The coach walked onto UCLA’s practice field, just days before the big rivalry game, and sidestepped questions about his fate.
“The noise, I don’t control,” he said. “My focus is my players and their well-being and teaching them how to move through adversity.”
The coach insisted he had not heard any call for his job.
“I don’t know that there is,” he said. “I’ve not read one article, I’ve not been on the website, I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t watch TV, so I would not have a clue what’s going on outside these walls. If there’s speculation, I don’t know about it.”
The coach said his players were the only thing that mattered.
“My job is to make sure that these young men are prepared on Saturday to do the best they can,” he said.
The year was 2017. The coach was Jim Mora.
He was gone four days later, Mora’s dismissal after six seasons coming only hours after the Bruins lost to USC at the Coliseum.
Chip Kelly sounded an eerily similar refrain to his predecessor Monday when asked about his job status after a second consecutive loss dropped his record to 33-33 near the end of his sixth season, far worse than Mora’s 46-30 record.
“You need to focus on what you can control,” Kelly said, “and what you can control is having a good Monday and keeping your players focused and keeping your staff focused on what we have to do.”
Did Kelly hear the boos that filled the Rose Bowl last weekend at halftime and early in the fourth quarter?
“Not at all,” Kelly said. “And when you’re in the game, I don’t think you hear that and I don’t worry about that.”
Did Kelly fear that history could repeat itself and he might be coaching his final game Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum when UCLA (6-4 overall, 3-4 Pac-12) faces USC (7-4, 5-3)?
“No, not at all,” Kelly said. “My concern is playing USC, so that’s all we focus on. We always talk about being the most prepared and the least distracted, so anything that’s not the next upcoming opponent is just distracting us from what our job is, and our job is to take care of what we’ve got to do this week in terms of our preparation for a really good football team.”
Preparation was not among the Bruins’ strengths last weekend during a 17-7 loss to Arizona State that might have emptied any remaining goodwill in the Kelly-should-stay reservoir. After his team struggled to shut down the Sun Devils’ funky swinging gate plays, which overloaded offensive lineman on one side of the field, Kelly said he had prepared his team for a formation that his opponent previously used.
Around that same time, Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham told reporters that he had installed the swinging gate in practice last week after watching YouTube footage of Utah running the formation in the 1970s. And Bruins defensive back Alex Johnson acknowledged that the swinging gate “caught us off guard a little bit” after the Sun Devils’ 250 yards were more than triple the 83 they had managed the previous week against Utah.
Kelly was unwilling to reflect on a record that includes no bowl wins and record-low home attendance, even if the Bruins need just one more victory to finish a third consecutive season with a winning record.
“When we get into weekly things,” Kelly said, “our focus is who we’re playing this week, so we don’t take a big macro look at where we are or what we’re doing from that standpoint, I don’t think you have the time.”
Unless UCLA athletic officials have already made the decision to move on from Kelly, they face a conundrum centered on priorities in addition to the prospect of paying a roughly $9-million buyout barring a negotiated reduction.
Kelly’s supporters can point to the “books and ball” culture he has instilled, good citizens and high academic achievers lining the roster. Kelly also hit a home run with the hiring of defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, who has fixed the one nagging issue that plagued the Bruins over Kelly’s first five seasons.
Kelly’s detractors can counter that the Bruins’ offense has curiously cratered with the team’s quarterback shuffle and a lack of imaginative play-calling. Kelly’s refusal to promote the team’s name, image and likeness efforts that are the lifeblood of recruiting and roster retention could lead to diminished talent in seasons to come. And the “championships” that Kelly mentioned in his introductory news conference haven’t materialized, UCLA’s best finish being a tie for second in the Pac-12 South in 2021.
A reporter’s final attempt to get Kelly to assess his performance with a little levity was similarly rebuffed.
Reporter: “Big-picture wise, how do you feel you’ve done at UCLA?”
Kelly: “Again, I’m not a big-picture guy. My focus is on USC.”
Reporter: “But I am, so I’m asking the question.”
Kelly: “I think I’ve done great.”
Reporter: “Based on?”
Kelly: “Based on your big picture.”
Reporter: “What about your small picture?”
Kelly: “My small picture is we’re focused on this week and I think that’s what you have to do.”
About a minute later, having responded to the final question, Kelly walked away, the answers to his fate left to somebody else.