Chip Kelly, the Master Student

Kelly, watching - Steve Dykes

Chip Kelly is an excellent teacher, but he's an even better learner.

Football head coaches don't generally like to be told what to do, by anybody. President Richard Nixon -- a diehard football fan -- called up Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula before Super Bowl VI in 1972, and suggested he run the slant pass. Shula did, and it failed. Miami lost 24-3 (to the Cowboys), and Nixon was impeached (though mostly for other reasons).

So you can understand why a coach might be reluctant to take advice. But Chip Kelly is different, in case you haven't noticed.

Back on November 22, I wrote about Chip Kelly the Teacher. That's an undervalued and essential skill for any football coach, even in the NFL, and it's a big part of why the Eagles have steadily improved from 1-3 cellar dweller to 8-5 division leader in just 10 weeks.

Coach Kelly has another virtue that's much less common -- downright rare, in fact. He's an excellent student. Even as a 47-6 college phenom, or the hottest rookie coach in the NFL, the Chippah is committed to constantly getting better and learning from any source that he can.

In his very entertaining press conferences, Kelly has passed on wisdom he gleaned from the likes of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, fastbreak guru Paul Westhead and sozzled wartime hero Winston Churchill.

As an assistant coach at the University of New Hampshire, making less than 1/100th of his current $6.5 million salary, Kelly paid his way to travel around the U.S., sleeping on couches and talking football with anyone who the grapevine said was good with with Kelly's beloved spread offense strategies -- even high school coaches.

One of these trips brought him to Eugene, Oregon, where he impressed several of the football coaches at the University of Oregon. When Mike Bellotti, who was installing a spread offense, needed a new Offensive Coordinator, Kelly's name sprang quickly to mind. The rest is history.

After taking the Ducks to BCS bowls every year, and winning Oregon's first Rose Bowl victory since 1917, Kelly was more than happy to travel to Foxboro, Mass. and chew the fat with another restless mind, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, and Chip's old friend Bill O'Brien (then New England's OC, now head coach at Penn State).

Like all of these discussions, this was a two-way street; Chip freely offered his strategies and opinions -- including the one-word play calls that Belichick copied to great effect. That was a confident if not cocky move, given that Chip had to know he would be an NFL coach competing against Belichick soon enough. (He had already interviewed for, and turned down, the Tampa Bay head coaching job.)

But Chip was also soaking up football wisdom from one of the game's greats (and his very talented assistants), in a fascinating sort of chess match. It was a strange, cooperative competition straight out of a kung fu movie; the brilliant student learns from his sensei, and everyone knows that this movie will end with an epic fight to the death. The two continued their frenemy dance by holding joint practices at the Novacare facility this August, just before the teams played a preseason game, but a battle that counts will have to wait until future years -- or, just possibly, the Super Bowl.

Kelly will listen to anyone, not just Super-Bowl-winning head coaches. The most humble and unusual learning that Coach Kelly pursues is at the hands of his own players. Back in 2002, when Kelly was a newish Offensive Coordinator at UNH, he said this to New Hampshire reporter Mike Zhe: "I'll take a play from anybody. We are non-discriminatory when it comes to someone suggesting a play." Chip paused for effect. "You got anything?"

Even then, Kelly admitted that there were limits. "Some kids’ll ask every day if they can get a play in. There's a trust factor there. You can't have kids coming up wanting to try plays they've seen on PlayStation 2." But if your play made sense, there was a good chance that Kelly would at least try it in practice and see how it goes. After all, sports science just means testing your theories against real world results, and following where that leads you.

One of the players who had the best ideas was Ryan Day, the Wildcats' starting QB for three years. After graduation, Kelly hired him as tight ends coach; Day is now the offensive coordinator at Boston College.

Last Sunday, cornerback Cary Williams came to Chip in the 3rd period with an interesting piece of data that led him to a bold hypothesis. The Eagles were trailing 14-0 and had very little success on offense all day. Although the blizzard conditions made passing seem impossible, Williams knew from his own snaps that, in the snow, it was almost impossible for defensive backs to recover and close off separation after a good receiver fake. So he suggested Kelly throw deep. Four straight passes got Philadelphia its first points and thawed out the Eagles' offense. Philadelphia won, 34-20.

This is nothing new. A month ago, Kelly told a press conference that he asks his quarterbacks for suggestions continually. All of them. "We ask those guys every single week whether you’re one, two or 3, you know, what do you like, what don’t you like, what do you like in these situations, we write ‘em all down, we have them with us, we discuss them with them. "

It's all part of his philosophy, minimizing his own (and everyone else's) ego, working as a team, studying and practicing and doing football. No coach has unique or irreplaceable ideas; back in 2002 he told Zhe "If you weren't in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne, you're stealing it from somebody." Every Eagles reporter has heard some variation of that saying, and Kelly lives it.

The second you think you know it all, you're toast. You have to keep looking to improve, and keep yourself open to constant learning. Chip Kelly, the master student, learns from players, from opponents, from fellow coaches, from videotape, and from every play he coaches. They Eagles may not advance in the playoffs this year; they might not even make it to the dance. But going forward, this learning makes Kelly a very tough coach to beat.

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