Two University of New Hampshire officials were walking through the corridor beneath Rutgers’ stadium on Sept. 10, 2004, when they were passed by redshirt freshman quarterback Ricky Santos, who was just off the field from the week’s final practice.
“I love this sh--!” Santos hooted as he ran by.
He was 20 years old, never had started a college game and the following day would face a brash Rutgers team fresh off an upset of Michigan State. New Hampshire hadn’t beaten a Division I-A opponent since the I-AA division was created in the 1970s.
The matchup is known in college football as a “money game” – little New Hampshire makes a nice profit in exchange for an ego-boosting Rutgers win. Before kickoff, Rutgers fans emphasized the disparity by chanting, “High-school! Foot-ball!, ” as the visitors warmed up.
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What Santos knew – and the Rutgers fans did not – was that the Wildcats wouldn’t be timid despite his inexperience and their opponents’ advantages in size and speed. Their day-before-game session assured him they’d be fearless, attacking, relentless. They’d be the aggressors.
“I’d be lying if I said I knew we were going to win,” Santos said. “But I knew it would be fun.”
Rutgers led 24-14 at halftime, and New Hampshire was having trouble handling the edge blitz. Its young offensive coordinator didn’t respond conventionally, which would have been to add an extra blocker. Instead, he snapped the cap off a black marker, approached the white board and drew up a play – a tunnel screen – in which the outside receiver would run back toward the quarterback and catch a pass in the area vacated by Rutgers’ blitzing linebacker.
“We must have had 130 yards off of that tunnel screen alone in the second half,” Santos said.
He threw three of his then-school-record five touchdowns after halftime as Rutgers became increasingly exhausted by New Hampshire’s unrelenting pace. Rutgers officials had planned a postgame fireworks show to celebrate their inevitable win and a return to national prominence. Instead, their team lost 35-24.
“Somebody didn’t get the memo,” Santos said. “Because when the fireworks went off, the only ones left in the stadium were the UNH fans.”
New 49ers coach embraces his roots
The game was a signature victory for New Hampshire, and the always-attacking offensive style quickly became the program’s trademark. But few fans knew the identity of the man furiously scribbling Xs and Os across the whiteboard that day, imbuing Santos and teammates with moxie and mettle, and pressing down the accelerator on the fast-revving offense. The mastermind, at the time, was faceless.
Whether that bothered Chip Kelly, the new 49ers coach who was New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2006, is difficult to say and is what makes him such an compelling figure.
After all, anonymity is part of his persona.
Kelly, 52, declines one-on-one interviews, including for this story, telling reporters there are more interesting people to write about. His family and tight circle of friends, all from New Hampshire and all ingrained with a New Englander’s aversion to outsiders, are no easier to crack. Former players follow their lead. To speak about Chip is to betray Chip.
“If I’m talking to someone and they start getting into the personal stuff – ‘Is Chip married?’ – I’ll ask if we’re done talking about football,” said former New Hampshire wide receiver David Ball. “At that point, it’s time to start wrapping up the interview.”
Kelly’s career path isn’t marked by the restless ambition of other NFL head coaches. His final year as a player at New Hampshire was 1984. But he didn’t graduate until 1990, spending the five years in between in his hometown of Manchester, N.H., working as a high school physical education teacher and coaching junior varsity football and track. He was an assistant coach at New Hampshire for 14 seasons, twice turning down more high-profile positions before leaving for Oregon after the 2006 season.
New Hampshire – small, feisty, libertarian – remains his sanctuary. As soon as the 49ers’ final minicamp ended in June, Kelly was back in the Portsmouth area, organizing bocce tournaments at his home and attending other charity events. He socialized at the same waterfront bars he frequented when he was a 30-something assistant, hanging out with the same friends he had a quarter century ago.
The group had the kind of bar-level discussions – who’s the better basketball player, George Gervin or Kevin Durant? – as any group of 50-something sports nuts. Maybe a few heads turned to see an NFL head coach in their midst. But Kelly goes there because it’s familiar and comfortable, and because he’s largely left alone.
Offenses are flashy; Kelly not so much
New England abhors flashiness, and so does Kelly. He flew to his job interview with 49ers officials in January wearing sweats.
The offenses he’s crafted, however, practically wave flares and scream, “Look at me!” Not only are they unorthodox, they break the most sacrosanct tenets of football.
