Chip Kelly's old pals still bullish on him

UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE Chip Kelly as a college defensive back after being a prep QB.
UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE Chip Kelly as a college defensive back after being a prep QB.
Posted: January 25, 2013

MANCHESTER, N.H. - The idea seemed sudden, immediate, the way so many of Chip Kelly's do. Truth is, the running of the bulls, the heart-in-your-throat panic-fest held annually the second week of July in Pamplona, Spain, was something the new Eagles coach always wanted to do, but never had the time - or for most of his 23-year college coaching career, the cash.

But last summer, as the well-compensated head coach of the University of Oregon, neither was a problem. Not for him. And, by association, not for the tight-knit group of high school teachers, coaches and restaurant owners who have provided the grounding to his high-voltage profile and career, who have vicariously lived his rapid and improbable ascent from a college assistant coach earning $62,000 in 2006, to a man who just signed a 5-year, $32.5 million deal to be the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Chip was paying. All you had to do was say yes and run ahead of some bulls.

"So a bunch of us went," says Mike Zamarchi, the basketball coach of Marshwood High School in South Berwick, Maine, and one of Kelly's longtime friends. "Me and a couple of other guys from Portsmouth [N.H.] and one of his assistants. We went there, and he gave us all a strategy."

Here was the strategy: The night before, they walked the route the bulls would run. They asked a lot of questions of the people there. Kelly even had them watch a video from the year before.

And then?

"It was just crazy," says Zamarchi. "The bulls went by us pretty quick. Eight to 10 of them, 50 people deep, everyone running for their lives. It was just one of those things that was pure chaos."

So the strategy didn't work?

"Let me put it this way," Zamarchi says, laughing. "I don't think he'll be doing any more of that."

There is a great concern in the Delaware Valley that Charles "Chip" Kelly, age 49, will not adjust as a professional football coach. That charged with shaping a squad of 50 rather than 150 into winners, he will be unable to ease up on the throttle, unable to tinker with the zone-read offense that won 46 of the 53 games he coached at Oregon, or motivate equally well-compensated professional players the way he did those playing for a scholarship.

That, frankly, his strategy will result in a panic-fest on their streets.

There is no great concern though, from the Merrimack Valley to the Saco Valley, a region that extends through three New England states, a region that unilaterally claims Kelly as its own. "Chippah," as those who know him best tend to call him, is no one-trick pony to them, but rather a relentless student of football who spent a lot of his own money and slept on a countless number of couches into his 40s in order to advance his encyclopedic knowledge of the game.

To people like Zamarchi, and Chris Ouelette, and the halfdozen others in his inner circle, Kelly's meteoric success is sudden - but long overdue.

"I always knew he was ahead of the curve on coaching and that he was a very smart guy," Zamarchi says. "But I never imagined that in 6 years he would go from the offensive coordinator at UNH to this. I kind of thought, 'Well, some people get chances and some people don't,' and for guys around here it's real difficult. Especially that quick."

Kelly is believed to be the first NFL head coach born in New Hampshire. One big reason for that is profile. In the entire New England area, only Boston College and Connecticut compete in bowl-eligible conferences. Located in Durham, UNH has a long, proud football tradition in the Division I-AA level, but the football offices are small, windowless cells housed with all the other sports in an old, nondescript building called simply "The Fieldhouse."

Kelly's office there, affectionately dubbed "The Dungeon" is slightly smaller than Michael Barkann's suit closet. His apartment in nearby Portsmouth was bigger, but worlds away from the mansion built for him after his successes at Oregon boosted his earnings into the millions.

"He had a desk in the corner and he would never come out," recalls Bill Herrion, the former Drexel basketball coach in his eighth season at UNH. "It was almost like Groundhog Day when he did. And as a coach I get that. He just seemed so content to me. Like, 'I went to UNH. I played at UNH. These are all my guys. I'm around my friends, I'm around my family. This is fine for me.' "

It still is. He's just away from home more than when he was an offensive assistant for UNH in the 12 years preceding his move to Oregon in 2007. Portsmouth bars like The Rusty Hammer - named after owner Rus Hammer - still claim numerous summertime sightings. Kelly and Zamarchi - Chip and Zip to friends - still run several charity functions in the area over the summer, benefiting whomever or whatever they choose. This year's golf tournament, an invitation-only affair whose attendees ranged from cooks to NFL stars, raised money for Paul Gorham, the Maine-born football coach of Sacred Heart University who needed two lung transplants and had to have both legs amputated below the knees last summer because of a rare and incurable lung disease.

"That's when you get to see the real guy," says Dennis Scannell, a former coach for both the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Lowell High School. "When he's around his friends and people he trusts."

Zamarchi doesn't dispute this. Kelly tires of gushing stories far quicker than those who like to tell them. When someone tried to bring up the story at this year's Fiesta Bowl about him refunding the ticket of a disgruntled fan in his early days as Oregon's head coach, Kelly dismissed it with a quick, "Old news." When dinner with his core group out there turned from one photo opportunity into a line of people, Kelly reluctantly moved his entourage into one of the restaurant's private rooms.

Even at Oregon, despite his success and salary, Kelly had a hard time with the alumni-hobnob deal.

