You can't fault anyone for pursuing a dream, but Kelly could have exited in a more graceful manner.
A coach who built a 46-7 record with meticulous planning and bold execution pulled a clumsy zone read keeper in the end, negotiating with NFL teams over a long weekend after the Fiesta Bowl win, calling Sunday January 7 to assure Athletic Director Rob Mullens he was remaining as Ducks Coach, then cutting back against the grain to accept an offer from the Eagles today.
The announcement comes just three scant weeks before National Signing Day, and leaves key Duck verbal commits like speedster Dontre Wilson and athletic twins Tyree and Terrell Robinson pulling back to consider other schools. Wilson announced plans to visit Ohio State, while the Robinson twins will entertain offers from USC and Notre Dame.
The linchpin of the class, Aloha running back Thomas Tyner, a 6-2, 220-pound phenom with 10.36 speed in the 100-meter dash, appears to be safely in the Oregon fold after a visit from position coach Gary Campbell early this morning. Tyner's one-cut-and-go running style is perfect for the Ducks, and with Kenjon Barner graduated, they need him. If he does sign in February and stays healthy, he could be a 1,000-yard rusher as a true freshman. He's that good. Indications are he plans to enroll early and attend spring practice.
The Ducks are almost certain to promote Mark Helfrich. He's a sharp, offensive-minded coach with deep Oregon roots, and hiring him quickly and decisively would preserve continuity in both the coaching staff and the UO system and brand. Helfrich might even open up the passing game and entrust more of the offense to gifted sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota.
In his press conference today Mullens stressed firmly that Oregon plans to conduct a national search and doesn't have a leader in the club house, but that's a smokescreen--it's a state school, and the state of Oregon has a strict diversity law that requires state institutions to interview qualified minority candidates for open positions.
There are two excellent ones on the current staff. Don Pellum and Gary Campbell are both highly respected and beloved by their players.
But Helfrich gets the nod here because of his experience as a coordinator and overall grasp of the offensive system. It is a concern he's never been a head coach before and never called the plays, but sources from Nate Costa to Kyle Long to Mariota say he's a bright football mind who will preserve what Brooks and Bellotti built in Eugene and Kelly perfected.
This is a big upheaval at a crucial time. But schools have overcome decisions like this before. Greg Schiano left Rutgers last year six days before NSD. UCLA hired Jim Mora a year ago in December. He pulled together a good recruiting class and led the Bruins to the the PAC-12 South title in his first year.
Even so, the loss of Kelly downgrades the Ducks as national championship contenders and opens up the PAC-12 title race. Rob Moseley pointed out today on Twitter that Las Vegas Super Book moved them from 5-1 to 8-1 on their board.
Kelly excelled at motivating a team and communicating a message to them. The players believed. They committed themselves to his philosophy and spoke with one voice. Considering the Ducks have also lost pivotal team leaders like Kenjon Barner, Michael Clay, and Dion Jordan, there's a leadership vacuum in the locker room, and it remains to be seen over the next six months whether they can adequately fill it.
A great college coach like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban or Chip Kelly is worth two to four wins a season over an average one. Oregon may continue its marvelous run of success, but it isn't a certainty. The facilities and tradition remain. There's plenty of talent remaining in the program, and a tremendous coaching staff.
The question is, who's the best choice to lead them and provide their voice?
It's been a crazy week in sports, and perhaps the chief lesson after Kelly's abrupt, plot-twisting departure, Manti Te'o's bizarre story and Lance Armstrong's belated and long-delayed confession is that sports is no place to search for models or heroes. We admire athletes and their coaches, but ultimately, our inspiration and our values have to come from a deeper place. Sports is a wondrous playground and a great venue for witnessing both grace under pressure and failure to rise to the moment. But ultimately it's a business. And we all have business of our own.