“Chip was one who hoped he’d lose time of possession every game,” said Jim Jeannotte, who broadcast New Hampshire football games for 35 years. “Because that meant he scored real quick and didn’t have many long drives. He wasn’t a long, sustained-drive type of guy. He went for the big play.”
Those offenses – they would vary week to week when he was New Hampshire’s offensive coordinator – often have been genius.
Against South Florida in 1999, Kelly unearthed the Wing T formation – a throwback to the 1930s – and came within a two-point conversion of upsetting the favored Bulls on their home field.
In 2005, New Hampshire opened a game against Villanova with a derivation of the tunnel screen that had worked so well the year before against Rutgers. But this time, the wide receiver caught the pass behind the line of scrimmage and tossed it back to Santos, who then found Ball open for a 66-yard touchdown.
Reporters have found that blend of showmanship and standoffish-ness irresistible, and Kelly’s reluctance to discuss himself has whetted the appetite for the very things he tries so hard to guard. Bill Belichick may be the NFL’s most enigmatic coach and Rex Ryan the most outspoken; Kelly is the most hunted.
During the league’s annual owners meeting, when every coach holds court at his own breakfast table for an hour, the throng of media at Kelly’s is four bodies deep. Reporters have arrived unannounced at his door in Rye, N.H., and at his parents’ home in Maine. When Kelly was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles last year, The Washington Post, which doesn’t regularly cover the Eagles, wrote a 2,500-word story revealing that, yes, Kelly once was married.
‘He wasn’t our boy until he left’
The man who has set the NFL abuzz attended a hockey school on a campus surrounded by barns, farmhouses and pasture.
New Hampshire’s football teams often were good. But they had all the flash of a mule and wagon. The squads featured a beefy fullback and two blocking tight ends and were designed to run the ball. If the Wildcats had a blowout win, the score might be 24-10.
Kelly was part of those teams.
In the 1982 media guide, he is listed as Chip Kelly, a 5-foot-8, 175-pound quarterback. A year later, he is Charles Kelly, a 5-9, 180-pound defensive back. A recent item by ESPN on NFL coaches’ playing careers asserts that Kelly, who in team photos looks like the local paperboy next to his mustachioed teammates, never accumulated any stats.
That’s not true. He saw action in 1983, which is when he recorded his only college stat – a single tackle – in a game against American International College.
There was little fanfare when he returned to New Hampshire a decade later as an assistant coach. He’s listed as “Chip Kelley” in that season’s media guide.
“Nobody remembers anything about him as a football player,” Jeannotte said. “Even when he was offensive coordinator, I think he could walk around the streets of New Hampshire and nobody knew who he was. Now it’s like, ‘He’s our boy!’ But he wasn’t our boy until he left.”
He loved up-tempo styles – and technology
Sean McDonnell was well aware of Kelly’s talents. They were assistants under Bill Bowes, New Hampshire’s coach for 27 years before retiring in 1998. When McDonnell was tapped to take over the program the following season, he wanted to establish a new identity.
His first move was promoting Kelly to offensive coordinator and giving him plenty of autonomy.
McDonnell knew Kelly was whip-smart and organized. What really set him apart was his curiosity.
“He was always seeking new ideas, new ways to do things,” McDonnell said. “He was unbelievable – relentless – in visiting places that did more with less. Teams like Northwestern that were competing in the Big Ten, teams like Wake Forest. He went and saw how they were no-huddling, saw that they were playing up-tempo.”
On rides back to New Hampshire in the 1990s, Kelly would be at the front of the bus calling out results from other college games.
“William & Mary just beat James Madison,” he’d announce.
Everyone looked at each other and wondered where the young assistant was getting his information. It turned out that Kelly was one of the first to have a cellphone.
“He was giving us scores, and we didn’t even know what the heck he was holding,” Jeannotte said. “Most of us hadn’t even gone toward that (technology) yet.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the deep passes in Kelly’s playbook were named after cellphone carriers: AT&T, Verizon and Nextel. If New Hampshire’s previous offenses were Pony Express era, Kelly’s were wireless.
System not as complicated as it appears
Kelly’s offseason excursions took him to Clemson, where he learned about the school’s read-option system, and to the Canadian Football League, where he spent a few weeks as a volunteer assistant coach. He slept on couches, blow-up mattresses, in spare bedrooms.
Kelly would return to campus with new wrinkles to his system and with a conviction that New Hampshire’s offense needed to go faster, faster, FASTER than the year before.
