Remember these? You may have noticed that in the days leading up to Oregon’s 35-17 Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State, my “Defining Nine” series came to a halt after number two. Well here’s the thing. I got stuck.
Nothing felt like a true number one play. I considered Kenjon Barner’s single-season touchdown record tying score against Oregon State. I considered Marcus Mariota‘s wacky touchdown reception against Arizona State. But then, it hit me: in most cases, a team’s season is remembered, above all else, for what happened in its bowl game.
So it was settled. I’d wait for that magical moment in the Fiesta Bowl to reveal itself to me. The game was not without its highlights – De’Anthony Thomas’s game-opening 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown comes to mind – but nothing that appropriately summed up the season.
Then, in the closing moments, it happened: “The Plea.” I hope you all enjoy, and if you’ve missed the rest of the series, here’s a list. Happy offseason, everyone.
9. The Arrival 8. The Pick-Six 7. The Stomp 6. The Tear 5. The Recovery 4. The Dagger 3. The Return 2. The Kick
The Play: On 3rd and 10, Marcus Mariota takes a knee for a loss of 2. But of course, this isn’t about what was happening between the hashmarks.
The score was settled. The Ducks lined up into victory formation. A once overwhelming sea of purple had diminished to speckles amidst the suddenly dominant green and yellow. The Oregon Ducks were going to win the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and the fans began to chant in unison.
The Oregon faithful has a penchant for deafening chants. Of course, there’s the classic refrain in which one side of Autzen Stadium screams “Go!” and the other booms back “Ducks!”. There’s the infamously profane and somewhat threatening taunt towards opponents to beat the (expletive) out of you (and you), (and you, and you, and you.) And, on each and every fourth down, more people scream joyously about the girth of their head coach’s nether regions than any crowd ever should.
So the fact that Ducks fans joined in a chant on the verge of victory came as no surprise. What raised eyebrows was that it didn’t directly correlate to what had happened at University of Phoenix Stadium in the previous few hours. It was about the man in the visor himself, Chip Kelly.
(Video courtesy of KWVA 88.1 FM Assistant Sports Director Joey McMurry.)
One of the many perks of covering the Ducks is that during the final five minutes of every game, I am allowed onto the sidelines, and immediately following the final seconds, onto the field. Time expired, congratulatory handshakes were exchanged, and a stage was rolled out for the trophy presentation. As the chants persisted – and varied, including a “four more years!” chorus – I found myself in the middle of a pack of players, donning fresh Fiesta Bowl Champions hats, gathered right below the stage on which Kelly and game MVP’s Marcus Mariota and Michael Clay stood.
I expected complaints. Shaking heads with half-hearted smiles. After all their hard work culminating in a wildly successful season, how come all the enthusiasm was focused upon a man who hadn’t taken a single snap for the Ducks?
Here’s the thing, though. The players were chanting too.
They weren’t mad at the fact that one of the biggest games of their careers had been entirely overshadowed by speculation Kelly may go to the NFL. Really, ever since Kelly nearly joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last January, a magnifying glass has been placed on the man in the visor, more than ever in the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl.
They were proud to play, and learn, under such a widely respected coach.
“He means everything,” said Kenjon Barner of Kelly. “Without him I wouldn’t be the runningback that I am, nor would I be the person that I am. Sitting with him in meeting rooms is a lot different than sitting in any other meeting room that I’ve ever been in because it’s not just about football, it’s about life.”
And then the next three days happened, full of anonymously sourced media reports and day-long interviews. First Kelly, was going to the Browns. Then he was going to the Eagles. Somewhere along the line, there was this:
And then, he decided to stay.
What on earth would possess a man to turn away a chance at the bright lights of being an NFL head coach in Philadelphia or Cleveland, to stay in a rainy little town in the middle of Oregon?
Perhaps, in just a word: love.
NFL coaches come and go at a ridiculously rapid rate. Seven NFL coaches were fired a day after the 2012 regular season ended. Seven. Out of 32. There is no certainty whatsoever that Chip Kelly would succeed at the next level. Most certainly, he would not win 46 out of his first 53 games. Not even close. Just as many coaches before him, he could face the boo birds and the raving talk-show call-in curmudgeons in a matter of weeks, if he weren’t to produce immediate results. He could even face the axe.
It’s fair to say: save for a major scandal or some self-inflicted destruction of the program he’s helped to build, Chip Kelly will not be fired from the University of Oregon. The easy explanation is the wins and losses. But there’s more to it.
Chip Kelly – aside only one other man, Phil Knight – has become the face of Eugene, Oregon. His electric, gutsy brand isn’t just a clever offensive attack – it’s a captivating on-field product that gives blue-collar, white-collar, and textbook-smothered Eugenians alike a chance to escape into oblivion on Saturdays in the fall, if only for a few hours.
He’s sometimes sarcastic and brusque, but more often hilarious, and oddly relatable. After all, the fans in Glendale weren’t chanting “We Want Coach Kelly!”. To Eugene, he’s simply Chip. Make no mistake. This is the golden era of Oregon Ducks football. History will remember the various faces that have defined these past four years – those of LaMichael James, Darron Thomas, Kenjon Barner, and Casey Matthews.
But more than anything, history will remember Chip Kelly, one of the most impactful college football coaches of all time. Maybe next January, another NFL job offer will sweep Kelly off his feet. Maybe he’ll go on to create such an NFL legacy that his time in Eugene becomes a footnote.
But maybe not. Maybe Chip Kelly stays at Oregon, not just for next season, but the season after that, and the one after that, and on and on and on.
Maybe it’s not the grand stage and big bucks of the NFL that matter most. After all, he’s created quite the theater here in Eugene, and his base salary of 3 million is hardly anything to scoff at. Maybe Ducks fans can get used to Chip Kelly as their head coach.
Maybe, just maybe, the love is enough.