Originally written on Oregon Sports News  |  Last updated 11/17/14

TAMPA - NOVEMBER 24: Brian Kelly #25 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers makes his first interception of the day and eludes a tackle attempt by Bubba Franks #88 of the Green Bay Packers during NFL action on November 24, 2002 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Bucs defeated the Packers 21-7. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The city of Eugene and much of the state of Oregon let out a collective phew as coach Chip Kelly announced that he would not be jumping to the NFL but had chosen rather to attend to “unfinished business” with the Ducks instead of trying to right the ship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The rest of the Pac-12 probably responded with words I ought not repeat here, thinking they had been rid of that pesky wizard with his five-wide formations and his fourth-down conversions. But these two reactions, love from one’s friends and fear from one’s enemies, testify to the fact that Chip Kelly is a hot commodity right now.

This brings to my mind the fortunes of another Kelly. No, I’m not talking about some lady friend of mine, nor am I referring to Kelly Kapowski, Kellie Pickler, Jim Kelly, Kelly’s Heroes, or my aunt Kelly. I mean Brian Kelly, the head coach of my beloved Fighting Irish.

Now, you might be thinking, “Nick, this is a cheap way to sneak some Notre Dame talk into an Oregon sports blog,” but bear with me. I think some useful insights into the current college football landscape can be gathered from comparing these two men.

First, the obvious similarities: the same last name, the same profession, the same, uh, stout physique. Both were seen as up-and-comers in their previous positions, and both had big expectations upon taking on their current jobs. But they landed in very different circumstances.

Brian Kelly, after a successful stint at Cincinnati which was capped by a BCS appearance, was expected to write the next chapter in one of the most storied programs in college football history: national titles, Heisman trophies, memorable moments, legendary players and coaches. The Gipper. Knute Rockne. Paul Hornung. Lou Holtz. Tim Brown. The Rocket. The Bus. But the echoes had grown quiet in recent years, with the marginal success of Bob Davies, the disaster of the George O’Leary hiring, and the flash-in-the-pan tenures of Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis that featured talent and BCS appearances coupled with bad losses in big games and the inability to get over that hump back into national prominence. Brian had big shoes to fill.

Chip Kelly was following a local legend in Mike Bellotti and taking the reins of a program that had known recent success but was a comparative newcomer to the national stage. Though alumni from Dan Fouts to Haloti Ngata would know NFL success, and the school had reached a No. 2 ranking when Joey Harrington led the team, the program’s national reputation was still largely reduced to “a gimmicky offense and flashy-to-ugly uniforms courtesy of Uncle Phil Knight” and had to hear it from their upriver rivals in Corvallis that, for all they’d accomplished in the last decade, they had a Heisman trophy and the Ducks didn’t. Duck fans clamored to get over that hump into national relevance, and not follow the path of Missouri, Maryland, or Kansas, who might have a fluke season of brilliance and then come back down to their usual mediocrity. Chip had a tall order to fill.

What has been the result?

Brian’s first two seasons in South Bend have been respectable, but not quite up to the hopes or hype that accompanied his arrival. After a promising season last year that featured a victory over USC and a dominating bowl win over Miami, turnovers, inconsistent quarterback play, and a weak secondary this year derailed what many hoped might be a BCS season for the Irish. Kelly has shown the ability to recruit talent on both sides of the both, from speedster George Atkinson III and second-rated quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel to defensive lineman Aaron Lynch and linebacker Troy Nicklaus. Yet that talent, as of yet, has not shown itself to be on par with that of Notre Dame’s BCS-worthy rivals of the last few seasons: Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, and the hated Trojans of USC. But there’s room for hope in South Bend.

Chip has had more immediate success. A championship game berth last year followed by a Rose Bowl win this year has made Chip Kelly one of the golden boys of college football. The team is flooded with talent. No LaMichael James next year? More time for DeAnthony Thomas. Darron Thomas leaving? Time for Brian Bennett to unload with that big arm. The Ducks have shown they can play with the best of the best, even if they can’t quite beat them. But they leave you with the feeling that it’s quite possible that in the not-too-distant future those SEC gents will be on the wrong side of the scoreboard when the Ducks come to town.

So, what was the point of all this jibber-jabber? Just this: if you want to have a winning football program, more important than history and tradition, more important than corporate sponsorships and flashy jerseys, more important than TV contracts and innovative stadiums, is a good coach. If your coach can recruit players and manage games, that’ll get you further than most of the other stuff put together. So hang on to them when you’ve got a good one. And be thankful when they decide to stick around.


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