Eleven years ago college football’s reigning offensive genius, Steve Spurrier, left the Florida Gators for the NFL. Spurrier signed a five year, twenty-five million dollar contract, the most lucrative deal in the history of football coaching at the time, and left Gainesville for the Washington Redskins. Spurrier’s offensive ingenuity forever changed the SEC, and by extension, college football as well. Gone was the ground and pound, three yards and a cloud of dust brand of offensive football. At his apex, Spurrier’s offenses were so explosive that you held your breath every time one of his quarterbacks dropped back to pass.
For years we debated whether or not Spurrier’s offense would work in the NFL.
Until, finally, Spurrier’s own ego couldn’t let him stay behind in college football, he had to try out his offense in the NFL. Spurrier assembled the usual cast of characters — he even brought in Danny Wuerffel to quarterback the Redskins — and proceeded to run up a 12-20 overall record in two years with the Redskins. After just two seasons at the helm of the Washington Redskins, Spurrier resigned, took a year off, and then returned to college football, taking over a moribund South Carolina Gamecocks program and leading them to heights unseen in the history of their program.
Eleven years later, history is repeating itself, another offensive wunderkind, Oregon’s Chip Kelly, is leaving his dominant college offense to take over an NFC East team. This time it’s Kelly heading to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Will Kelly’s offense translate better to the NFL than Steve Spurrier’s did? And if it doesn’t, what college program will be lucky enough to recapture Chip Kelly if he returns to college coaching?
Because make no mistake about it, Chip Kelly is the college coaching white whale now, the first name to be mentioned every time a major college football job comes open. If Nick Saban doesn’t fail after just two years with the Miami Dolphins, Alabama’s dynasty never happens and if Steve Spurrier doesn’t fail with the Washington Redskins, South Carolina’s program never rises to the level it’s at now.
So which college team gets the benefit if Kelly fails?
Here’s an early guess for the Texas Longhorns. Mack Brown’s hanging up the whistle soon, right? He probably has two or three years left at most. If Kelly bombs with the Eagles, Texas will be desperate and loaded with cash. This is the kind of negotiation that makes an agent giddy, a desperate team chasing a winning coach who promises immediate salvation. Texas would probably pay Kelly $7 million a year to leave the NFL and come back to college.
But that’s if Kelly fails.
What if he succeeds? What if Kelly’s the next Jim Harbaugh or Pete Carroll, a college coach who arrives in the NFL and wins multiple playoff games within his first two years? In fact, Carroll’s the easiest analogy to make to Kelly because many will argue that the reason Kelly skipped out on Oregon was similar to the reason Carroll left USC, because of looming NCAA sanctions. Carroll won a playoff game in his first season — granted it was with a 7-9 overall record — and just led the Seahawks to the brink of the NFC title game with a rookie quarterback in his third season as head coach. Meanwhile, Harbaugh is in his second straight NFC championship game in just his second year as head coach of the 49ers.
So much for the stigma of college coaches not being able to win in the NFL.
Now, granted, Carroll and Harbaugh both had substantial NFL experience as both a coach and a player before taking over their newest teams. Much like Steve Spurrier, Chip Kelly has no NFL experience. In fact, Kelly still doesn’t have much major college football experience at all; he’s only been a coach at the FBS level for the past six years. Kelly’s road to head coach of Oregon is an interesting one, perfect an offensive style of football in relative obscurity — Kelly coached at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and New Hampshire before becoming the offensive coordinator at Oregon — and then emerge as a dominant force on the college football landscape.
It seems amazing to say given how dominant his Ducks have been in the past three seasons, but Chip Kelly has only been the head coach at Oregon for four years. After just three years he had NFL offers. So Kelly went from the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire to an NFL head coaching offer in five years.
Think about how crazy this coaching trajectory is. You can make a strong argument that coaching has become a lot like politics, it’s better to have a short but glittering coaching resume than to have a long coaching resume that’s filled with both successes and failures. If you can go from state senator to President in four years, why can’t you go from obscure low-level college coach to one of the top coaching jobs in America in four years as well? I’m not trying to get too political here, I just think it’s interesting how quickly our modern society can vault relatively unknown figures from anonymity to the top of the heap in their chosen professions.
So what changed Kelly’s mind?
Both Kelly and the Eagles may well have watched the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick run wild over the Green Bay Packers and had occasion to reassess their inability to get a deal worked out. The Eagles may have returned to Kelly with more money and more control over the team, and Kelly may have been reinvigorated by what his offense could do after watching Kaepernick’s success on Sunday. Or maybe Kelly was just on the road recruiting and thought, “To hell with this, I can’t beg another 17 year old kid to come play football for me.”
When you’re 24-2 in the past two seasons, maybe you just feel like you’ve accomplished everything that’s possible at your program. Especially if the Eagles, being criticized for a botched coaching search thus far, backed up a dump truck full of cash and kept increasing the pile of money they were offering Kelly.
So now that Kelly’s officially taken over as Philadelphia Eagles coach, he’s on the clock. Is he a college coach who will find the NFL as inhospitable as a previous college offensive genius did, or will he find his niche and never return to the college game?
We’ll see if history repeats itself or not.
In the meantime, there are an awful lot of college football fans rooting for Chip Kelly to fail.
Because he’s college coaching’s newest white whale.