Pursuit of happiness led Kelly to Ohio State


COLUMBUS — As Chip Kelly stood before the media on Tuesday following his first practice as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Ohio State, fielding a question about his decision to leave a head coaching position at UCLA to take a perceived lesser role in Columbus, he referenced a story he once heard about legendary musician John Lennon.

“There’s a story about John Lennon when he was a little kid, and he had an assignment asking what he wanted to be when he grew up,” Kelly recalled. “He said, ‘I want to be happy.’ And then his teacher said, ‘I don’t think you understand the assignment,’ and his mom said, ‘I don’t think you understand life.’ I just want to be happy, and I’m really happy to be coaching a position.”

From the moment he took the practice field on Tuesday, that happiness was readily apparent as a smile rarely left Kelly’s face throughout the morning. After spending his last 14 seasons in football as a head coach — he was out of the game for a year in 2017 — Kelly appeared to be soaking in every moment of his new home and newfound ability to focus solely on coaching.

During stretching before the start of practice, Kelly could be found joking with Alabama transfer safety Caleb Downs and secondary coach Tim Walton about Downs’ potential on the other side of the ball. Once practice started, Kelly moved around with reinvigoration as he coached his talented, albeit inexperienced, group of quarterbacks through position drills, the very thing he’d missed the most through more than two decades of leading both college and NFL teams.

While Kelly appears to have found renewed purpose in his coaching career, Ohio State’s path to landing him was anything but straightforward. Just three weeks before Kelly accepted the position on Feb. 9, it appeared Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day’s offensive coaching staff was complete following the hire of Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator.

O’Brien was in Columbus and actively working inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center preparing for spring practice when Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley, the former defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2019, decided to leave for the defensive coordinator position with the Green Bay Packers.

O’Brien, a Massachusetts native, became an instant target to replace Hafley, and after weeklong speculation of his impending hire, it was announced on Feb. 9.

Now scrambling to find a replacement so late in the offseason, Day didn’t have to wait long. Kelly, who served as Day’s offensive coordinator during Day’s playing days at the University of New Hampshire and also hired Day as the Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach in 2015, was waiting —and willing — when Day came calling after Kelly had already made the decision that he wanted to get back to the more hands-on aspects of coaching.

Kelly had gotten a refreshing reminder of the joys of being involved in the day-to-day coaching of players just two months prior when his quarterbacks coach, Ryan Gunderson, left to become the offensive coordinator at Oregon State. In Gunderson’s absence, Kelly took over the quarterback coaching responsibilities ahead of UCLA’s bowl game against Boise State.

The experience recentered Kelly’s perspective on what drove him toward coaching more than 30 years ago and ultimately set the wheels in motion for a reunion with Day.

“I just started to think that I hadn’t coached a position since 2008, and I think my wife remarked, ‘I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time,’” Kelly said. “To me, the best part of football is football. And so I got to do football and not do some of the things involved with the head coaching deal. I had a chance after we beat Boise (State) in the bowl game, as we started recruiting, just to kind of think about what that experience was like. And I get to make the decision on what my future’s going to be, so what do I want to do?”

He added, “As a head coach, you sit in on position meetings but then you’re always getting pulled out, and there’s other things that are involved with being a head coach. I think it’s more of a CEO operation right now. The job and the landscape of college football, as we all know, has changed.”

Although he was motivated to return to positional coaching, Kelly noted he wasn’t going to leave UCLA for just any coordinating or positional opportunity.

“I’m really happy to be at (Ohio State),” Kelly said. “It would have taken a special place for me to leave UCLA because I love those players and I love that coaching staff, but to be here with Ryan (Day), I have a great relationship with him and have known him since he was a little kid. I think a lot of things just fell into place that way.”

With the addition of Kelly to the staff, Day’s stated goal this offseason of being able to step back from the offense-driven approach he’s used since being named Ohio State’s head coach ahead of the 2019 season to more of a CEO approach figures to be accomplished. In Kelly, Day now has someone in which he has absolute trust considering their lengthy history together, and Kelly’s track record as an offense mind speaks for itself dating back to his days elevating Oregon to the upperechelon of college football programs.

Still, the idea of a former coach and lifelong mentor turned employee could create an interesting dynamic between Day and Kelly this season if egos go unchecked. Neither seem to be worried about the possibility of any such issues, though, and both spoke on Tuesday about being united in the goal of leading Ohio State back to the mountain top.

“I think the other part of it is we’re friends, and we continue to be friends,” Day said when asked about the dynamic. “We’re both very, very competitive. I could tell you stories but not right now about when I played (for Kelly) and when we coached together. But then when the meeting gets over or we get off the field, we’re hugging it out. There’s a lot of love there. I owe much of where I’m at right now to him. So, this isn’t about any of that as opposed to a couple of guys being a part of a great program right now who are going to try and chase some great goals.”

“I certainly understand my role here. I’m not Al Haig,” Kelly said, referencing the former Secretary of State who claimed to be in charge after President Ronal Regan was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981. “I’m not in charge here … I certainly understand that, and I actually kind of relish it because I really love the scheming part. I love the individual part. I love being in the meeting room with the quarterbacks and trying to game plan. Everything we do here is collaborative … We’re all trying to make each other better and we’re all trying to develop this team.”

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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