"They accepted me six years ago when I was at New Hampshire," Kelly said. "Not many people knew about me."
The whole football world does now. And Eagles fans will get to know Kelly well.
After he coached Oregon to a 35-17 victory over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly met with the Eagles for nine hours on Jan. 5. On Jan. 6, it was announced that Kelly would stay with the Ducks. The Eagles moved on with their coaching search, but the interest never waned. They reached an agreement with Kelly to be their coach on Wednesday.
It concluded a turbulent 16 days of searching and brought the Eagles the most sought-after coach on the market - one who was thought to be leaving Oregon, then thought to be staying, and is now officially leaving.
"He's the prettiest guy in the room," said Josh Wilcox, a former Oregon and NFL player who is now a radio host in Portland.
Kelly tried avoiding the NFL hoopla leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. As an example of the cocoon in which the 49-year-old bachelor lives, Kelly went for a haircut on New Year's Day and wondered why stores were closed. When he finally took a seat at a barbershop on Jan. 2, Kelly saw his name scroll across the bottom of the ESPN screen about his candidacy for NFL jobs.
"I've said I'll always listen," Kelly said.
Indeed, when he heard a reporter from Philadelphia was present after his Fiesta Bowl victory, he asked if there was interest in the game from fans at Pat's and Geno's, two popular Philly steak places.
There was this season, and there will be discussion about Kelly at those places for a long time.
The story that will become part of Kelly's folklore, as explained in The New York Times Magazine in 2010, goes like this: Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti wanted to run the spread offense and deployed his offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to learn the system in 2005. Crowton learned about the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, Kelly, who had mastered the spread. He talked with Kelly.
When Crowton left for Louisiana State, Belotti figured he'd go to the source and lured Kelly to Eugene, Ore. After longtime Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti met Kelly on a visit, he was convinced that Kelly would become a star.
Kelly served as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007 and '08. After he became head coach in 2009, those around Oregon started to get the sense that Kelly thought differently than most.
"Before he got the head coach job, people around the football program said, 'This is just a football mind,' " Wilcox said. "He's one of those [minds] that just comes around once in a while. He's not just a normal football guy."
Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews played at Oregon and remembers Kelly working late hours in a dark office. Kelly mocked those in football who use the term "grinding," noting it's people with grueling, laborious jobs who are grinding - not those watching film in an air-conditioned office.
"He's a very sharp, witty, intelligent person, and he's a football junkie," Aliotti said. "He's not married. He has no kids. That allows for a lot of football time."
Kelly reached four straight Bowl Championship Series games by running Oregon more like a pro team than a college team. There was not much "rah-rah" with the Ducks, Wilcox said. The program was built on the motto of "Win the Day," playing and practicing at a rapid pace. That's how in six years, Kelly went from a Division I-AA offensive coordinator to the hottest NFL head coaching candidate.
"Was a pretty good move for him," Aliotti said. "Both career-wise, and financially."
The NFL challenge
The key with Kelly is to understand that his mind is more coveted than his system. But that does not stop questions from arising about how a coach who has never spent a day in the NFL can do in the pros, where players are more talented and Tennessee Tech is not on the schedule.
"If you're a good football coach, you're a good football coach no matter what level," Aliotti said.
Matthews acknowledged that while Kelly's offense might be up for debate, what can translate to the NFL is the speed and tempo that Kelly emphasizes. The coach has been steadfast in his belief that he can adapt to his personnel. The New England Patriots installed elements of his system this season with considerable success, and Tom Brady is not a mobile quarterback. Wilcox said the entire offense is based around speed, tempo, and creating mismatches.
"Anything you do has to be personnel-driven," Kelly said. "You have to adapt to the personnel you have. There's a lot of great offenses out there, but does it fit with the personnel you have? The key is making sure what you're doing is giving your people a chance to be successful."
Kelly framed his offensive philosophy when he was at New Hampshire and encountered trouble finding fullbacks for a traditional offense. There was a desire to run the ball but also to use the best 11 players. Most players who fit a fullback's body type wanted to play linebacker, not a glorified offensive line position. Even though Kelly runs a spread offense, he labeled it a running offense.
"The game is cyclical," Kelly said. "But if you're a good coach, you still have to adapt to what your players have."
Kelly will have to adapt when he hires his coaching staff as well, especially at defensive coordinator. Aliotti had total autonomy at Oregon and said Kelly never changed a call in the headset during the last four years.
The new Eagles coach is a football fanatic with ties around the league, and it's likely he'd hire an established NFL mind as defensive coordinator.
Wilcox said the challenge will be seeing how Kelly motivates players who are paid to play, but he was confident that the coach would figure that out. Wilcox admitted there might be skepticism from "old-school guys," questioning someone who has never coached a day in the NFL, but he said even that is overblown. Because one thing Kelly has always done is win.
"This is a guy I'd want to play for," Wilcox said. "If you want a guy who will help your team win football games, that's your guy. Because he does it."
Contact Zach Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.