UCLA coach Chip Kelly stepped down Friday after six seasons leading the Bruins, leaving the soon-to-be Big Ten school scrambling to fill a vacancy at the top of the program with spring practice about a month away from cranking up around the country.
Multiple media outlets reported Kelly was heading to Ohio State, UCLA’s future conference rival, to become offensive coordinator. Ohio State declined comment.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day hired former Texans coach Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator last month, but O’Brien is now heading to Boston College to become the Eagles’ head coach. Day played quarterback in college for Kelly when he was offensive coordinator at New Hampshire.
“Timing is a challenge,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said, adding he told the team the plan was to have a new coach in place within four days.
Jarmond said he was not caught off when Kelly called him earlier Friday to inform him he was leaving. Kelly had interviewed for multiple NFL offensive coordinator jobs over the last two weeks.
Kelly was under contract until 2027. Jarmond said UCLA will enforce a $1.5 million buyout.
Jarmond said he met with the team to inform them of the change. He said he was not sure if Kelly met with or personally informed the players.
“This is something as an athletic director and program, you have to be ready for in case you’re in a middle of a search,” Jarmond said. “We were ready and we’re prepared.”
Kelly had a 35-34 record with the Bruins, but the program was showing signs of stagnating ahead of a move to the Big Ten from the Pac-12 next season. There was speculation late in the 2023 season UCLA might move on from Kelly, but the school stood pat after finishing 8-5.
Instead, it was Kelly who started looking for other options, finally making the unorthodox move of giving up a Power Five head coaching job to become coordinator at another Power Five school.
Kelly signed a two-year contract extension in March. He made $6.1 million this past season. He would have been due $8.5 million as part of the buyout of his contract had UCLA fired him.
Kelly is one of the godfathers of the up-tempo, spread offense that dominated college football in the early 2010s. He became Oregon’s coach in 2009 and went 46-7 over four years before jumping to the NFL. He went 26-21 in a little less than three full seasons (2013-15) as the Philadelphia Eagles coach and then spent one season as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, going 2-14.
Kelly took over at UCLA after Jim Mora Jr. was fired in 2017 and had a roster predominantly filled with underclassmen his first two seasons.
It was a slow build. Kelly started with three straight losing seasons at UCLA before finally turning it around in 2021 and going 8-4. The Bruins went 25-13 over the past three seasons, but could never crack nine wins and tended to fade late in the season.
They were expected to contend for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game last season, especially since they didn’t have to face Washington and Oregon. Under coordinator D’Anton Lynn, UCLA put together one of the best defensive seasons in school history as it led the nation in stopping the run. But Lynn was in Westwood for only one season before jumping to rival USC.
The offense, which was the Bruins’ strength the past two seasons, struggled in 2023 due to inconsistency at quarterback. The most promising passer on the roster, five-star recruit Dante Moore, ended up transferring after the season.
The transfer portal will open again for UCLA players for 30 days following Kelly’s departure, but with the timing of the opening both the school and the players could be faced with limited options.
All this comes with UCLA preparing for the Big Ten. The Bruins, along with rival USC, Oregon and Washington, join the conference this summer, and face an uptick in competition next football season. UCLA does not play Ohio State in 2024.
“We’re looking for a leader, permanently for our program,” Jarmond said. “I told the team to give us 96 hours. Could be earlier, could be later. But we’re going to move fast. That’s the priority.”