clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a wild week led to Chip Kelly to Florida making perfect sense — and yet none at all

The former Oregon coach has always seemed like a pipe dream. But what if he isn’t?

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Kansas State Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Since Sunday night, when Yahoo! Sports writer Pete Thamel reported that the Florida Gators’ search for a new head coach had reached a stage such that “a thorough vetting has begun” in regards to former Oregon and NFL head coach Chip Kelly, the Florida fan base has been all but hyperventilating about the possibility.

Monday brought Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin seeming to respond to that report with a tweet quoting Mark Twain.

Early Monday afternoon, Florida alum and agent-turned-sports lawyer Darren Heitner, whose tweets about Florida “working hard” on a buyout for McElwain prior to the Gators’ game against Georgia kicked that weekend’s speculation about McElwain’s future into high gear, “confirmed” that Florida “is looking at” Kelly, sketched a timeline, and spilled some tea about Florida’s working relationship with uberagent Jimmy Sexton.

Later in the day, Stricklin responded to someone tweeting at him to notify him of a message board posting suggesting that Kelly’s hiring was “basically a done deal,” but that Florida had to get NCAA approval for the move, and that former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was interfering with the Gators’ coaching search by pulling strings for Charlie Strong.

That message board posting was, in case you’re curious, a complete fabrication by a troll masquerading as an insider — if, admittedly, a clever one. It played on the layman’s ignorance of what Kelly’s NCAA punishment actually was and into paranoid beliefs that Foley’s brilliance ended where Florida’s football program began and that his meddlesome hand is still present in the Florida athletic department, while also being just vague enough to capitalize on the smoke around Florida and Kelly and previous posting history to confer a veneer of legitimacy.

Stricklin, who said in his October press conference announcing that Florida and McElwain had agreed to part ways that it would not be practical to respond to all rumors, felt compelled to respond to a tweet in which someone tagged him and requested Kelly be hired and said “Foley shut the hell up and go eat some PB&J with your buddy” — meaning notorious sandwich maker Jim McElwain. And that raised some eyebrows, both for seeming to throw water on talk of Kelly being vetted and for deigning to respond to a message board-based troll.

That a Florida fan could deliberately and successfully troll the more excitable and gullible members of the fan base so easily says plenty about both how people can be jerks and how people who want to believe can be deceived.

But that was only the beginning of this week’s speculation about Kelly and Florida.

Tuesday brought another dispatch from Heitner, who told the world he was hearing that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would not prevent Florida from hiring Kelly.

That doesn’t really capture the nuance of the SEC’s new rule governing coaching hires, though, so CBS Sports columnist Dennis Dodd waded into the mix to explain that the bylaw in question merely requires a school hiring a coach involved with a prior “major violation” to have its president “consult directly with the commissioner prior to offering employment to the coach,” and does not specifically give the commissioner the power to approve or deny such a move. (Basically, the rule seems to me to exist to shift the public relations burden of defending potentially problematic hires onto the schools rather than the SEC.)

And before that post was published, some enterprising folks used the flight-tracking website FlightAware to discover a flight plan from Gainesville to a Connecticut airport ... which led to speculation that Florida officials would be flying to Connecticut to meet with Kelly — currently an ESPN analyst, and thus plausibly located somewhere near ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut campus on Tuesday — or accompany him back to Gainesville for a press conference.

But then we learned that Stricklin wouldn’t be heading out on that flight, as he was going to speak at a reception for a women’s basketball game happening on Tuesday night, and we saw that Stricklin was speaking to a class on campus when he should theoretically have been jetting off to New England.

Tuesday’s speculation about a press conference or an announcement to coincide with the College Football Playoff rankings reveal show ended with Associated Press reporter Mark Long — who is viewed as close to the UAA — issuing a report throwing water on that idea, and also a report of a “deal in place” with specific terms disclosed put forward by a subscription site.

But then there was Wednesday, and a whole new round of speculation — fueled in part by a different subscription site’s assertion that November 15 was an important date for Florida’s search.

Heitner shared a new update casting Kelly as a primary Stricklin target — and Steve Spurrier as a possible impediment to Florida’s search...

