Kelly's teams won three straight conference titles from 2009-11 and played in four BCS bowls. (US Presswire)
Oregon fans breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when Chip Kelly told his boss, athletic director Rob Mullens, that he would be returning as the Ducks' head coach in 2013, and had barely finished exhaling when Kelly reversed field on Wednesday by accepting the top job with the Philadelphia Eagles. For a program that had already set its sights on a national championship in 2013, the about-face was a punch to the gut. But the implications of Kelly's departure go much deeper than the timing of his exit or the fate of a single promising season.
For some context, remember where the Ducks are coming from. At the time, Kelly's promotion from offensive coordinator to head coach in 2009 was also viewed as a nod to stability and continuity. But as far as the program had come under his predecessor, Mike Bellotti, it was still regarded as a second-rate upstart: When Kelly took the reins, Oregon boasted exactly one top-five finish in school history, in 2001, and only three conference championships in the previous 50 years. The balance of power on the West Coast rested unquestionably with USC, owner of the last six Pac-10 titles.
From there, the Ducks won three consecutive outright conference championships in Kelly's first three seasons, played in four consecutive BCS bowls and set a school record for wins three years in a row. The 2010 team led the nation in total and scoring offense, then came within a field goal of the national championship after completing the first undefeated, untied regular season in Oregon history. The 2011 team won the first Pac-12 Championship Game, then won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 95 years. The 2012 team eclipsed the '10 records for yards and points per game and landed at No. 2 in the final polls.
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Altogether, Kelly's teams were 3-1 against USC, 31-2 against the rest of the conference and spent eight weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation, a distinction no other Oregon coach can claim for even one. The Ducks' winning percentage over his final three seasons was the best in the nation in that span.
But the Ducks' emergence was at least as much about the style behind the substance, a long-term, top-down approach that successfully married cutting-edge facilities and cutting-edge fashion to a cutting-edge offense. From the beginning, the image of Kelly's prolific, warp-speed attack was inseparable from the endless, ever-evolving array of outlandish uniforms. The combination is a blueprint for other aspiring members of college football's nouveau riche: Before Oregon was a winner, it was an aesthetic. Even if that turns out to be nothing more than a freak coincidence, it's far too late now, in the midst of the most successful, profitable run in school history, to think of untangling the results.
Which brings us to Mark Helfrich. Like Kelly when he was promoted to replace Bellotti, Helfrich is both a first-time head coach and a nod to continuity, having served as offensive coordinator for all four years of Kelly's tenure. He knows the system. He knows the players. He knows how to run one of Kelly's famously intense practice sessions, often touted as mini-boot camps of efficiency that conditioned the Ducks to the relentless tempo that defined the offense. He's reportedly friendlier than Kelly in terms of dealing with boosters and media and reportedly liked and trusted by higher-ups, most importantly Nike founder/mega-booster Phil Knight, without whom much of the success of the last decade would not have been possible. If Helfrich is promoted, it will be in service of the status quo, and the smoothest possible transition from the Kelly era to one that -- if all goes according to plan --looks exactly like it.
Unlike Kelly, who was originally plucked from obscurity in New Hampshire specifically to import his system, Helfrich has never been in full control. Kelly was both architect and engineer; Helfrich has only had limited experience running the machine. In the short term, Oregon has every reason to be optimistic this fall, due mainly to the return of young stars Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas, who will be up for every conceivable honor. The offense as a whole will boast nine returning starters from a lineup that led the conference in total and scoring offense for the sixth consecutive season. The Ducks are virtually certain to open the season in the top 10 nationally, likely as front-runners to reclaim the Pac-12 crown that they ceded in 2012 to Stanford.
From this vantage point, though, there is no way to account for what Kelly brought to the table as a leader, organizer, recruiter and play-caller. The finely tuned system that he built in Eugene can be imitated and has been all over the country. Whether it can be duplicated -- by his heir apparent at Oregon or by Kelly himself in the NFL -- might be the most pressing question of 2013 on both levels.