Three seasons, 31 games and 1,372 days after he was hired, Chip Kelly may be on the verge of a first at UCLA.
His first nonconference victory.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Bruins 18-point favorites to beat Hawaii in their season opener Saturday at the Rose Bowl, suggesting that Kelly will finally break through after a litany of losses. He's gone 0-6 in nonconference games, including 0-4 against Group of Five opponents, before his team played exclusively a Pac-12 Conference schedule in 2020.
In what might be a more telling assessment of the strength of Kelly's team, UCLA is only a four-point underdog against No. 16 Louisiana State on Sept. 4.
The coach who guided Oregon to national prominence only to commence a 10-21 nosedive at UCLA might be forgiven for his early stumbles in Westwood if the Bruins can start 2-0, portending the kind of dizzying success that was expected upon his hiring in November 2017.
All that matters when it comes to Kelly's future, according to interviews with multiple people familiar with the UCLA football program, is what lies ahead, not the disappointments of 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Fans who were flabbergasted that Kelly parted ways with nearly a roster's worth of players and didn't go back to the blur offense he popularized with the Ducks wouldn't care if he ran the wishbone so long as the Bruins were once again a factor in the Pac-12.
These have qualified as the darkest of ages for a team that has not posted a winning season since 2015. Far more appallingly, UCLA has not won the conference since 1998, which was also the last season in which it appeared in the Rose Bowl game.
Kelly was supposed to change all that, but instead has run a turbo-powered reverse, going 3-9 in 2018 and 4-8 in 2019. The Bruins showed promise in starting 3-2 last season before defensive collapses and fourth-down failures resulted in staggering defeats to USC and Stanford that left the team with another losing record.
To call this a pivotal season as Kelly enters the fourth year of a five-year contract is not breaking any news, except maybe to him.
"I've never looked at it that way," Kelly said Wednesday as he stood on the edge of the practice field, going on to explain how he would continue to uphold his mantras of living in the moment and daily improvement amid the speculation that swirls around his future.
"If you're not process-driven, then you live your life like this," Kelly continued, swirling his hand like a roller-coaster, "and then there's too many ups and downs in your life. … We're all on an internal struggle to become the best versions of ourselves, not looking at the other part of it, and I'm not the only one who talks this way. If you listen to coach [Nick] Saban talk or most people, they're all talking about 'The Process.' You know, we're all outcome-aware but we're not outcome-driven, we're process-driven and it's about the daily things that you do here on a daily basis."
But what happens when your process leads to three consecutive losing seasons?
"Then you just keep driving," Kelly said. "There's been a lot of guys — coach [John] Wooden didn't win his first championship until Year 16, isn't that true? You know, Jimmy Johnson went 2-14 at some point in time, there's ups and downs for everybody in their life, that's what it's all about, but I think if all you concentrate on is that, then I think you're going to lose sight of getting better on a daily basis and the people that I've learned from are extremely process-driven — the Bill Belichicks of the world are extremely process-driven — so I'm not going to veer away from that.
"Just like when we were 46-7 at Oregon, we didn't say, 'Hey, we've got this down. Let's just kick our feet up and not work.' We were process-driven then, so we're always going to be a process-driven operation."
Kelly's successes with the Ducks landed him a UCLA contract that might as well have been negotiated by a fairy godmother given that his $9 million buyout expires on Jan. 15, 2022 — long after the coaching carousel will have made its final turn.
That unusual clause would likely force athletic director Martin Jarmond to get creative if he decided to dismiss Kelly after this season. The hope is that no sly maneuvering is necessary, that Kelly finally delivers on his $23.3 million contract after making $1.21 million per win over his first three seasons.
"I've got two years left and I'm excited about those two years," Kelly said. "We'll take care of business on the field and the rest of it will take care of itself."
The big question: What constitutes taking care of business? Would Kelly's first winning season with the Bruins qualify? Or does UCLA need to win eight or more games, restoring some of the buzz that's been missing from the program since coach Jim Mora's early seasons?
The thought of those around the program who were interviewed is that there is no hard threshold of wins for Kelly to secure his future at UCLA, that trajectory matters and attendance will be as important a factor as the team's record.
Before the pandemic kept everyone home last season, the Bruins had averaged 43,849 fans at the Rose Bowl in 2019, representing a record low at the stadium the team has called home since 1982. Jarmond will presumably be tracking attendance closely given that he was hired in part to revive interest in the program and pull the athletic department out of a $40.6 million budget shortfall.
School officials were encouraged by an open house at the Rose Bowl earlier this month that drew 4,000 on a sweltering day and are giving away tickets to UCLA and high school students for the LSU game, but no amount of freebies will pack the place unless the team wins.
Those who are bullish on the Bruins, believing they could vastly exceed the media projection that they will finish fourth in the Pac-12 South, point to Kelly's having addressed the primary issues that plagued his early UCLA teams. Inexperience is no longer a factor, the Bruins returning 20 starters, including the entire offensive line. Senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is among a handful of players in their third seasons as full-time starters.
The depth conundrum has been solved via the transfer portal, Kelly filling needs with potential all-conference players such as defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight and running back Brittain Brown.
High school recruiting rankings are on the uptick thanks to a younger and more energetic coaching staff that has snagged more four-star players. Defensive line coach Johnny Nansen also helped the Bruins bring in Jay Toia, a highly coveted defensive lineman transfer from USC, after having recruited Toia when Nansen worked for the Trojans.
The defense that was giving up record chunks of yardage in Kelly's first two seasons has been fortified thanks to the arrival of defensive backs coach Brian Norwood and his 4-2-5 scheme. UCLA's defense went from No. 113 nationally in yards allowed per game in 2019 to No. 69 in 2020 and could match what's expected to be a prolific offense with another comparable leap in production this season.
A schedule that includes seven home games sets up favorably early in the season, with the Bruins playing Fresno State at the Rose Bowl following their showdown against LSU. A far more challenging pocket arrives in mid-October, when UCLA plays at Washington and then returns home to face Oregon before going back on the road to play Utah.
Online oddsmakers have acknowledged the not-so-farfetched possibility of UCLA returning to national prominence, BetOnline giving the Bruins 10-1 odds to win the Pac-12 and 20-1 odds to make the College Football Playoff.
A breakthrough would mean that the team's post-practice karaoke sessions and backflips from director of football performance Keith Belton were only a prelude to a season's worth of feel-good vibes.
"This is what we've been building toward," Thompson-Robinson said. "We've been talking about a rebuilding of the program, we've gotten through that rebuilding process and we've built up something special here."
Kelly's future depends on it, an up-and-coming team arriving just in time.