...that Spurrier(‘s Twitter account, in words that sound very unlike the words Spurrier says out loud, but whatever) knocked down...

...after Stricklin used a GIF from one of the worst movies ever filmed — I’m told; I’ve never seen it, thank goodness — to tell everyone to settle down.

But Stricklin’s salvo and Spurrier’s statement — and an article from The Gainesville Sun reporter Robbie Andreu with quotes from Stricklin and “a source close to the search” saying almost precisely what Long reported Tuesday night — came after former Florida golfer and assistant golf coach and avid Twitter user Josh McCumber alerted the world to a UAA jet leaving New York, leading the Florida fan base’s best gumshoes to find a live YouTube feed from a camera at the Gainesville Regional Airport and watch it for any sign of Kelly or Kelly-related people deplaning.

That effort was mostly a bust, with the feed producing no clues other than an orange-and-blue golf cart and eventually leaving those watching after sunset seeing only the reflection of an office, but a separate video purporting to be from yesterday surfaced mysteriously on YouTube later that afternoon, and showed five people — four men and a woman — getting off an Embraer Phenom jet with livery matching the UAA’s private jet.

Late Wednesday, one Florida-focused blog reported that the jet came from Teterboro Airport — famously one of the New York area’s most popular airports for the private jet set, thanks to its proximity to Manhattan — and that one of the people on that jet “sure looks like” prominent agent David Dunn, whom you may recall that Heitner claimed was Kelly’s agent.

That tentative ID, it may not surprise you to learn, turned out to be in error, with both Only Gators’ Adam Silverstein and Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples noting on Thursday that the person being misidentified as Dunn was actually UAA pilot Scott Bedner, and Staples further asserting that Dunn wasn’t any of the other people, either, and no personnel from Dunn’s Athletes First agency were actually on that plane.

Staples also helpfully provided a better understanding of how coaching searches actually proceed than the one offered by someone who wrote something wrong for a blog no one reads.

To put what Staples said differently: Florida’s coaching search is not likely to involve a coach or that coach’s representatives coming to Gainesville unless there is something to sign and/or something to announce — because, essentially, Muhammad must go to the mountain.

UAA personnel could certainly have traveled to New York or New England to speak to Kelly or his reps — and one of the people in that deplaning video, which I watched a few times before it was yanked down from YouTube, does bear a significant resemblance to UAA associate athletic director Laird Veatch to my eyes. But the idea that Florida would fly agents and/or an agency to Gainesville when the agents and/or agency hold the leverage in the negotiation ignores both Florida’s public pursuit of Jim McElwain in 2014, which featured a UAA team led by Jeremy Foley flying to Colorado, and the simple fact that it’s Florida that is (theoretically, at least) pursuing Kelly, not Kelly pursuing Florida.

But who cares about logic? There was a live stream of the Gainesville Regional Airport to watch, and there was a seaplane on the tarmac, and now there was an Embraer Phenom with identifying details blocked — as is true of the UAA’s planes — on its way to somewhere in the Northeast.

Florida is probably not announcing Chip Kelly as its head coach today, not with less than a full working hour left in the day and a men’s basketball game on tap for tonight. In Stricklin, Florida has a savvy athletic director who knows better than to burn his first hiring of a football coach at Florida on a late-afternoon or early-evening press conference.

And I think Stricklin knows better than to announce that coach, whomever it ends up being, on a Friday prior to a game against UAB — one that Florida might well lose — when the alternatives are waiting until next week and generating a full week of publicity or waiting until season’s end and getting buzz that cannot be harshed by the team on the field losing.

But it has always made sense for Florida to pursue Chip Kelly — in 2010 or in 2014 or in 2017 — because Chip Kelly has a proven track record of being wildly successful in college football.

Kelly went 46-7 at Oregon in four seasons, for a .868 winning percentage better than literally every great and long-tenured coach in college football history save Knute Rockne. His teams never won fewer than 10 games. His offenses were pyrotechnic and his direction of them was unorthodox and bold to the point of arrogance in a way that struck many Florida fans as reminiscent of Steve Spurrier despite actually being more indifferent to convention than most of Spurrier’s work. He had Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota committed to Oregon at the same time — and while one of those future Heisman Trophy winners didn’t end up with the Ducks, the other one did, becoming the most beloved player in school history.