“There were times when I’d say, ‘Chip, you’ve got to slow it down.’ ” McDonnell said. “And he’d say, ‘Mac, we’re going to score. Mac, we’re going to score one more!’ Now it was tough being a defensive player here. But once they realized that our goal was to win third downs, to win turnovers – all that stuff – then they bought it.”
Offensive players loved the system.
Ball, who broke Jerry Rice’s Division I-AA record for touchdown catches, said he has been part of offenses so bogged down by verbiage that the quarterback had to give separate instructions in the huddle to the receivers and running backs. In Kelly’s offense, the information comes from a hand signal.
“It seems so crazy; it seems so over the top like you’re doing too much,” Ball said. “But really, everything is simplified. All 11 players know what to do at the snap of a finger.”
Santos said new plays weren’t merely tacked onto the playbook; they were added as an offshoot of an existing concept.
“Our playbook never stayed the same,” he said. “It always evolved.”
Like his offense, Kelly seems to be evolving
As Kelly begins his fourth NFL season, the question is whether that evolution has hit a wall.
In his first season in Philadelphia, his Eagles won 10 games and the NFC East, and were No. 2 in total offense. Last year, those numbers fell to seven wins and a No. 12 ranking.
His defenses, a concern since he started running New Hampshire’s offense, have been terrible. The season before Kelly took over, the Eagles had the NFL’s 15th-ranked defense. During his three-year tenure, that unit finished 29th,28th and 30th.
Kelly’s rigid, ever-pressing style also met resistance among the Eagles’ players. Most damning was an accusation from running back LeSean McCoy, who after being dealt to Buffalo complained that Kelly “got rid of all the good players. Especially the good black players.”
The notion that Kelly is racist has been dismissed by former pupils, including 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who played for Kelly at Oregon. McDonnell said following McCoy’s remarks, he fielded phone calls and texts from former New Hampshire players and assistants eager to defend Kelly.
“When he was here, he was very tough on the kids – senior, freshman, black, white – it didn’t matter,” McDonnell said. “He challenged every kid. It was disappointing to see that. When a friend is getting (accused), it’s hard. Because he’s such a good person.”
Still, Kelly may have been too closed off, too inflexible, and he certainly had trouble working with pro-sized egos in Philadelphia.
He appears to be adapting in that area.
One of Kelly’s most conspicuous practices was daily urine tests that measured the Eagles’ hydration levels and that were deemed too intrusive – too “Orwellian,” one player said – by some on the team. They aren’t being conducted this year in San Francisco.
Kelly also was a stickler about socks, insisting players practice in white ones only, a policy that irked McCoy and others. It doesn’t appear to be an issue with the 49ers; wide receiver Torrey Smith has donned Iron Man-themed tights in spring practices while quarterback Colin Kaepernick wore a different-colored cleat to just about every session.
Offense puts more trust in players
There was initial resistance to the 49ers’ strange, new playbook in April. But it began making sense in May. By June, the players were ardent advocates.
In discussing that offense, Santos and Ball noted one more contradiction in Kelly. Yes, he is demanding. Yes, he pushes hard. No, he wasn’t a fan of colorful socks. But in a league teeming with control-freak coaches, Kelly’s system inherently puts faith in players because so little information comes from the sideline and because it is so ambitious.
The signatures of Kelly’s offense – razzle-dazzle pitch backs to the quarterback, going for it on fourth down – are the marks of a coach who trusts his players on game day. As Santos noted before he took on Rutgers in 2004, playing for Chip Kelly was fun.
Said Ball, who has coached high school football in Vermont: “I know this – I know that I will be a players’ coach as they were. I will hold my players accountable, which they did daily, sometimes it felt like hourly. But I will always trust my players.”
Chip Kelly at a glance
Age: 52, born Nov. 25, 1963
Hometown: Dover, New Hampshire
College: New Hampshire, 1990
Assistant coach: Columbia, 1990-91; New Hampshire, 1992; Johns Hopkins, 1993; New Hampshire, 1994-2006; Oregon, 2007-08
Head coach: Oregon, 2009-12 (46-7); Philadelphia Eagles, 2013-15 (26-22); 49ers, 2016-present
49ers’ key dates
Training camp: Santa Clara; first practice Sunday
Preseason opener: Aug. 14 vs. Houston, 4 p.m., Ch. 13
Regular-season opener: Sept. 12 vs. L.A. Rams, 7:20 p.m., ESPN