The Secret Life of Chip Kelly
I am in pursuit. It’s late May, and I’m spending a few days driving all over the southeastern corner of New Hampshire, that plug of land that gives the Live Free or Die state a right-of-way to the sea. Random inlets of crystalline water lap small towns built around proper squares and painted white. Many are older than America itself.
This is where I’m searching for Chip Kelly — a revolutionary masquerading as a football coach — even though I’m sure he’s in Philadelphia, with his team.
Something strange becomes clear when I first drive around Manchester, his old hometown, then head east to the state university in quaint Durham. Here? This is where Chip Kelly came up with a plan to upset the apple cart of how football is played — especially the speed with which he has his players attack other teams?
Yup. For more than a decade, he shared a dingy office in the basement with another coach; the whiteboard behind his desk where he diagrammed plays remains. Then, a decade ago, Chip took his ideas west, to Oregon, and quickly transformed a so-so college program into a national power.
A nobody. A guy who wasn’t even the head coach in Durham is now shifting the landscape of pro football as well, in just his third season coaching the Eagles.
On first blush, he’s like some genius kid who starts tinkering with electronics in a garage when he’s still in junior high and suddenly pops up a dozen years later as the head of a huge computer company. But no — computer geeks toil virgin ground, open to the innovative. Football is the opposite. Football has rules and traditions and the way things have always been done and the way they must continue to be done. In football, you pay your dues and build on the past.
Chip Kelly rejects all that. “This is the way we’ve always done it” — he has formally jettisoned that sentiment from his coaches’ brains. Chip doesn’t so much think outside the box as deny its very existence. Designing innovative plays is only the half of it. He has particular ideas about what his players should eat and drink, how much they should sleep, how they should think. His practices move at a manic pace, to loud music — faster than any other team’s. And then his team plays that way.
I knock on his parents’ door, up in Saco, Maine, just a 40-minute drive from Durham, to get some idea of how he’s done it. An independent thinker. An iconoclast. And — given his chosen profession — maybe revolutionary really isn’t too strong.
A quarter-century-older version of Chip Kelly — short, squat and balding — answers the door.
“We don’t talk about Chip outside of the family,” his father, Paul Kelly, tells me pleasantly. He’s still chewing his lunch.
I thank him and leave, but then drive off upset with myself. I should have asked one question, at least. Paul was a trial lawyer who once wrote, “The nicest thing about having been a lawyer is the ability to stand and speak truth to power. … Law school taught me to question. The practice of law honed that teaching into a lifelong habit … ”He just might be the key to what I want to know. I circle back.
On the way, my phone rings. “I have a question,” the Eagles media guy says, though his tone suggests he knows the answer. “Did you just knock on the door of Chip Kelly’s parents’ house?”
“Why, yes, Derek,” I tell him. “I did.”
The conversation goes downhill from there. Chip’s father called Chip, who is not happy with me. I am amused — which certainly doesn’t help my cause — but the moment’s been lost anyway: I can’t go back now and ask Dad how his son had the courage to take on the holy world of football (what father wouldn’t want to answer that question?) without truly being a jerk.
Yet it’s worse than that. I feel like Chip is zeroing in — as if he’s tracking my rental car, and in fact there is something to that notion: Friends of his who had agreed to speak to me, or clearly want to, drop away. They won’t be talking. I’m being sucked into the maw of the Kelly method: I will work in secrecy.
So now it’s a game, something of a competition, to figure out the Chippah, to understand how this guy from an old mill town who holed up for more than a decade 40 miles down the road at a state university came up with a master plan that now has him within shouting distance of the grand prize of America’s game. By going at it in a way nobody has seen before.
As it turns out, I still have some cards to play in my pursuit.
Chip himself owns a house here, in Rye, between a finger of water and a country club. I didn’t bother heading there my first couple days in New Hampshire, because I really did assume he was in Philly with his team. Now, slipping past his recently expanded manse complete with a widow’s walk, I’m surprised to see an SUV parked in the driveway that curls behind it.
I drive up the road a few hundred yards and park. His real name, by the way, is Charles. He’s 51 years old.
BEFORE I MADE THE TRIP to New Hampshire, I learned some things.
