The coach who likes to parse questions no longer is giving anyone a hard time.
The coach who often interrupts is patiently waiting for everyone to finish.
The coach who usually engages only on football topics is open to discussing anything.
His dog’s torn knee ligament. His player’s pet alligator. His own attention deficit disorder.
It was only about two weeks ago that a reporter who has long sparred with the coach, once calling for his job, suggested to Chip Kelly that maybe he could employ a former UCLA kicker and beer magnate descendant to help with a name, image and likeness venture selling alcoholic beverages at the Rose Bowl.
Kelly playfully pointed at the reporter before reaching into his back pocket to retrieve his practice play card and flipping it over to take notes.
“What did you call it?” Kelly asked, starting to scribble with a blue pen. “Bruin Brewskis? How are we going to spell Brewski?”
“B-r-e-w-s-k-i,” the reporter responded.
“OK, noted,” Kelly said, before referencing J.J. Molson, the kicker who could use his family beer ties to help. “J.J. That’s a good talk, get him on something. Give him something to do. He trains here every day, so he’s got to have a few hours after the training period. I like it.”
Where did this guy come from? Chipper Chip seems like a different species than the Machine Gun Kelly who over his first five seasons mowed down reporters’ questions if they didn’t meet his liking. Now the coach known for being dismissive, claiming he’s just trying to have a good Whatever Day of the Week, clearly is having a good Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Some gentle probing revealed that his cheerfulness might be, at least in part, a reflection of the team that’s about to open its season Saturday night at the Rose Bowl against Coastal Carolina. While building little buzz nationally, these unranked Bruins are easily Kelly’s deepest and might be his best.
What’s most thrilled Kelly is his players’ eagerness to learn and unselfishness in building what he’s called the best culture since his arrival.
“They’re awesome,” Kelly told The Times. “They love playing football and they love each other more importantly and they want everybody to be successful, so I think our whole coaching staff would echo that — this is a fun group to be around.
“Just because they have fun playing football, they’re not like elementary school kids that are screwballing around. They enjoy playing ball, they’re dedicated to their passion and I think because they have that mind-set, it challenges you as a coach that you better be prepared and ready when you walk in a meeting room because those guys are ready and prepared, so that part has been outstanding. And so yeah, that probably has an effect” on his demeanor.
The benevolence is especially pronounced in a heated quarterback battle in which the candidates repeatedly have said the only winner that matters is the team.
“There’s not a selfish gene where, ‘I want to win, but I don’t want him to play really well because that’s going to take playing time away from me,’ ” Kelly said of his players’ mind-set going into a game in which starting quarterback Ethan Garbers is slated to split time with freshman Dante Moore and Kent State transfer Collin Schlee.
Local reporters aren’t the only ones who have noticed the difference in a notoriously gruff coach. Nick Aliotti, Kelly’s onetime defensive coordinator at Oregon who now works for the Pac-12 Network, said he saw a more upbeat version of his old friend when he visited with him this summer.
“Chip has never been a big media guy, so to speak,” Aliotti said with a laugh, “but he seemed to be a lot more relaxed, a lot more good-feeling about his team, about the way they handle themselves, came across like it was his best team, no issues, more talkative, more engaging.”
Part of that might be the influence of veterans such as Duke Clemens. The fifth-year senior center has lessened the burden on coaches by calming jittery newcomers and reinforcing the businesslike culture.
That, in turn, has allowed Kelly to be more at ease, even if he took a more direct approach in his answers during his final meeting with reporters before the opener. But the old chippy tone remained absent.
“I definitely notice maybe a little bit more joking around going on, a little more comfortable, I guess, especially me being here for as long as I have, I can definitely see his personality come out when he has conversations with me or any of the older guys on the team,” Clemens said. “So, it’s been nice to see that and that side of Chip.”
The highs haven’t offset the unimaginable low Kelly felt this summer when longtime friend and former UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern died after a fight against kidney cancer.
Kelly delivered a heartfelt eulogy at the funeral in New Jersey and repeatedly broke down at Pac-12 media day in July whenever McGovern’s name came up. His memory lingers everywhere Kelly goes, a reminder to cherish every moment.
“Whenever you lose somebody like that that’s that close to you,” said Kelly, who will turn 60 in November, “you kind of look around and try to appreciate it.”
Kelly has soldiered on, cracking his annual assortment of jokes at media day. There were one-liners about his dog’s torn ACL (“I didn’t know dogs could tear ACLs”), Fielding Yost starting the transfer craze (“That was 1896 and they had transfer portal issues”) and his own struggles with attention span (“I have ADD, so I have a real hard time concentrating on one thing”).
The startling part was that the fun carried over to training camp, when Kelly usually goes on laughter lockdown. Just last week, he provided an update on his dog’s X-ray schedule and thanked a reporter for noticing the blue bracelet he wears as a tribute to his wife and three dogs.
As Kelly bid the media scrum farewell and started to jog onto the practice field, he even paused to re-engage with the reporter who has given him such a hard time since his arrival here almost six years ago. The reporter wanted to know if Kelly agreed that he seemed unusually cheerful.
“I’m always in a good mood,” Kelly said with a wry smile, “it just depends on other people’s interpretation of it.”
Perspective is a funny thing. Inky Johnson, the former Tennessee cornerback who became a motivational speaker after his career ended because of a paralyzing injury to his right arm and hand, recently spoke to the Bruins, telling them to savor every day.
“One of the things he talked about, when he was younger that maybe he didn’t enjoy the journey as much because he was worried about the end result,” Kelly said, “but if you’re really, truly going to be like we are — process-oriented — then being process-oriented is about enjoying the day and so it’s not trite for us to say, ‘We just want to have a good Friday.’
“So we’re off to a good start, we’ve just got to finish off the right way.”
The coach who has found a new perspective appears to be embracing it.