The drawbacks of Kelly the coach are only so worrisome, too. What Kelly did and did not do as an NFL head coach matters, but only to an extent — especially because much of what seemed to submarine Kelly in the pros was an obstinacy and insistence on control that works better with college programs than more empowered professional athletes, for better and worse. Fretting about Kelly’s offense losing some of its potency as football shifted toward it, figuring out how to mimic and counter it, can be defeated by the hope and/or belief that he’s smart enough to change in return as a college head coach.

And, put simply, there’s no coach that Florida fans would be more overjoyed for their beloved Gators to hire in 2017 than Kelly — who, even if he probably just noses out Spurrier in that regard for some, has every single important characteristic and qualification most fans are looking for on his résumé.

It’s possible that Kelly might not work out for Florida over an actual tenure happening in the real world, but his hiring would happen before that tenure would would -- and it would unquestionably be perceived as a grand slam on an enormous swing by Stricklin, something Florida could certainly use.

With Kelly also being out of coaching right now, a potential hiring can happen at any point at which he and Florida come to an accord. If Florida wants Kelly, there’s no need to wait for a season to end out of deference to another school, no buyout to negotiate around, no players in another program to consider when plotting a coach’s departure. The timing is right, right this moment, for Kelly to be vetted, targeted, negotiated with, and hired.

All of this makes sense.

Except, well: Kelly might not make sense for Florida.

The conventional wisdom among observers of Florida as run by Jeremy Foley was that Kelly was a non-starter for Florida in 2014 not merely because he was working as an NFL head coach at the moment but because he ran afoul of the NCAA while at Oregon.

For those who don’t recall the details of that scandal involving a team from the Left Coast that happened more than five years ago, a brief refresher: In 2011, a recruiting reporter in Texas tipped off Yahoo! to the existence of Willie Lyles, a 7-on-7 coach and operator of a scouting service and mentor and fixer for talented football players in the Lone Star State, prompting Yahoo! investigators to uncover evidence of Oregon — and other schools, eventually — paying Lyles for his services. An NCAA investigation was opened into that practice, and eventually penalized Oregon and Kelly (and a program assistant under Kelly) for it in 2013, putting the Ducks on probation and slapping Kelly with a show-cause order that would have made it difficult for any college program to hire him — essentially, the hiring school would need to vouch extensively for Kelly to the NCAA to make that hiring happen.

Kelly was still under this show-cause order in late 2014, when Florida last needed a head coach, and that was probably part of why he was never a serious candidate then, if a smaller portion of the reasoning for not pursuing him than the difficulty of prying a working NFL head coach away from the riches, freedoms, and prestige of the league midway through his first season at that level. The show-cause has since expired — it did so after Florida hired McElwain in December 2014 — but Kelly still got penalized for a failure to monitor at Oregon, still left Oregon on probation, and still poses risks for any school attempting to hire him because he — or an underling acting on behalf of his program — was careless enough to bring some of the skullduggery involved in getting talented players to come play football for schools out into the sunlight.

As of as recently as two weeks ago, Kelly’s NCAA misdeeds were thought to be the primary obstacle to him becoming a legitimate candidate at Florida. All of this week’s talk about Kelly has been met with skepticism by many long-time observers of Florida, for whom the program’s pride in staying clear of NCAA violations under Foley has long been understood as one of its inviolable assets.

This Kevin Brockway tweet is a little on the snarky side, but it captures the catch-22 for Florida — or any school — considering Kelly.

Now, to be clear: All that Kelly ever really stood accused of doing in that NCAA case was paying Willie Lyles, and being so careless in doing so that he paid Lyles significantly more than other schools were paying Willie Lyles. In a world in which college football players were employees and compensated directly with money for their efforts, rather than the world we have, Lyles would be an agent or a headhunter, any payment to him would be a consultant’s fee, and Kelly would be a creative CEO who found a way to get something done under the radar.

