|The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit|
is now available for all eReaders
“Let me show you how to throw a football. You gotta flick it like a booger.”
The stranger was Oregon’s new offensive coordinator (and former high school quarterback) Chip Kelly. He’s a very funny guy, a classic New England deadpan ball-buster.
He also doesn’t see the need to give anyone respect that they haven’t earned. And he is surrounded by very talented people who have been working their asses off for most of their lives, so his standards for earning respect are very high.
This has led to an often-contentious relationship with the press, whose members are not used to being challenged and rarely have the history of military service or major football accomplishment (either as a player or coach) that most impresses Chip.
When Kelly was at the University of Oregon, there was also a bit of a West Coast/East Coast culture clash, something that won’t be a problem in Philadelphia (where fans are known to throw batteries and boo Santa Claus). But Oregon is definitely laid back, if a bit more solid than California.
I experienced Chip’s culture clash in the opposite direction, as an Oregon kid who went to college in Boston. Out of the blue—in a Store 24, for example—total strangers kept giving me crap, and I thought “Oh my God, every single person is an asshole here!”
Of course, four years later when I returned to Portland, I was the asshole, busting chops on people I just met and offending baffled strangers. I had to become a stand-up comedian just to explain myself.
Still, it’s Chip Kelly’s jousting with the press that we hear about the most because even when reporters are the butt of the joke, they can’t ignore the fact that Kelly gives some of the best interviews in sports. For full effect, you need to know that he talks very fast and right off the top of his head. Here are some examples.
At the press conference after the 2013 NFL annual meeting, a reporter asked whether Kelly’s Eagles would use the read option play he relied on at Oregon.
“It depends on who your QB is. If you were my QB, (probably not). You have to adapt.”
Another asked him what had been the most difficult thing to deal with in Philadelphia. Kelly replied, “The Schuylkill [Expressway].”
At the press conference on the first day of organized team activities—a non-contact set of drills—he was asked to rate how well his team played.
“Our defense was going against barrels, and our offense was going against air. But our offense killed it against air, so if we could play air we’d be really good …”
Kelly makes it very clear that he does not give out information about the current injury status of his players. This has been his consistent policy for many years, as reporters know.
In one of Kelly’s first moves as coach, the Eagles signed free agent Kenny Phillips, a talented but wounded veteran coming back from microfracture surgery in his left knee in 2009 and an MCL problem in his right knee in 2012. After Phillips sat out one of the Eagles’ early practices, some reporter asked the coach, “Does (Kenny Phillips) have an injury?” Kelly’s answer:
“Yeah, he’s had an injury for a couple of years now.”
Many of Chip’s best quips have involved bringing reporters who get too clever in their thinking back down to earth. When one reporter asked what he had learned from studying USC’s epic run of seven straight PAC-10 championships (from 2002-2008), Kelly answered “Yeah. Get good players.” The Trojans were (and are) a recruiting giant of almost SEC proportions, clearly dominant in the PAC-12.
Some of these busts are so deadpan that people might even miss them. After a rare loss, one reporter asked how much he planned to change his strategy as a result.
“Thirteen percent. Exactly.”102
Kelly doesn’t like long-winded speeches or stuffiness in any form, either. Before the 2011 National Championship Game, after endless interviews and speculation, there was this exchange:
“MODERATOR: We will take an opening statement from Coach Kelly.
KELLY: From me? Wow. Haven’t heard enough? Game is tomorrow night. Let’s go play. Questions?”
On a similar note, after Oregon beat UCLA for the 2011 PAC-12 championship, the press conference moderator asked if there were any opening statements. Kelly quipped:
“Opening statements? Is this a debate? LaMichael: Thermonuclear war. Are you for it or against it?”
He also doesn’t like stupid questions. One reporter at spring training in Oregon noted that then-new recruit Colt Lyerla had started workouts at tight end. He asked, does that mean you want him to play tight end? Chip said:
“We were actually going to look at him at D-lineman, but we couldn’t get the right jersey on him. No, we are going to look at him at tight end. That is why we put him at tight end.”
It’s not just that Kelly thinks he’s smarter and funnier than everybody else (though I’m not saying that he doesn’t or that he isn’t). This is part of the New Hampshire culture he grew up in, and it’s a way for him to stay grounded, as his oldest friends will tell you. Kevin Mills, an assistant coach at Portsmouth High School and one of Kelly’s best friends, said this:
“Some people, you put a couple dollars in their pocket, and they sort of drift away, go Hollywood. He hasn’t done that at all. Whenever I go to a New Hampshire game, he’s texting me, asking me what’s going on.”
Sean Devine, the offensive line coach at Boston College, confirms this: “He likes to bust (chops). He’s quick-witted with a great sense of humor. (But) he’s a good guy. My first couple years, when I was a young coach and I was making peanuts, he took great care of me. Many times we’d hang out in Portsmouth, and he’d take care of things.”
Mills again: "Loves to laugh. He’s the king of trying to bust peoples’ chops.”
There’s a serious business behind the chop-busting. It’s a way to stay grounded, to keep your ego in check, to keep the focus on results and earned trust. Kelly has paid to fly half a dozen old friends from New Hampshire in for a few games every year, even when he was across the country in Oregon. The loyalty of someone you can trust to give you crap is valuable. Mike Zamarchi, a high school coach and old friend of Kelly’s, said: “I think he likes us coming out. It loosens him up a little bit. He can be who he is, who he’s always been. Most people just know him since he became the head coach at Oregon.”
A reporter once asked Kelly why he is so contentious with the media, while he famously bonds with his players: “I’m different with our players because I trust our players and I’m with them every day, and I understand what they’re all about. I’m like that with everybody. It ain’t going to be Kumbaya and hug you the first time I meet you. But if I see you every day and understand what you’re about every day and that you share the same vision that I have, then I’ll die for you.”
One of the many contentious issues that the press asked Kelly about was how long he would stay at Oregon and whether he planned to go to the NFL. Did it make it hard to recruit for the Ducks, one reporter asked, after he started talking to teams like Tampa Bay about coaching positions? Chip’s answer was classic:
“I’d have a hard time saying, ‘Hey, please come to my program cause we’re really mediocre and I’ll never get offered a job anywhere else.’”
Reporters kept grilling him, and Kelly threw it right back. Eugene, Oregon is a town of only 150,000 people, and the newspaper is pretty small. Reporter Adam Jude from the Eugene Register-Guard asked the coach if he was being honest with recruits that he might not be there for their entire playing career. Kelly said absolutely and came right back at the reporter:
“I don’t think anybody can say where they’re going to be four years from now. Can you tell me that you’re going to be at the Register-Guard for four years? I wanna get you on record, too. Are we locking you in?”
That reporter, Adam Jude, left his paper for the larger and better-paying Oregonian six months later, half a year before Kelly took the job in Philadelphia
The revised and updated The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit is available today in all eBook formats.