It’s clear, for example, that Chip Kelly doesn’t give a rat’s ass what other people think of him. Which some people find quite discombobulating. An NFL insider who spent hours with Kelly over dinner a few years ago describes a surreal divide: Chip has a brilliant football mind and can talk endlessly about the game — at warp speed, the way he always talks — but doesn’t seem to be there with you in the moments that aren’t about football. He won’t make eye contact. He seems to be daydreaming, and you sit there wondering what he’s really thinking. Usually, of course, getting to know someone is a combination of what he’s saying and how he feels to you, his body language, the little interjected moments of, say, “How’s your steak?” Chip seems devoid of those moments. He shares almost nothing of himself. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t seem normal, says the NFL guy, who was left, after spending several hours with Kelly, with the most basic fear:
Doesn’t Chip like me?
I suggest half seriously to the NFL guy that given how focused Chip seems to be on just one thing, maybe he’s on the autism spectrum — toward the Asperger’s end — and the guy says that more than one person has suggested that to him. This is the sort of speculation, off the wall or not, that Chip Kelly’s reticence invites. He’s buttoned-up about his personal life to the point that rumors he’s gay floated around the Internet when the Eagles hired him two years ago, solely because he wasn’t supplying us with the appropriate evidence to the contrary.
Needing to know just who he is so fervently begins to feel a little unseemly, even to a journalist. He’s a coach; follow the Eagles’ wins and losses. But of course it doesn’t work that way, because how can we love him or hate him properly, depending on those wins or losses, if we don’t believe we know him? Andy Reid, who preceded Chip in Philadelphia, was even more reticent toward the press, yet Big Red we got a feel for. He had a striking Mormon wife and weight problems and two sons with drug problems, and he bled a certain warmth and humanity. Andy couldn’t hide.
Chip tries to hide in plain sight. A Daily News scribe went up to him at a party during the annual owners’ meeting in Phoenix two winters ago. Kelly did say hello, but the woman with him, his girlfriend, remained silent, and she wasn’t introduced. (Chip gay? Apparently not.) This past year, when the DN writer ran into Reid, they caught up; Andy told him how his knee-replacement rehab was going. Kelly stayed home.
Once I get to New Hampshire, I share the NFL insider’s impression of Chip with Marty Scarano, the athletic director at the University of New Hampshire, who worked with Kelly for a decade there. “Not making small talk, depending on how you process that, you could see him as an elitist bastard, or checked out, or contemplating,” Scarano says in his UNH office. “I think he leads most of his life thinking solely about the game. And he doesn’t suffer fools.” I ask Scarano if he likes Chip. “Oh, yeah. Chip is Chip, look at it that way. All coaches are alphas. Chip is double alpha. He’s not going to crack wise, not make small talk all the time. But in moments when he’s relaxed, he’s a fun guy to be with. He doesn’t show it to everybody.”
Or, it seems, to hardly anybody.
For three years at Oregon, Mike Bellotti was Kelly’s boss — head coach when Chip ran his offense, and then A.D. when Chip moved up to head coach.
I ask Bellotti if Chip is a good man. “Yeah,” he says. “I like him. I respect him.”
I wonder if he got to know Chip well. “No,” he says, and then immediately firms that up: “No.” I have to understand, Bellotti tells me, how grueling the hours are, how demanding the work. That football is a little like religion, and especially as a coach, you must go at it wholeheartedly, you must live it. I ask Bellotti if Chip was close to his players at Oregon. “I think so,” Bellotti says. He laughs, because it was such good fortune to have a coach so utterly locked in. “Chip has no family, no children. There wasn’t a child at home he wanted to see play. I felt it was a unique situation to have a coach whose sole purpose in life is football.”
Yet there are other sides of Kelly that leak out, from time to time. He clearly loves sparring with the media at mandated press conferences, and you know a zinger from the Chipper is coming when his tongue parses his lips and a wry smile starts to form as he’s asked, say, what sort of players he wants: “Depends on what model of organization you want. Do you want blind obedience or informed acquiescence or self-governance?”
It turns out that Chip reads books like Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by a Stanford professor, and Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. It’s all about building culture, creating the atmosphere to win.
And I do pry free a few stories, ones that attest to his basic humanity. Rob Mullens was athletic director at Oregon after Bellotti, and lived up the block from Chip. His young sons would sometimes rush in to report that Coach Kelly had pitched some Wiffle ball to them, out on the street. “Let me see what you got!” Coach would demand. (Now that’s easy to imagine.)
He sneaks off to play Santa for sick children. He pops up at a military funeral to honor a slain soldier’s bravery. Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham reveals a decorum that Kelly demands at the Eagles practice facility: “Coach tells us to treat the NovaCare kitchen staff with respect.” I discover a boathouse bar near Kelly’s house where he sometimes goes with his girlfriend for sliders; the waitresses there started taking turns serving them, because of a certain generosity: If Chip and his girlfriend spend a hundred bucks on sliders, they leave another hundred as a tip.
