There’s no joy in Mudville.
The news of Chip Kelly’s departure for the NFL reached campus Wednesday, as students slogged to class through frozen mud and frost. Despite the cold, hands stayed glued to iPhones, calling friends to share the news and staying warm with the blaze of tweets chronicling the end of Kelly’s saga.
By 2 p.m., Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens was certain of the outcome: “There’s no doubt in my mind, (Kelly’s) the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.”
With his departure comes the end of the Kelly era — a win-speckled showcase of brains, balls and BCS bowls.
The road that led the New Hampshire native to the West Coast is one full of twists and turns, luck and Kelly’s own brand of risk.
Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti knew he was going to have his hands full with Utah’s Alex Smith.
It was 2003, and the future No. 1 NFL draft pick was making just his third career start for head coach Urban Meyer against No. 25 Oregon. Meyer opened the playbook for Smith that night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, who responded with 340 yards on 25 completions en route to a 17-13 Utah win.
“I knew their offense would be problematic for us,” Mike Bellotti said after the game.
Utah’s offense that night? A crude version of the spread offense Meyer would later perfect with Tim Tebow in Florida.
Intrigued, Bellotti sent coaches to talk to Meyer.
“‘The guy who really knows this stuff is Chip Kelly up at the University of New Hampshire,’” Oregon booster and Nike co-founder Phil Knight recalls Florida saying. “Chip always had an answer.”
In Kelly’s first year on the staff, the Ducks led the Pac-10 in scoring (38.1 points per game) and total offense (467.5 yards per game, the most in the history of the program).
“Make no mistake about it,” Kelly told The Arizona Republic during the Ducks’ run to the title game in 2011. “I didn’t take over a program that was down in the dumps. The cupboards weren’t bare when I became the head coach.”
Much of his success had to do with the culture he instilled soon after joining the team in February of 2007 as Oregon’s offensive coordinator. It was then the ubiquitous “Win The Day” motto originated, gaining traction among players and coaches who gradually bought into the idea.
“To me, it means you take care of what you can control, and what we can control is today,” Kelly said. “I think people too often look way down the road — you know, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to be conference champion, national champion.’ If you don’t take care of Tuesday, that’s not going to happen.”
When Bellotti left the sidelines to take over as athletic director, there wasn’t much discussion over who would succeed him. It was Kelly’s job to lose, and as fans know, Kelly rarely loses.
And all along the way, throughout the uphill climb to national contender, Knight and Nike infused the program with money, glitzy jerseys and hype.
All Kelly had to do was deliver.
His inaugural game as head coach, against Boise State in 2009, didn’t go smoothly. Oregon got crushed. LeGarrette Blount threw a punch. Almost out of the gate, the first-year coach was in over his head.
Analysts questioned his authority. One fan requested a refund for his game ticket.
He handled the potential crisis with his trademark one-two punch of wit and winning, cutting the fan a check for the full cost of the ticket and travel and engineering a seven-game winning streak without the suspended Blount. Oregon ended its year coming up roses, eventually losing to Ohio State in the Ducks’ first BCS bowl game since 2002.
The program’s speed, electricity and penchant for sieging the scoreboard drew viewers from across the country — some of them talented high school football players. Kelly’s riskaholic playcalling featured fourth-down and two-point conversions, trick plays and unconventional, exciting new wrinkles to a game steeped in tradition.
And oh, those uniforms. Nike sprung for new threads every game, giving the Ducks a revolving carousel of greens, yellows, blacks and whites never seen before.
“I loved the uniforms,” said one player before the 2010 Rose Bowl, “and then I got to know more about Oregon.”
That player, LaMichael James, would become Oregon’s first Heisman finalist in nearly a decade.
James led the blur of winning the following year, as Oregon raced out to a perfect regular-season and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, another program first. Of course getting there isn’t the same as winning it — a last-second field goal propelled Auburn to victory — but the school’s exposure in college football’s biggest game led to UO applications rising 30 percent.
The following season, No. 3 Oregon sported its highest-ever preseason ranking. But in the first week of the season, inside colossal Cowboys Stadium, Kelly suffered his first lopsided loss as head coach of the Ducks, 40-27 to LSU.
“Our guys know how to respond to adversity,” Kelly said after the game. “To be the best you have to beat the best.”
The result? Nine-straight wins before a stomach-punch loss to USC on a chilly November night at Autzen.
The hiccup derailed late-blooming title game plans, and the team’s subsequent Rose Bowl win over Big 10 champion Wisconsin felt a little hollow. Yet Kelly had silenced the critics who said he couldn’t win a big game.
The victory over the Badgers also earned Kelly something else — attention from the NFL. For 36 hours in mid-January, Kelly came close to accepting the head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before deciding to stay in Oregon.
Ten straight wins in 2012 had the Ducks soaring. Among the highlights — a vengeful record-setting win over USC courtesy 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns by James’ backup-turned-workhorse Kenjon Barner.
The 17-14 loss down the season’s stretch may be the most heartbreaking loss in program history given the year’s expectations and the nature of the Cardinal’s comeback win. Still, like they’ve done throughout Kelly’s career (which has never seen back-to-back losses), the Ducks rebounded to trounce Oregon State for the fourth-straight year and an unprecedented fourth-straight BCS bowl game.
For fans at the Fiesta Bowl, it felt like Kelly’s swan song. A sense of inevitability pervaded Ducks fans in Phoenix, a wistful acknowledgement it was time to mutually move on. No one was surprised when the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns all clamored for his attention.
Kelly’s trademark spread offense thrives on speed and deception. He employed both when it was momentarily announced, less than a week after the Fiesta Bowl, that he would return for a fifth season. A week and a half later he was introduced as the Eagles’ head coach.
Charles Kelly leaves behind the greatest four years in program history marked by his own indelible brand. Recently, ESPN found Oregon was the second most popular football team among those 17 and under, and EA Sports cited the Ducks as the nation’s overwhelming favorite team in “NCAA Football ’13.”
They say it never rains there, but regardless of who tries to fill his visor, Oregon fans will never forget the four short, marvelous years Chip Kelly reigned at Autzen Stadium.