Oregon faces a future without Chip Kelly after all.
The team’s enigmatic head football coach of four years surprised the Ducks with an early-morning phone call Wednesday to say he was leaving to become head coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, just a little more than a week after he told Oregon he was staying.
Oregon responded by assuming the “Next Man In" philosophy that Kelly had always preached at Oregon for replacing key players.
Kelly had barely boarded a flight for Philadelphia when the Ducks swung the search for his replacement into gear. A job posting for “Head Football Coach" appeared within hours on the university’s website.
“We’re here moving forward. We’re not going to worry about what happened. He (Kelly) made a decision that was best for him and we wish him well," UO athletic director Rob Mullens said. “He’s been great for Oregon football and we’re moving on."
Mullens said Wednesday that he had already been contacted by search firms, although he had not heard from any individual candidates outside the program.
He set no timeline for replacing Kelly except to say that the Ducks will “move as fast as we can" — much like the team’s warp-speed offense under Kelly.
“We had already done a lot of groundwork, we had already started the process, knowing that Chip was going to be talking to the Eagles, (Buffalo) Bills and (Cleveland) Browns. We had geared up our process. We had obviously shut it down, but it’s easy to click right back on."
A person close to the team who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the coaching search is ongoing told The Associated Press early Wednesday that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was still considered the “front-runner." Under Oregon state law, the university must also interview at least one qualified minority candidate for the job.
Mullens acknowledged that there are internal candidates, but he added that there is no “leader in the clubhouse."
“The expectation for this program has shifted," Mullens said. “We want to win Pac-12 championships. We want to win BCS bowls."
Kelly set the bar high.
Kelly’s teams were 46-7 in his four years as head coach at Oregon. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowl games — including a bid for the national championship against Auburn in 2011 — and have won three Pac-12 championships under Kelly.
He came to the Ducks in 2007 as offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Bellotti. Kelly was selected to be Bellotti’s successor before Bellotti left the job.
Oregon finished last season 12-1. The team was ranked No. 1 and appeared headed for another shot at the national championship until a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford on Nov. 17. The Ducks wound up No. 2 in the final AP poll after beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl early this month.
The Ducks will likely move forward with hiring a coach quickly, because signing day for football recruits is Feb. 6. Shortly after the move was announced, several potential recruits went to Twitter to express their surprise, including Nico Falah, an offensive tackle from Bellflower, Calif., who wrote: “Chip Kelly left?!?! He was at my house 2 days ago."
Following Oregon’s Fiesta Bowl victory, Kelly flirted with three NFL teams: Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo. But after a wild weekend of interviews amid rumors and speculation, Kelly told the Ducks he was staying put.
But just nine days later, Kelly called Mullens to tell him he had changed his mind. KEZI-TV of Eugene caught Kelly at the Eugene airport as he prepared to leave for Philadelphia.
“It took so long to make it (a decision) just because the people here are special," Kelly told the television station. “The challenge obviously is exciting for me, but it’s an exciting time (and) it’s a sad time — saying goodbye to people you love and respect, and I wanted to make sure I talked to my players and did it in the right fashion and talked to our staff. I feel like I did."
Oregon’s new coach will undoubtedly face possible fallout from an NCAA investigation into the school’s use of recruiting services.
The inquiry is the result of reports that surfaced in 2011 concerning payments Oregon made to two such services, including a $25,000 check sent to Willie Lyles and Houston-based Complete Scouting Services in 2010. Lyles had a connection with a player who committed to Oregon.
Oregon had requested a summary disposition in the case and presented a report to the NCAA infractions committee outlining violations the school believed occurred and appropriate sanctions. But last month Yahoo Sports reported that Oregon is headed toward a hearing with the committee because the two sides could not reach an agreement.
The NCAA does not comment on ongoing investigations. The hearing could come as early as this spring.
But on the field, the Ducks appear sound. The team will return two of its most dynamic players next season: redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, and speedy sophomore running back De’Anthony Thomas, who ran for a 94-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff of the Fiesta Bowl.