LOS ANGELES -- Beware the kid always seated at the front the classroom. He with his laptop perpetually fired up, who still listens intently and remains frantically scribbling notes into his binder long after everyone else in the room has checked out. The brainiac whose hand is always raised, who causes groaning in the room by saying "One more question ..." and dares challenge the professor, who relishes looking between the lines and reveling in lessons learned through failed experimentation.
Beware that guy, because while you were worried about looking cool and fitting in and making fun, he was busy plotting all the different ways in which he shall attempt to kick your ass.
Beware that guy, the one now dressed in Bruins blue and gold, who isn't talking or fraternizing and who has decided to close the world off to his practices, even to those trying to sneak a peek from the parking deck adjacent to the practice field. Fear the outsider, who clearly does not care one iota of a damn that you think he's kinda weird. Be wary, indeed, because this geek might very well inherit the earth, or at the very least the Pac-12 South.
Beware Chip Kelly. Because he's back.
"The question I'm getting most these days?" the 54-year-old pulls up one corner of his mouth and tilts his head a tad, as if he's about to settle in and spend a few beats gathering his thoughts on the subject. Instead, he ruminates for all of nearly half of a second and then launches into a staccato answer. "People seem to really want to know how I feel about returning to college football. I'm excited to see a lot of old friends. I'm excited for the challenge of seeing how much the game has changed in the five years since I've been gone. I'm excited to coach games at the Rose Bowl all year. I'm excited to see which one of these five quarterbacks we have is ready to take charge. I think what I'm saying is that I'm excited. I'm pretty sure I just used that word six times in the last 10 seconds. Excited. OK, now that's seven times."
He pulls up the other corner of his mouth, completing the smile. No, wait, it's a smirk.
"Are you excited about my answer to your question?" he asks.
The college football world is certainly excited. There's a flair that's been missing from the game since Kelly left Oregon for the NFL in 2013, having just walked off the field of the Fiesta Bowl following another double-digit-win season and a second-place ranking in what appeared to be the final poll of his college head-coaching career, making it a perfect four-for-four in big-time bowl appearances.
The Pac-12 is certainly excited, anxious to return to the College Football Playoff after its second absence in three years. The league is itching to return to the national championship stage for the first time since the Ducks, a team built by Kelly but in the second year after his departure, fell to Ohio State in the inaugural CFP title game.
At UCLA, they are certainly excited. Well, OK, they are as excited as Westwood ever is about football. Forgive the Bruins' fan base for its hesitation. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of its last Pac-12, er, Pac-10, title. Since 1998, UCLA had lost 15-of-19 to USC and sifted through four coaches before landing on Kelly. The last time it played in the Rose Bowl, the No. 1 movie at the box office was "Patch Adams." The last time (the only time) it won a national championship, the buzz in nearby Hollywood was about Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye's newest vehicle, "White Christmas."
The point is, it's been a while. So excuse UCLA fans the "let's wait and see how this goes" approach to their new coach. Kelly, in the meantime, has never employed that strategy a day in his life. Not when he talks. Not when he walks. Not when he's running his legendary fast practices. Certainly not when he's mining the minds of others for football knowledge.
You see, the nerd at the front of the room -- that was not a metaphor. It's all Chip Kelly.
"The first time I saw Chip, it was probably 15 years ago and he was hanging out in our meetings at Oregon, and he looked like a college student cramming for a test," recalled Nick Aliotti, former longtime Ducks assistant coach, now an analyst for the Pac-12 Network. "He's just hammering on his laptop and asking question after question, following us around to ask more questions when our meetings were over. I'm asking, 'Who is this guy?' And they tell me he's an offensive coach at New Hampshire. New Hampshire? I don't know if you're aware of this, but New Hampshire is a long way from Oregon. But there he was, and he'd come out there just because he wanted to learn football.
"Fast-forward to 10 years later and that kid was my boss."
Dozens of coaches dotted all over the football map have similar tales, from Bill Belichick to Mike Leach. Not the future boss part, but of the mysterious floppy-haired New Englander who would show up on his own dime to devour whatever anyone would teach him. To totally nerd out on football.
"We weren't paying him much," longtime New Hampshire Wildcats head coach Sean McDonnell confessed. He first noticed Kelly when he coached against the young QB in high school. "But that didn't stop him from spending every spring driving or flying all over the place, meeting with coaches he'd met during games or at coaching conferences."