He also travels some. Three years ago, Kelly took a trip to Africa with the Nike Foundation to visit with adolescent girls who were living in extreme poverty. “They all have such a positive outlook,” Kelly said when he came home. “Maybe they have the secret and we don’t.” That same year, Chip took friends to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona; the night before, he had his compatriots watch film of previous bull runs to plot their strategy. To make a game plan.
These clues suggest a guy of principle and some interest in the world apart from football. Though the more I consider his obsession with the game, the more I think trying to make Chip into something of a well-rounded man misses the point entirely. Let’s take him at his word and primary deed. Whoever he is, whoever he most fundamentally is, that’s where it clearly lies. With football.
Big Balls Chip — his nickname at Oregon, for his penchant for having his team take wild chances on the field. Now he’s going for it in the NFL, in his way, thumbing his nose at some of the league’s hidebound traditions. Kelly is either going to win the top prize or flame out in a dramatic way. So that’s what we need to understand. Just where he got the cojones to go there.
Or, rather, here. To Philadelphia.
CHIP KELLY, THE THIRD of four boys, was given plenty of room in his North Manchester stomping ground: out the door early, be home when the streetlights come on at night. Football, hockey, track. School was a breeze. He was always a smart little sucker, and Manchester, once one of the biggest manufacturing cities in New England, was still a pretty sweet place to grow up.
Senior year of high school, as the quarterback of the football team, Chip would huddle his teammates under the Friday night lights at Gill Stadium, 3,000 pairs of eyes on him, then look over to Coach Leonard for the play. Coach would signal: You call it. Because Chip made better calls than Coach.
When he was 17, Chip told Coach that’s what he was going to be, too. He wanted to coach football.
He was a walk-on at UNH, too small — at five-nine, 170 — to play much. Not long after graduation, he got hired by longtime coach Bill Bowes to oversee the running backs. One day he went into Bowes’s office and told him he wanted to coach the offensive line, those beefeaters who open up space for running backs and protect the quarterback. This was a bold request; football teams are divided up into specific areas of expertise. It was a little like a company’s HR director announcing that he should run the accounting department. Yet Bowes let him do it, and also let him change the way the line blocked, from man-to-man to zone. It was the wave of the future. Over coffee in downtown Durham, Bowes, long retired, smiles. “Chip was always ahead of the curve.” He was 25 years old.
It’s the story of most big coaches: They start running things very, very young.
But Chip’s progression was different. For almost a decade, after Bowes retired, he would run the offense under Sean McDonnell. They became very close — Sean and Chip — often hanging at Chip’s place, which generally had only freeze pops and Diet Coke in the refrigerator.
Sean trusted Chip. In fact, he trusted him so much that he gave him the keys to the kingdom, which meant that Chip would not only run Sean’s offense but could run it any way he wanted. This was back in 1999. According to an Oregon writer, a conversation they had in Sean’s office set everything that would follow in motion.
The team had had a great runner who had graduated, and Sean was at a loss over how to replace him. Together, Chip and Sean looked at the team’s depth chart — the pecking order of all the players — and Chip had a brainstorm that was striking in its simplicity: He wondered why they weren’t planning on playing the best athletes, even if they didn’t fit the schemes the team had been running. Which meant, of course, that the schemes would have to change.
Sean wondered how Chip would make that work.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll find a way.” That was the moment: He was given permission to do exactly what he wanted, to try anything.
Chip was already in the habit of spending his off-seasons visiting other schools — often on his own dime — to soak up how other teams did things. He hit the road again, and came back with the new plan, known as the spread option.
What that plan created was a sort of controlled mayhem — run at Kelly’s warp speed — in which a quarterback decides where the ball should go based on Chip moving his players around all over the field and how a defense responds. There’s nothing particularly new in that. But Kelly ramped up the speed of running plays so much, and was so good at figuring out how to get his players free of defenders, that he seemed to have devised something no one had seen before.
The offense started setting records.
Chip was a fun coach to play for, if you bought in. He worked his players hard — they had to be in great shape to play his system, and they had to make smart decisions. That hasn’t changed. He’s always pressing. And herein lies a possible answer to the NFL insider who found Chip so unrelatable personally, so limited.
“There were times I would walk by him and I knew damn well in his mind there’s, like, a film session going on, there’s plays being run,” David Ball, a receiver at UNH, once said. “You know, some people took that as him being standoffish. But he’s not.” An obsessive, yes — but not unfeeling. “He had a relationship with football.”
