Christon Chronicles: Coach Chip Kelly’s job with UCLA football depends on crosstown rivalry matchup
Coach Chip Kelly looks on in UCLA football’s loss to Utah on Oct. 30. Kelly has gone 16-25 with the Bruins since taking over ahead of the 2018 season. (Jeremy Chen/Daily Bruin staff)
By Jon Christon
Nov. 19, 2021 12:00 a.m.
Nearly two years ago to the day, we here at The Bruin wrote a column about Chip Kelly.
Ahead of the 2019 edition of UCLA football’s annual crosstown rivalry matchup with USC, former Sports editor Ryan Smith argued the game was Kelly’s chance at redemption after a rough first two seasons in Westwood. At that point, Kelly was 7-15 as the Bruins’ head coach but was 4-6 on the campaign and two wins away from bowl eligibility.
As he often has, Kelly came up short. Not only did UCLA lose to USC, but the blue and gold followed it up with a loss to California the next week, killing all momentum the Bruins had while giving the fan base something to complain about going into the offseason.
Not quite the redemption story Smith had in mind.
So here we are, two years later, days away from a UCLA versus USC clash and in the exact same situation. Well, almost the exact same situation – the stakes are monumentally higher this go-around.
Not only will Kelly be coaching for a moral victory after an up-and-down fourth season, but he might be coaching for his job, too.
If UCLA wins, we expect to see Kelly on the sidelines again next year.
But if Kelly and the Bruins lose, UCLA Director of Athletics Martin Jarmond will have to choose between an extremely desperate fan base and an underachieving coach with one year left on his contract and no signature wins.
I’d venture to guess the former would win out in that scenario.
With a surplus of returning talent and a favorable schedule, Kelly would need to win at least eight games in the regular season to be considered safe at the end of the season. Consequently, it is imperative Kelly wins out with only two contests left on the schedule.
That shouldn’t be too tall of a task. For starters, USC is at its lowest point in recent memory, sitting at 4-5 after already making the move to fire former coach Clay Helton at the start of the year. The Trojans are almost as bad on the field as they are dysfunctional off it, with all five of their losses coming by 14 points or more, including three blowout defeats at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
USC also won’t even be at full strength Saturday. Starting quarterback Kedon Slovis will miss the game with a lower leg injury, and wide receiver Drake London – one of the top offensive threats in the country – has been out since injuring his ankle against Arizona a few weeks back.
Simply put, a UCLA loss to this USC team would be embarrassing just from a football perspective, and that’s not even taking into account what a third straight defeat would mean symbolically.
The six calendar years under Helton was one of the most insignificant stretches in USC football history, as the former coach had the third-lowest winning percentage of any Trojan coach who coached more than 50 games. Despite this, the Bruins were only 1-5 against Helton across six games, dragging UCLA’s all-time record against its rival to 32-49-7.
While Helton is no longer with the Trojans, this upcoming matchup gives Kelly and UCLA one last opportunity to take back some dignity against their rival as this chapter of USC football comes to a close.
But if the Bruins lose Saturday to an interim coach, a backup quarterback and a generally lifeless program, it would be one of the most humiliating losses in UCLA history and would push the already-delirious Bruin faithful – and ergo the UCLA administration – to the edge.
Victories against USC and Cal to close out the regular season would get Kelly to eight wins, and while that’s not indicative of the breakout campaign many were hoping for, it’s solid enough for Kelly to earn that last year on his contract, especially given the nature of the rest of the Pac-12.
Three programs in the conference have already made a coaching change so far this season, and it would give the UCLA administration the opportunity to be the face of stability in a world of chaos that surrounds the conference.
Furthermore, the pair of wins could serve as a jumping-off point to more success next season. It would land UCLA a chance to nab a ninth, nationally televised win in a bowl game before heading into the offseason with momentum, something the Bruins – who last won their final game of a season in 2014 – haven’t had in a long time.
But all of this starts Saturday.
A win against USC would put Kelly on solid ground, giving him the chance to build serious momentum as UCLA enters the offseason and to jumpstart a generally disinterested fan base.
But if Kelly loses to the Trojans for the third time in four years, it will be impossible to justify keeping him around any longer.
Needless to say, the pressure is on for Kelly.
Chip needs to win Saturday – his job depends on it.