Connecting the dots from Urban Meyer to UCLA

Have you grown weary of the many rumors that have linked former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer to every Power Five head coaching job in the country?   So have I.  But, what if there is one that has an actual, traceable path?

Of course, it would be foolhardy to predict Meyer to UCLA based on what we know right now, but there are dots from one to the other and those are what I want to look into today.

Before we could crown Meyer the King of Sunset, we would first have some work to do because UCLA already has a head football coach and he has somewhat of a legendary reputation of his own.  When the name Chip Kelly is mentioned, everyone knows who he is so we can’t just plug in a bright new legend without first dispatching the old.

Kelly made his way into football history by singlehandedly changing the way the game is played—at all levels. He came to UCLA amid head nods and fanfare from boosters, fans and alums, including legendary UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman who heralded Kelly as a “great hire”.

Besides having one of the best college coaching win percentages, Kelly had a reputation as a pioneer, an outlier, and somewhat of an enigma.

When asked why he recruited size over agility he said, “Because big boys beat up little boys.”  When asked if he was a good coach, he reiterated the wisdom of Bill Parcels:  “You are what your record says you are.”  And if you asked him if he gave a damn about your opinion, he would answer, “I’m the wolf. You’re the sheep.  You figure it out.”

The hiring of Chip Kelly at UCLA was considered a master’s stroke for athletic director Dan Guerrero who was still red-faced after firing feud-infused Jim Mora.  Guerrero needed a winner and he needed one fast.

He also needed a savior because Bruin blue was burning red and sinking under a godawful load of debt, a load so big that it could no longer be hidden and in February of this year, it was exposed in this excellent piece by John Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.

In Mora’s contentious final years, attendance at the Rose Bowl began to dwindle and Guerrero had no hope of saving his sinking ship without a hero who could put the Bruins back into the national spotlight.  If Kelly did his part, fans would return, income would soar, and no one would discover the massive financial problem that Guerrero had overseen.

But, fans haven’t returned because Kelly hasn’t come close to producing a winner.  In fact, Kelly’s first season finished 3-9 and was the lowest winning percentage of any UCLA football team since 1971.  Last year, the Bruins were better but by just one game.

Guerrero was never going to fire Chip Kelly despite the Bruins starting the 2019 campaign 0-3 with two losses to Mid Majors and a humbling beat down at home by Oklahoma.

Five days later, Guerrero announced his retirement and scheduled it for the end of the academic year.  Two days after that, the Bruins overcame a 32-point second half deficit to stun nationally ranked Washington State.  The Bruins would go on to lose five more games including three in a row to end the season and create speculation that Kelly wouldn’t make it to Spring drills.

Some analysts have pointed to a common clause in coaching contracts that says coaches can be fired anytime they are unable to fulfill their duties as head coach for 60 days or more and that the virus lock down has kept Kelly from his duties for longer than that.  I doubt UCLA would dare to invoke that clause but it does raise the reminder that his future at UCLA is tenuous, especially with a new athletic director coming to town.

So that brings us to the dots—why Kelly might be fired and how Meyer is linked to UCLA.

  • Just this week, UCLA announced that its new athletic director is Martin Jarmond, the youngest athletic director in the Power Five.  He had been in the same position at Boston College for three years and before that, he was deputy director of athletics at Ohio State.
  • Boosters and fans have “donation fatigue”.  If Jarmond is to access that donor base, he must put a winner on the field.
  • Jarmond raised $150-million in his three years at Boston College and he fired multiple coaches who couldn’t keep pace including Steve Adazzio who had been head football coach at the school for seven years and had a winning record.
  • After firing Adazzio, Jarmond needed very little time to name a successor. The replacement he hired is Jeff Hafley.  Jeff Hafley spent 2019 as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
  • When Jarmond was  deputy athletic director at Ohio State (2009-2017), he was part of the decision-making team that hired a new head coach in 2012.  That head coach was Urban Meyer.

Those dots don’t yet have enough substance for anyone to predict that Urban Meyer is coming to UCLA, but they do have enough to alert us to that possibility and to keep our eyes open as the Jarmond era gets underway.

In another odd twist, Chip Kelly’s first job as a college offensive coordinator was at New Hampshire.  His first quarterback was Ryan Day.  Day is now the head football coach at — yup — Ohio State.  Both had attended the same high school, Manchester Central (New Hampshire) and both became stars on the football team although Kelly graduated before Day arrived.

Chip Kelly at 17.  High school star of football, track, and two state championships in hockey. (Imagine: Chip Kelly on skates.)

Kelly has sometimes been called “the mad scientist” of college football.  He created the blur offense that surprised college football and led Kelly-coached teams to astounding offensive statistics and a 46-7 record at Oregon, his first head coaching stint.  He is credited with being the sole creator of the zone blocking scheme during his time at New Hampshire.

Chip Kelly not only changed football at all levels, but he did it at a hockey school.

But maybe the college football world has caught up him.  Now, everyone runs tempo.  Everyone knows the details of zone blocking.  Kelly is still an excellent football coach, but he no longer possesses the advantage and magic of innovation.  His students have become the masters and the Magi of Manchester may have lost his wand.

For Kelly to escape the Jarmond hatchet, he must win at least eight games this season and he must reverse lackadaisical recruiting in the two years since his arrival.

But, what are the odds that he will do either?

He has a decent chance of getting to eight wins since his crossover schedule against the PAC-12 North consists of Washington State, Oregon State, and California.   However, he might not make it past 10-10-20 because three of his first five games are on the road against bowl teams—Hawai’i, San Diego State, and Arizona State.

Our Savvy Index tells us that UCLA is 126th in the nation for two-year recruiting momentum.  Things took a significant turn upward last week when he signed four-star athlete Devin Kirkwood who had offers from many Power Five programs including Notre Dame.

Kelly won 46 games at Oregon while losing only seven.  So far, he’s only won seven games at UCLA while losing 17.  Can he turn it around in Westwood?  Until 10-10-20 comes and we know for sure, we’ll just have to settle for the words of the magi himself:

“You are what your record says you are.”

If you’re looking for more sports, please visit our friends at Oregon Sports News.

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