In 2006, Tom Coughlin, coach of the New York Giants, wanted to bring Chip to the NFL as a low-level assistant. Chip was making about $60,000; Coughlin would likely double that.
Chip said no. He’d had other offers, too. Most coaches in sports are desperate to zigzag up the career ladder, and they tend to take any better job that pops up. Not Chip. He preferred to stay right where he was, in his lab at UNH.
WHEN HE DID MOVE ON, he moved fast.
He was hired as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2007, pried loose from New Hampshire with a mandate to let it rip with his spread offense. Just two years later, he became head coach. Now he could run a whole program as he saw fit, and his restless mind — restless to take on the tired old assumptions of how football players prepare — went to work. He played loud music at practice to get his players’ juices flowing. He studied how world-class athletes trained in other sports and decreed that resting the day before a game is a very bad idea. He started monitoring his players’ diets and sleep. And he talked endlessly about attention to detail and “winning the day.” It wasn’t enough to practice hard; players had to put body and soul into maxing out their potential, like the Navy Seals Chip had come in and lecture the team.
And he became even more determined to ignore basic football tenets such as time of possession. Almost everyone believes it’s a good idea to hold the football longer than your opponent during a game. Nonsense, Chip said. The idea is to score more points. And he wants to score as fast as possible.
Chip created a team in his own lights, and he was wildly successful in his four years as head coach, going 46-7 and contending for national championships.
But there were some big challenges along the way. Oregon’s program wasn’t strong enough to recruit the best high-school players when Chip got there, which meant he had to make do with a small pool of local talent.
Before the 2010 season, there were a raft of discipline problems; incidents involving nine players had the New York Times coming to Oregon to report on “a program run amok.” But after Kelly eventually kicked quarterback Jeremiah Masoli off the team, a sophomore who would never be good enough to play pro ball took over as QB and his troops rallied, going undefeated before losing to Auburn in the national championship game.
Observers saw a change in Chip — a new resolve not to put up with miscreants, especially if he could win without them. None of his 2010 players would be picked in the first round of the NFL draft — testament to his coaching and system and ability to adapt on the fly.
Last year, a sideline microphone at an Eagles game caught Kelly making a related point to his players:
“Culture wins football. Culture will beat scheme every day.”
Really? Was Chip actually saying that his brilliance as a play-devising maestro was less important than his troops’ esprit de corps?
Before last season, Chip’s second as Eagles coach, he cut DeSean Jackson. The wide receiver was a diva, self-obsessed, not a buy-in kind of guy, but he was also very fast, and an important piece of the puzzle. If you’re talented enough, coaches generally put up with a lot. Not Kelly. Not anymore.
This year, Chip blew up the team, cutting several veterans and signing free agents. He traded LeSean McCoy, another star, for an injured linebacker who’d played for him at Oregon. Kelly apparently didn’t like McCoy’s running style, and the contract was pricey, but another factor seems just as important: McCoy wanted to be treated like a star; that doesn’t fit the Kelly paradigm.
Those players who do buy into Kelly’s methods speak about him with great enthusiasm. I ask Brandon Graham, who changed positions in the Kelly system, if culture matters: “Oh yeah, definitely. When I think culture, I think mind-set — what do we believe in, what are we fighting for? That’s what he’s talking about. He talks about building a culture, we shouldn’t settle for average, live it every day. Live it off the field.” Over the phone, Graham comes off not so much as a company man as someone pumping his fist in belief that the Kelly method is really a way of life.
But there’s risk in demanding so much, too. After LeSean McCoy was traded, he said of Chip to ESPN magazine: “He wants the full control. … You see how fast he got rid of all the good players. Especially all the good black players. He got rid of them the fastest. That’s the truth.”
Tra Thomas, a longtime player for Andy Reid who interned as a coach under Kelly for two years, tells me McCoy “was not the only one who felt that way” in the Eagles locker room. Before Kelly’s first season, receiver Riley Cooper was caught on video at a Kenny Chesney concert saying, “I will jump that fence and fight every nigger here” after he apparently wasn’t allowed to go backstage. Cooper apologized and was fined, but was later signed to a big contract extension. “Why cut everybody else who spoke out about anything,” Thomas wonders, “but accept Riley Cooper, and give him a new contract? If a black player did the same exact thing, or got caught gay-bashing, he would have been gone.”
