Chip Kelly had one giant factor working in his favor in any calculus of his performance: Going back nearly a century, UCLA had never fired a football coach at the end of a season in which the Bruins beat rival USC.
Some left, sure.
Red Sanders died of a heart ailment after beating the Trojans. Terry Donahue retired. Dick Vermeil took a job with the Philadelphia Eagles. Tommy Prothro took a job with the Rams.
Kelly will lead UCLA into the Big Ten era in 2024 after bringing the Victory Bell back to Westwood earlier this month, according to one person with knowledge of the situation not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The retention of Kelly nearing the end of a sixth season in which he’s posted a .500 record with no bowl victories will not be met with universal support. One fan said he had hired a plane to fly a banner over campus Tuesday morning that says, “READ THE ROOM — FIRE CHIP KELLY.”
According to Michael Peters, the UCLA fan who helped raise $2,060 for the roughly 30-minute flyover, the banner refers to Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond’s “read the room” response on social media to a fan who wanted Kelly fired after the USC game.
“We are flying it to show our discontent with the Chip Kelly tenure, which has been a failure,” Peters told The Times. “He’s been at UCLA and has gone 34-34, poor recruiting, zero donor interaction and the list goes on.”
The Bruins’ 38-20 victory over the Trojans at the Coliseum was the highlight of a largely disappointing season in which the team continually shuffled quarterbacks and went 7-5, losing its final two home games to underdogs Arizona State and California. UCLA’s loss to the Golden Bears on the day Kelly turned 60 left the teams in a tie for seventh place in the conference standings.
After touting “friendships, relationships and championships” at his introductory news conference, Kelly has never come close to recapturing the glory of his 46-7 record at Oregon nor won a conference championship, finishing as high as a tie for second in the Pac-12 South in 2021. UCLA can get its first bowl victory under Kelly next month, most likely in the Los Angeles Bowl or the Independence Bowl as part of a postseason schedule that will be announced Sunday.
Kelly, who is under contract through the 2027 season, will make $6.1 million next season, with a small raise to $6.2 million in each of the following three seasons. His buyout drops to zero on Dec. 16, 2025.
Kelly’s selling points didn’t change amid a down season. His “books and ball” culture prioritizing academics, high character and a businesslike approach to football has won widespread praise. The Bruins’ sports science program is among the finest in the nation, the team feeding its players lavishly and making sure they are properly hydrated. Heart monitors prevent overexertion in practice.
But several questions are sure to follow Kelly into the Big Ten. The coach who revolutionized offenses at Oregon ran a reverse when it came to productivity this season, the Bruins scoring seven points in each of their last two home games.
Fielding a strong defense after five seasons of dreck on that side of the ball could not elevate the team after the departure of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. UCLA repeatedly changed quarterbacks before settling on Ethan Garbers, who went down with an apparent arm injury on the opening drive against Cal. With backup Dante Moore continuing his seasonlong struggles, the team’s sluggish offense in a 33-7 loss prompted boos from the crowd.
Kelly won’t be able to ease his way into the Big Ten. UCLA’s 2024 schedule features a murderer’s row of opponents including Oregon, Penn State, Washington and USC in addition to a nonconference game against Louisiana State.
The Bruins also will need to replace a considerable amount of talent, considering the likely departures of edge rushers Laiatu Latu and Grayson and Gabriel Murphy for the NFL in addition to several other mainstays on defense who have no more remaining eligibility. Wide receiver Kam Brown and hybrid receiver-running back Keegan Jones also announced Wednesday that they would enter the transfer portal as graduate transfers.
UCLA’s 2024 recruiting class that is ranked No. 56 nationally by 247Sports.com does not include one player receiving four stars. Kelly’s best hope is to bring in another massive haul of talent through the transfer portal, though his efforts could be complicated by his minimal efforts to enhance the team’s name, image and likeness endeavors before appearing in a video released after the team’s recent victory over USC.
Kelly’s successes in the transfer portal have not fully offset his failures in high school recruiting, particularly along the offensive line and at kicker. The offensive line gave up six sacks against Cal and kicker Blake Glessner missed a 23-yard field-goal attempt, the Bruins’ ninth miss in 17 tries this season.
Kelly’s loyalty to beleaguered defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro was among the primary reasons the Bruins sputtered in Kelly’s first three seasons, going 3-9, 4-8 and 3-4. Azzinaro was finally replaced after his defense was the main culprit in UCLA’s losses during an 8-4 season in 2021.
By the time Kelly hired D’Anton Lynn to revive the defense before this season, Thompson-Robinson’s departure had left the Bruins with a massive hole that Kelly was unable to adequately fill with the kind of dual-threat quarterback that makes his offense hum. UCLA averaged 25.8 points this season, tied for No. 77 in the nation.
Interest in the program also cratered. Under Kelly, UCLA posted the three worst average home attendance figures since the team started calling the Rose Bowl home in 1982, including a record-low 41,593 in 2022. Tarps were placed in each end zone to mask the sight of a half-empty stadium. Attendance rebounded slightly this season to an average of 47,950.
Given one more college try, Kelly will get another chance to live up to his championship pledge.