Chip Kelly leaves UCLA to become Ohio State's offensive coordinator

UCLA coach Chip Kelly gestures during the Bruins' win over USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 18.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly is leaving Westwood for an assistant coaching job at Ohio State. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

One of Chip Kelly’s mantras in leading UCLA to a record of one game over .500 in six seasons was, “Habits reflect the mission.”

The coach lived up to those words in his departure from the school that continually supported him despite his middling results. His interviews with other teams — before agreeing Friday to reunite with longtime friend Ryan Day as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator — reflected his mission to leave UCLA, no matter that it happened to be at an inopportune time for the Bruins.

A little more than two months after UCLA athletic administrators backed the beleaguered coach amid calls for his job, Kelly rewarded their support with an unexpected vacancy with spring practice and a move to the Big Ten Conference fast approaching. In doing so, he will be taking what amounts to a demotion to prop up his own future prospects with a team that annually competes for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

UCLA linebacker Kain Medrano expressed his shock at the move with a post on X (formerly Twitter) featuring two mind-blown emojis.

Kelly also was linked via media reports to several offensive coordinator jobs in the NFL, including openings with the Las Vegas Raiders, Washington Commanders and Seattle Seahawks. Kelly replaces Bill O’Brien, who was on the job at Ohio State for less than a month before leaving to become the head coach at Boston College.

Read more: Plaschke: In leaving UCLA, Chip Kelly runs a selfish sneak

In a message to UCLA alumni and fans, Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond thanked Kelly for his time at the school, wished him well and said a national search for a replacement had already commenced.

Jarmond later said during a Zoom call with reporters Friday that he was seeking a permanent replacement — while also leaving the door open for an interim hire if necessary — and said he hoped to have a new coach in place within 96 hours. Jarmond said he was seeking a person of integrity who was a passionate developer of young people as well as a competitor who wanted to be a Bruin.

“This is a tough job being a football head coach; nowadays in this world you need a CEO that embraces all aspects of a successful program,” Jarmond said. “That’s NIL. That’s recruiting. That’s donor relations. That’s development of young people. It’s all of that. So we’re looking for a CEO that has that energy and a passion for that.”

Kelly's ties to his new boss go back decades, Day having played quarterback at New Hampshire from 1998 to 2001 while Kelly was the school’s offensive coordinator. Day’s first coaching job came under Kelly’s guidance while Day served as New Hampshire’s tight ends coach in 2002. When Kelly took a job as coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, he hired Day as his quarterbacks coach.

Kelly and Day were on the golf course together in New Hampshire in the summer of 2022 when they learned that UCLA was heading to the Big Ten and that they would be reunited; they never could have imagined just how closely.

Kelly’s departure comes at an abysmal time for the Bruins given that the coaching carousel has spun to a crawl and few, if any, highly coveted replacements remain available. Jarmond, who said he had “a tough conversation” with Kelly when the coach informed him of his departure over the phone, acknowledged the timing presented a challenge in finding a successor.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches from the sideline during a win over USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 18.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches from the sideline during a win over USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 18. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Candidates to succeed Kelly could include Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White, a former UCLA linebacker; former Washington Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who was once the Bruins’ running backs coach and recruiting coordinator; former Stanford coach David Shaw, whose son Carter will be a sophomore wide receiver on the team next season; former USC and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll; and Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Tommy Rees, whose father, Bill, was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for 15 years under Terry Donahue.

UCLA offensive tackle Josh Carlin made his preference known in a post on X directed at Jarmond, saying the candidates should be former UCLA running backs coach DeShaun Foster — who now holds the same post with the Las Vegas Raiders — or Bruins defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe.

It’s unclear how much roster turnover Kelly’s move could prompt; players are allotted an extra 30-day period to enter the transfer portal if there is a coaching change.

UCLA is expected to return quarterback Ethan Garbers as part of a veteran offense next season, but Kelly’s successor must navigate a treacherous 2024 schedule that includes games against Louisiana State, Penn State, Oregon, Washington and USC. Things could get incredibly awkward in 2025, when the Bruins are scheduled to play at Ohio State and any UCLA fans traveling to Columbus will be tempted to boo Kelly.

After trumpeting “friendships, relationships and championships” at his introductory news conference, Kelly guided the Bruins to a 35-34 record and one postseason win — in the L.A. Bowl — while undoubtedly straining his ties on campus given his abrupt exit. His teams never finished higher than tied for second in the Pac-12 South.

Kelly’s pro-style offenses were often elite, starting with the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and featured several running backs who went on to play in the NFL, including Zach Charbonnet, Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton Jr. After UCLA finished the 2022 season ranked No. 4 nationally in total offense (503.6 yards per game), the Bruins took a giant step backward last season to No. 32 (427.1 yards) in part because Kelly no longer had a dual-threat quarterback upon the departure of Dorian Thompson-Robinson to the NFL.

Read more: Plaschke: Why did UCLA keep Chip Kelly? Martin Jarmond has no good answer

Kelly’s critics derided his refusal to fully embrace the importance of name, image and likeness endeavors, not to mention high school recruiting, though Kelly continued to recruit until shortly before his departure.

His recruiting efforts were largely futile. Even including 11 transfers, UCLA’s most recent class was ranked No. 58 nationally by, the Bruins’ worst showing since recruiting rankings began to be compiled several years before the turn of the century. UCLA lost two recruits who were expected to become Bruins before changing their allegiance amid the recent uncertainty over Kelly’s status.

His players were known for a “books and ball” culture popular with administrators, but support for the coach waned considerably after late-season home losses to Arizona State and California. A few plane banners were flown over campus in late November, one with the message, “READ THE ROOM — FIRE CHIP KELLY.”

Jarmond confirmed that Kelly, who will turn 61 in November, must pay UCLA a $1.5-million buyout as part of his contract that ran through the 2027 season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.