Those who have known Kelly for a long time say these swipes at him are absurd. Marty Scarano, Chip’s old boss at UNH, might put it best: “Chip is not a racist. He can be a bastard with everybody, regardless of religion, creed or color.”
Defenders of Kelly have noted that many new players he brought in this off-season are black, though I think that misses the real question: Can Kelly abide a certain kind of outspoken, high-profile black player, one who doesn’t align himself with the boss’s program as neatly as, say, Brandon Graham? Maybe Kelly’s problem, in other words, isn’t racial but cultural. When Chip was hired by the Eagles before the 2013 season, an NFL insider says Kelly made a lot of anxious calls looking for tips on black coaches he could hire — it seems odd that after a couple of decades traipsing the country visiting schools to learn whatever he could about football, he was apparently devoid of those connections himself.
Unsettling as all this is, a couple of amusing ironies emerge: 1. Chip Kelly once tried to recruit LeSean McCoy out of his Harrisburg high school to play for Oregon. 2. The most creative coach, the one who throws the old playbook of how to run a team out the window, is really tough, a very demanding guy — which feels pretty old-school.
Of course, Chip doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about any of this, either. At a press conference in late May, he was asked whether McCoy’s comments hurt him. “It doesn’t hurt me,” Kelly said. “I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say. Events don’t elicit feelings. I think beliefs elicit feelings. I understand what my beliefs are, and I know how I am.”
But what about perception?
“You start chasing perception, then you’ve got a long life ahead of you, son.”
Always competing: Chip Kelly doesn’t just answer the questions, or defend himself — he sees an opportunity to impart a lesson.
A lot of people who are supposed to know about these things — including the NFL insider who told me Chip Kelly is “socially retarded” — believe he will deliver a Super Bowl win to Philadelphia, and the proof so far is in how his methods are being scrutinized and worried over and copied and criticized. The guy who is a decade removed from a little college program is affecting the way the game is prepared for and played — that much is true.
MY THIRD DAY IN NEW HAMPSHIRE in late May, when I drive to Chip Kelly’s remodeled house in Rye, park up the road, and walk back down to his place, I’m nervous. The contractor’s sign is still out front; landscaping isn’t in yet. But that SUV in the driveway suggests that someone is home.
I’m nervous not because I may have no business bothering Chip or his girlfriend, or whoever might answer the door. (Maybe it’s Dad! Doing some last-minute painting for the Chipper!)
I’m on edge for a different reason. At this point, in my own little competition with Chip of figuring out who he is, just what makes him tick, he’s winning. That’s a funny thing. He’s winning not because I haven’t figured something out about him, but because I believe I have.
I walk up the steps of his house onto a small porch. I can see into a dim living room — a long curving couch. I knock. There is movement, off of that couch.
The door opens, and Chip Kelly is dressed in a dark t-shirt and running shorts. His hair is wet, as if he’s just showered.
I tell him who I am, and that I’m writing about him. I ask him if we can talk.
“No,” Chip says. “I think my private life is my private life. It’s the way it’s always been. I come up here to get away.”
Chip’s eyes, a deep blue, examine me. His tone isn’t unfriendly. “I think people should write about the team,” he says.
Here’s what I know about him: Chip understood very early, as only the lucky among us can, just what he wanted to do. Not just coach — he wanted to attack. He wanted to find a way within a hundred-year-old game to create something new and different, something that might even change the game — something, at least, that was all his. That’s why he stayed so long in his tiny basement office down the road in Durham — because that’s exactly what he could do there. He could attack to his heart’s content, and he got very good at it.
Now, at Chip’s door, I suggest that he doesn’t have to answer personal questions. I ask him again if we can talk.
He examines me for another moment. He doesn’t appear to be in a big hurry.
Everyone seems to wonder how a guy can move so swiftly from tiny UNH to Oregon to the NFL, and not only move so swiftly, but be so bold. No need for his team to huddle up. He’ll get rid of even very good players that he decides disrupt the mojo. And so forth.
Because he stayed right where he was until he was ready to make his move, until he knew exactly what he was doing. In fact, he has given himself no choice: Was Chip going to push the envelope at UNH and then, once he left there, dial back the aggression, merely fit in? Not a chance.
Which is why I was nervous knocking on his door — very few people figure out so exactly what they want to do and then, if they happen to bring it out into the wider world, keep right on doing it, in whatever way they see fit.
I tell Chip Kelly that I hope he has a good season. He thanks me for coming — there’s not even a hint of the impish Chip sarcasm we see at press conferences.
We shake hands. I’m done.
Originally published in the July 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.