid of Success. And to be at the same campus where he affected so many people and still affects so many people is really, truly an honor.”
UCLA hasn’t won a conference title since 1998, but this sleeping giant of a football program is wide awake following a double jolt of excitement in the past few months.
After opening a $65 million training center on campus earlier this year, the Bruins landed Kelly with a five-year, $23.3 million deal to replace Jim Mora. Kelly’s courtship and arrival generated enormous excitement among the school’s large fan base, including a group that paid to fly a plane above Westwood with a banner welcoming Kelly to town.
UCLA’s pursuit of Kelly was led by a small group of well-heeled alumni including Troy Aikman, the former Bruins quarterback who won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Aikman, who won a share of a Pac-10 title in 1987, is among many Bruins who have long believed bigger things should be happening at UCLA, which posted winning records in only seven of the previous 14 seasons before the current 6-6 squad.
“Conference championships are great, but I want us to compete for national championships,” Aikman said. “We’re on a national stage. Obviously, that’s not going to happen every year, but you want to at least be in contention and playing at a high level. I look at the Alabamas and the Ohio States. ... To me, there’s no reason why UCLA can’t be one of those teams.”
Kelly’s stellar reputation in the college game wasn’t diminished by his firing from two NFL teams over the past 23 months. After a year off from coaching in which he dabbled in broadcasting, Kelly said UCLA enticed him back into coaching with its combination of a West Coast location, institutional prestige and fertile resources, particularly in recruiting.
“I think if you’ve been around long enough, you can trust your gut,” Kelly said. “I was fortunate that I didn’t have to take a job, but if I was going to take a job, it was going to be the right job.”
Kelly met with the current Bruins on Monday morning, and he has communicated with every assistant remaining from Mora’s staff. Interim head coach Jedd Fisch will remain in charge of the Bruins (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) through their bowl game next month, Kelly confirmed.
Fisch took over last week after Mora’s firing and led UCLA to a victory over California to secure bowl eligibility for the fifth time in Mora’s six seasons. Mora went 46-30 and twice tied UCLA’s single-season wins record during his tenure, but the Bruins slumped badly late in his tenure, winning just 10 of their final 27 games.
Athletic director Dan Guerrero’s department must pay Mora more than $12 million not to work there. This level of financial largesse hasn’t always been normal at UCLA, particularly in football — but the school’s lucrative deals with Under Armour and other corporate partners have created new expectations.
“And frankly, what’s going to help is the expected spike in season ticket sales that we expect from our fan base,” Guerrero said. “This was a hire that we hoped would energize our fan base, get them excited. They need to step up and to help us build this program. There have been spikes already that we’re very pleased to see, but of course it’s a long process and we’re hoping that we get a lot of folks who may have dropped off back into the fold.”
Guerrero already has seen a major spike in donor interest, yet Kelly’s salary won’t match the $6 million per year committed to Dan Mullen by Florida, which also pursued Kelly aggressively last week.
“I think Chip will tell you it’s really not all about the money for him, and that worked well for us,” Guerrero said.