"That's how I met Chip and I think that's how we all met him," says Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin, who joins Kelly as part of a gaggle of new faces throughout the Pac-12. "I was at Houston and I get a call from this guy who says he likes what we're doing on offense and he'd like to talk to me about it. Next thing I know, there he is, sitting in Houston with his laptop and asking me questions that made me think, 'Dang, I think this guy has watched more film of us than we have!' You start out sharing with him and he's taking notes. Then at some point the conversation flips and you're like, 'Well, wait a minute, so if you were me what would you do here?'"
That's exactly how he ended up at Oregon. As a high school offensive coach fresh off his stint as a QB-turned-DB at New Hampshire, Kelly cornered and questioned his alma mater's new offensive coordinator, Gary Crowton, at a prep coaches' clinic. They immediately hit it off and from then on, wherever Crowton's career path took him -- Boston College, Louisiana Tech, BYU, the Chicago Bears -- Kelly popped in for at least one week a year to shadow his mentor, hailed around football as a kingpin of the up-tempo offensive movement.
"At UCLA, he has the kind of place where he will be given the time he needs to really build something. Plus, if he loses a game he shouldn't lose but LeBron twists his ankle that same night, he might not even make it into the newspaper the next morning." Washington State coach Mike Leach
In 2005-06 Crowton worked as Oregon's offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Bellotti. Kelly showed up, as always, and blew the collective minds of the Ducks' staff as he quietly added ideas to Crowton's playbook and picked apart Oregon's defensive schemes. Bellotti looked into Kelly's background and found a completely rewritten offensive record book at New Hampshire, where Kelly was now offensive coordinator. He learned about the Wildcats' ultra-fast practices, cramming 100-plus plays into sessions where the norm was a few dozen. Plays on the field, discussion off the field, they all happened as if they were strapped to the rear wing of an IndyCar. He, like all who came into contact with Kelly, was intrigued.
Kelly's spread offense at New Hampshire was different from anyone else's east of the Mississippi, certainly in the northeastern corridor. That was the biggest reason for their success. Oregon also loved different. And it loved moving the football.
In 2007, when Crowton left for LSU, he urged Bellotti to convince a reluctant Kelly to leave his hometown and move 3,200 miles west to Eugene. Less than two years later, Bellotti was calling his bosses at Oregon, informing Phil Knight & Co. that he would accept their offer to become athletic director, and he was going to name Kelly as his successor.
"It all happened very quickly," Bellotti recalled recently. "But we're talking about Chip here, so of course it happened very quickly."
Kelly's four years as Oregon's head coach went by in the blink of an eye. As did his three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and year leading a San Francisco 49ers team that was doomed from the jump. The only season of Kelly's football life that didn't happen at the fastest possible speed was last year. He moved back to New Hampshire and commuted to his new job, two-and-a-half hours south to Bristol, Connecticut.
"I know it goes against my nature, but slowing down for a little bit, that wasn't a bad thing," Kelly said of his time as a college and NFL analyst at ESPN. "Honestly, I think the perspective I gained was something that I needed. As a coach, you get so far inside of everything that maybe you can lose the bigger picture. Watching the game from the studio, that gave me a broader perspective on the sport as a whole. It opened the door to that kind of thinking."
It also reopened the door to boarding airplanes whenever he wanted. For the first time in a long time, Kelly was handed gaps in the calendar that allowed him to rekindle an old habit.
"The phone rang one day and there was Chip on the other line," former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said, laughing. "He was like, 'You mind if I pop in at Texas A&M to watch a little film with you guys?' It was good to see him. And once again, he was like, 'Have you ever thought about trying so-and-so?' and once again I was like, 'Hang on, man, let me write that down!'"
Kelly says that the renewal of his film room pop-in visits, paired with ESPN's endless walls of televisions, bottomless library of games, and rooms full of football guys, helped him take measure of where the college game had moved during his departure for the pros.
"When I was at Oregon, we were the only team with shiny helmets and an up-tempo offense," he said. "Now everyone has shiny helmets and they all run an up-tempo offense. I think it would be easy to become overwhelmed by that. But when you really boil it down, your task when you watch film hasn't changed at all. You are still looking for weaknesses across the line of scrimmage. You are still looking to create problems for the defense through play selection. Just because the game might look different, the goals are still the same. It's still one first down at a time."
Those who worked with him during his TV time say they could see him gaining speed as last season rolled along, increasingly diving deeper into film study. He even arranged for a car service to drive him back and forth through the New England countryside so that he could break down film in the backseat.
