Let’s be real: When Oregon fans heard that Chip Kelly was putting the final touches on a hefty contract to become head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, three primary thoughts came to mind:
No. 1: First LaMichael James leaves, then Darron Thomas and now Chip? Ouch.
No. 2: Are the Ducks facing serious discipline from the NCAA?
No. 3: Is Oregon’s run as an elite program quickly coming to an end?
At least that’s how I felt. And while Chip’s last-second return eliminated thoughts No. 1 and No. 2, No. 3 is still an approaching reality. As my editor Patrick Malee noted in his column this week, Kelly’s departure appears to be inevitable in the coming seasons. Chip is just too charismatic, dynamic and competitive to remain in the Willamette Valley. The NFL will soon come calling again, and eventually an opportunity will simply be too good to decline.
Kelly’s suddenly uncertain status has understandably rattled the program’s fan base. And while the unpredictability has put a damper on the Ducks’ recruiting class, it should also prompt Oregon supporters to look in the mirror and ask themselves an important question:
Have I truly appreciated the unprecedented nature of Oregon’s success over the last three seasons?
If your answer is yes, I beg you to reconsider. Unless you sat through the infamous Toilet Bowl in 1983 or suffered through 36 seasons sans a conference title (1958-1993), you can’t honestly see Oregon’s accomplishments contextually. It’s not often that a program transforms from terrible to top-notch in the span of two decades. But that’s exactly what’s happened at Oregon. @@http://www.nationalchamps.net/NCAA/database/oregon_database.htm@@
A lack of appreciation is starkly evident in current students like myself. In my three years in Eugene, the Ducks have gone 34-6 and earned a BCS bowl berth each season, including a showdown in the National Championship Game. Calling that run rare would be a gross understatement; three years ago, the notion of Oregon sustaining such a level of achievement was straight-up preposterous. @@http://www.goducks.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=3377&SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&Q_SEASON=2011@@ @@http://www.goducks.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=3377&SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&Q_SEASON=2010@@ @@http://www.goducks.com/SportSelect.dbml?SPSID=3377&SPID=233&DB_OEM_ID=500&Q_SEASON=2009@@
Throw in Uncle Phil’s marketing machine and a lineup of shiny new uniforms, and you’re looking at a whole new ballgame. A program that toiled as a hapless afterthought for generations is now on ESPN almost daily. When Erin Andrews started visiting campus on a biweekly basis, you knew we’d really hit the jackpot.
In recent seasons, the ball has been bouncing Oregon’s way. The suspension of LeGarrette Blount aided the emergence of James. The fall of Jeremiah Masoli morphed into a historic season for Thomas. But Kelly’s NFL flirtations are unlikely to follow the pattern; although all is good for now, it’s under his guidance that the team cleared those seemingly insurmountable hurdles. When he jumps ship, I’m uncertain how the Ducks will react to adversity.
A couple weeks ago, I chatted about Oregon’s ascension with an old family friend. A gray-haired former Duck who attended school in the early 1980s, he joked that when he was in Eugene, you could easily sneak into the stands — with a keg. Compare that with the online scramble that current students endure every Sunday night during football season. It’s not that the teams of old didn’t routinely score 50 points in a game; they were flat out hard to watch.
Accordingly, when the most famous visor in the state returns to the sidelines this spring, every member of the Oregon family should take a moment to pause. Not only because Chip has lead Oregon to new heights, but because hype (and hope) for another landmark season will crescendo to an all-time high. I believe the program will be in good hands when Kelly leaves. But as of now, he appears to have the Midas touch, and that’s not something that’s easily replaced at any level of sport.
Make no mistake — the clock is ticking on Kelly’s time in Eugene. But even if Chip remains in yellow and green for just one more season, we’ve all been privileged to witness such a fruitful and fascinating run. With unparalleled performances in the rear-view mirror and Ducks still on the rise, let’s make sure we still look around and appreciate the view.