Four Pac-12 football programs experienced coaching changes during one of the most chaotic stretches in recent conference history, but there could be more upheaval to come.
On Jan. 16, UCLA might be in the market for a head coach to replace Chip Kelly.
Don’t be fooled by the eight-win season, the turn of the calendar or the general lack of rumor and speculation. Kelly’s situation is anything but settled.
To be clear: We believe it’s more likely than not Kelly will coach the Bruins next season. But by no means is his return guaranteed, according to sources familiar with the situation.
As of today, in fact, Kelly is a lame duck.
The 2021 season ended Tuesday, when the Bruins pulled out of the Holiday Bowl because of COVID. Today is effectively the first day of 2022 for the program. It’s also the fifth and final season covered by Kelly’s contract.
The Bruins have discussed an extension with Kelly and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, but nothing has been signed.
The mere fact that Kelly has entered lame duck territory is all the evidence required to understand the fragile state of affairs.
The next two weeks will be tense. On Jan. 16, the $9 million buyout in Kelly’s contract drops to zero. At that point, he could walk away from UCLA, or the school could cut him loose.
Several factors point to the two sides reaching an agreement, and we’ll address those momentarily. But to fully comprehend the dynamics, a brief overview of the Kelly era is required.
Kelly’s appointment at the conclusion of the 2017 season was accompanied by soaring expectations, as UCLA fans hoped the revolutionary coach would recreate his Oregon magic and deliver the Bruins’ first conference championship in two decades.
It took Kelly several recruiting cycles to craft a roster of his liking – in style, substance and preference, he is markedly different from his predecessor, Jim Mora.
But the on-field results suffered during the overhaul: The Bruins were 3-9 in Kelly’s first year and 4-8 in his second, with unseemly losses in both seasons that punctured hopes of a swift turnaround.
The outlook began to brighten in 2020 and continued this fall, albeit in a manner that delayed contract discussions:
The combination of three consecutive losing seasons and all the empty seats at the Rose Bowl left athletic director Martin Jarmond and the administration with little motivation to offer Kelly an extension prior to the 2021 season.
Then wobbly play for the first two months – the Bruins were just 5-4 when November arrived – provided little impetus to fast-track negotiations.
When UCLA finished with a three-game winning streak, including a 62-33 victory over USC, the dynamics began to shift in Kelly’s favor. His work with the roster had finally paid dividends; for the first time in four years, the Bruins had real momentum.
But in those heady days after the regular season, the sides were unable to reach an agreement.
Now here we are … past the early-signing period … fairly deep into the offseason hiring cycle … in lame duck territory … two weeks from the buyout clause expiring … and there is no deal.
Which factors might impact the outcome? Let’s examine:
— Kelly earned $5.6 million for the 2021 season, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the Pac-12. He wants a fair offer but isn’t motivated by money to the same extent as many of his peers.
He could walk away Jan. 16 and seek employment as an NFL coordinator or quarterback coach if a respectable offer isn’t forthcoming.
But that course of action would force Kelly to abandon his players and coaching staff, including two recently hired assistants, at a date so late they would be left dangling.
— Meanwhile, Jarmond, the second-year athletic director, must protect a department carrying a multi-year deficit in excess of $40 million. He cannot sign a head coach with one winning season in four years to a contract extension that includes a massive buyout clause.
But a hard-line stance that prompts Kelly to leave would put the Bruins in a poor strategic position: The middle of January is a suboptimal time to begin a coaching search, especially in a market that was short on supply in the first place.
Would there be candidates willing to accept a mid-level salary within the Power Five hierarchy who would be demonstrably better coaches than Chip Kelly?
— There is a third option: The sides don’t agree on an extension, and Kelly coaches in ’22 as a lame duck.
But that doesn’t work for anyone, including the players.
It’s clear UCLA’s progress with the roster and results isn’t matched by an equivalent increase in enthusiasm from the fans. Many supporters remain scarred by previous shortcomings and don’t believe a few late-season wins are enough to justify a significant extension.
But what are the alternatives? The Bruins won’t find a better coach in their price range, especially in a tight market. And a change would blunt the progress made by a program that has less recruiting maneuverability – because of admissions standards – than many of its peers.
The situation is suboptimal all the way around.
If there’s no deal by Jan. 16, it could turn messy.
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