During "team dinners" on Friday night, when the cast and crew talked about their families or politics, Kelly might not say 10 words the entire evening. But on Saturdays and Sundays, with games blaring and a newsroom packed with fellow former players and coaches, you couldn't get Kelly to shut up.
"Football is what he does and that's just how that is," said David Shaw, one of Kelly's closest friends, despite being the head coach at Oregon's most consistent Pac-12 North rival, Stanford. "Occasionally he might throw a 1980s movie reference at you. But past that, if you want Chip to talk, then you'd better be talking ball."
That's why he never grants one-on-one media interviews (his quotes in this piece were culled from three days of stalking, punctuated by a handful of pleasant but brief conversations). He hits every media session like a ton of bricks. At Pac-12 media day, he politely skated through eight nonstop hours of questions, deflecting the dullest queries with a smile and a pivot. When asked about his arrival to Southern California being followed by LeBron James and Manny Machado, he replied, laughing: "I appreciate what you're doing with that. I love hearing my name and theirs. Let them know if they'd ever like to stop by the office, my door is open. But that needs to be the last time my name is ever mentioned in the same sentence with either one of those guys."
It's all at once charming and frustrating. Couldn't he be like that all the time if he wanted to?
"Sure he could, and those of us who know him know he's like that more than people probably realize," said one of his up-tempo understudies, new Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, who once ran alongside Kelly and a herd of bulls in the streets of Pamplona, Spain. "But he has a singular focus. He loves football. Maybe more than anyone you'll ever meet. So, if you want to talk football, he's in. Anything else, probably not."
That goes even for guys like Frost, those chosen few whom Kelly considers close friends. They all describe sporadic text message communication that stays focused on football. Even a mentor and former boss like Bellotti, who was in communication with Kelly on a daily basis for six years, confesses he doesn't know a ton about him personally.
Kelly was married once, which coworkers found out about only when it appeared in a story about him. He remains close to his ex-wife, a fact also revealed in a feature profile. At media day, there were whispers about a new wife, especially when he dropped a couple of "we" references when talking about where he's living in Los Angeles, but no one could find out officially if he was indeed married again (he is).
That's not about football. So Kelly reasons it's none of our business.
"He really, honestly, doesn't care what anyone thinks," explained former UCLA quarterback and head coach Rick Neuheisel. "You have to understand how incredibly foreign that is in the coaching fraternity. In this deal, everyone cares what everyone thinks. But he really doesn't. And that drives a lot of those other people in the fraternity a little nuts."
Many believe that's why his NFL tenure was predestined for failure. It is ultimately a copycat league, where habits, routines and playbooks are easily transferred throughout the 32 franchises. Stuff like monitoring heart rates and sleep hours, overhauling the cafeteria menu and hurrying up practices while implementing goofy training gadgets -- all of which Kelly unleashed in Philly -- was never going to fly, even after the Eagles flew into the playoffs in his first season. When he consistently tuned out the criticism that came with all of that, those who flung the words were offended at his lack of being offended.
But many also believe that all of the above is why UCLA might be a perfect fit, certainly much more so than the other job offer Kelly was closely connected to over winter, the Florida Gators.
In Gainesville, everything the head coach does is a big deal, whether it's game-planning, getting married or his favorite place to grab a barbecue sandwich. In Westwood, hiding in plain sight is not a difficult task. Even the still-new $75 million Wasserman Football Center blends seamlessly into the middle of campus, tucked between palm trees, Pauley Pavilion, an on-campus hotel and a vine-draped parking deck.
"At UCLA, he has the kind of place where he will be given the time he needs to really build something," said Leach, who joked about his relief that the Bruins don't appear on Washington State's regular-season schedule for a few years. "Plus, if he loses a game he shouldn't lose but LeBron twists his ankle that same night, he might not even make it into the newspaper the next morning."
Kelly has already rankled some by closing practices to the media, as well as shooing away any onlookers loitering on the top shelf of that parking deck. They would also like more definitive answers as to which one of those five quarterbacks is most likely to emerge as the starter. And whether those mechanical butterfly wings on coaches' backs are to bat down passes during practice.
The nerd doesn't have time to deal with that. Or us. He's too busy.
"There's one big truth to the game of football," Kelly said. "Your approach might be different or how you run practice or how your team dresses or whatever. But no one will care about any of that stuff if you win. You win by working hard. And anyone who knows anything at all about me, they can never say I don't work hard."