But that’s not the world we have. The world we have has a set of rules enforced by the NCAA and put in place to prop up an industry with revenues in the billions that are generated by workers whose compensation is capped at well below their market value — and those rules are being newly buttressed by the FBI’s involvement in and attempt to police the black market for athletes’ services. And Florida, for better and worse, is working within the constraints of that world, rather than calling bullshit on its existence and working to create a different one.

Stricklin is not Foley, and while my read on him is that he has a healthy respect for the NCAA, he also simply does not have as much invested in Florida’s history of providing a championship experience in integrity as Foley did. Foley spent a quarter of a century writing that history; Stricklin’s only been in Gainesville for under 18 months. Stricklin could very well be seriously interested in Kelly and willing to face the charges of hypocrisy that are assuredly coming if Florida hires him; I don’t know that I believe that Foley would feel the same.

But Foley is also not Florida’s AD anymore, and while that fabricated message board post from Monday appears to have renewed fears that Foley is likely to meddle in this process, I seriously doubt Foley would do more than raise a temporary objection — “You’re sure you want to do this?” — if Stricklin zeroed in on Kelly as his choice.

It’s possible, though, that Stricklin also has some qualms about Kelly — who, apart from carrying that NCAA violation baggage, is also a somewhat prickly personality whose schtick of being the smartest guy in the rdoom and a jerk about it works far better when success is being achieved, and is thus reminiscent of the coach Florida just fired partly because of personality conflicts — and that this week’s breathless reporting and rumor-mongering is happening while Stricklin is vetting a coach without elevating him to the top of his list. That would be somewhat foolish, because allowing the narrative to become “Florida wants Chip Kelly!” if Florida isn’t actually going to get Chip Kelly is going to make whatever coach does get hired pale in comparison and render Florida’s process a spectacular failure in many fans’ eyes, but it’s a possibility.

And, furthermore, it’s possible that all of this reported and rumored interest in Kelly is just hot air, or reporters taking a smokescreen to mean there’s a fire burning somewhere when that just isn’t the case.

I still think UCF head coach Scott Frost makes as much or more sense for Florida than Kelly — and I’d note that Florida would be stupid not to talk to Kelly, who hired Frost at Oregon, if it were doing a full vetting of Frost — and I think Florida has significant advantages over both the Nebraska program that every breathing and thinking college football observer believes will go hard after its former quarterback at the end of this season and the UCF program that desperately wants to retain him. (Frost and Dan Mullen both did appear, along with Kelly, in Thamel’s piece updating the status of Florida’s search; Staples writing a feature on the stunning journey of Shaquem Griffin, a UCF linebacker who has become a force for the Knights’ defense and a legitimate NFL prospect despite having his left hand amputated as a child, is not necessarily work done with the intent of developing sources at UCF and currying favor with them, but it probably didn’t hurt.)

I still think Florida’s first-mover advantage at the top end of the market for a new coach is going to enable Florida to hire a coach that will be able to build a program in Gainesville that competes for championships, no matter who that coach ends up being — and I think that many of the differences between top-tier candidates like Kelly, Frost, and Mullen are more stylistic than substantial.

And I still think that that fans fiending for information ought to consider, for at least a moment, taking every person officially representing Florida in this search at their public word, and dismissing reports that are being made behind paywalls and on fringe blogs as reports that can be and are made there because of the relative lack of consequences for being wrong or improperly sourcing reports in those venues. If you do that, you get the conclusions that Florida’s still in the middle of a coaching search, there is a ton of bad information out in the public, and Spurrier both isn’t recommending anyone for the job and (likely) speaks for Florida’s athletic department when he says that there’s trust in Stricklin to do the job and that there will be full support for the next coach.

Whether you do that — whether you value the things being said publicly by people who are running Florida’s search or privy to details of it over the hyperventilation of fans and bloggers and so forth — is up to you.

You get to live your life.

But I’d suggest at least considering that option, and letting this coaching search run its course without assuming or asserting that it is running it off the rails or running around like a chicken with its head cut off based on that assumption or assertion. Failing that, you might want to be willing to have some fun with it.

You might sleep better if you do.