"Yep. No doubt about it," says Zamarchi, whose relationship with Kelly extends over 2 decades. "I hear it all the time: 'Why doesn't he like me, blah, blah, blah?' If he doesn't know you . . . it's not mean. He just won't talk."

He also isn't crazy about others talking about him. Zamarchi and I share a great friend, a Marshwood football coach named Guy Lajeunesse, who died of brain cancer last May at age 51. Zamarchi also knew that I spoke to Kelly's head coach and good friend at UNH, Sean McDonnell, and to Herrion.

And still it took several phone calls and a pleading text to get him to return my call.

"I just don't want to say too much," Zamarchi says. "It's his life, not mine."

Such loyalty swings both ways and goes a long way to explain how, despite his profile, little is known of Kelly's family. We know this: He is the third of four boys born to retired attorney Paul Kelly and his wife Jean. Two brothers have moved out of the New England area and one, Kevin, is part of his enclave, a group affectionately known as the East Coast Ducks. And he was once engaged but no longer is.

Kelly was born in Dover and, despite his 5-9 stature, was a quarterback and defensive back for Manchester Central High School (Adam Sandler was a freshman there when Kelly was a senior). A member of the school's hall of fame, he also was a terrific two-way hockey player and, according to McDonnell, might have even loved it more than football at one time.

But his post-high school offers came in football, including an invite from longtime New Hampshire coach Bill Bowes to play defensive back in Durham.

"I'm sure he could have gone to a Division III school and been their quarterback," says Bowes, now 69 and still residing in Durham. "But that's evidence of Chip's competitiveness. He wanted to play at the most competitive level, and he ended up playing quite a bit. Even then he looked a lot younger than his age. But he was a tough kid, and he would hit you."

After he graduated with a bachelor's degree in physical education, Kelly coached as an assistant for 4 years at Manchester Central, where he met McDonnell, a former UNH player working as an assistant at Boston University. McDonnell ended up at Columbia when BU's football program ceased to exist, and offered Kelly's name as a candidate for a part-time position coaching freshmen and making recruiting trips.

Kelly got the gig. It was the start of one of the more trusting, intertwined coaching relationships of college sports. Within years, both men wound up coaching for Bowes at UNH in various capacities. And when McDonnell was promoted to head coach after Bowes retired after the 1998 season, he made Kelly his offensive coordinator.

"He had a thirst for knowledge," McDonnell says. "And he went to a lot of different places. That was one of the great things about Chip. His spring visits, his summer visits, when he would work a camp for 7 or 8 years at Boston College, say - he wasn't the typical coach. He was in watching tape, talking to other coaches."

UNH's offense took off, but the team lagged behind. Their scores resembled Arena League scores or CFL games that went into six overtimes. For four of their first five seasons in those roles, UNH - which values and nurtures a tradition of football excellence at that level - finished below .500.

"There was a small amount of disgruntlement about Sean being the right guy," says athletic director Marty Scarano, a Penn State grad who came to New Hampshire after McDonnell's first season. "But I knew Sean was the right guy. And once Chip got the offense going, this thing took off."

Actually, Kelly took off. Literally. "He would go to Wake Forest where they were having tremendous success running the inside zone play," McDonnell says. "He'd go to Northwestern. He did an internship in Canada once for 2 weeks with no pay so he could learn their systems. Came back talking about all the motions, about spreading the field."

These were the start of the research-and-development missions Kelly still conducts today. But while his trips to NFL training camps over the last two seasons were financed by Oregon's Nike-rich budget, Kelly's UNH trips relied on the welcoming arms of friends and a coaching fraternity he relishes to this day.

"We were very creative with the money," McDonnell says. "We gave him as much as we could, but it wasn't a lot. In everything he's ever done in his life, money is not the issue. The issue is, 'What can I do to make myself a better coach? What can I do to learn more about football? What can I do to keep doing what I want to do?' He turned down a couple of these places for double the money."

One was to be quarterbacks coach and assistant offensive coordinator at Connecticut. The next, offered the year before he took the Oregon job, came from New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin - a quality-control job, at least to start. Both places were intrigued by the success of Kelly's fast-paced spread offense, yet the job descriptions seemed a hedged bet.

"He wasn't comfortable either time," McDonnell says.

"Most people in coaching are driven to take either of those jobs," says Herrion, who turned down a job at Rutgers while at Drexel and later accepted one at East Carolina. "I think he was content here because he could coach football the way he wanted to, nobody bothered him and the head coach was his best friend. Sean trusted him so much. That's rare."

For the past nine seasons - the first four while Kelly was offensive coordinator - UNH has reached the Division I-AA (or FCS) playoffs. McDonnell recently picked up his fourth coach-of-the-year honor from the New England football writers. His 104-66 record is creeping up on the school mark set by Bowes at 175-106-5.

The simple conclusion is that McDonnell owes much to Kelly. Scarano believes that thinking is upside down. "My personal opinion is that Chip owes a lot to Sean," Scarano says. "Sean gave him the autonomy to make mistakes and succeed."

Either way, the two remain so intertwined that the jerseys in both team's stands on game day sometimes reflect that.

"It's pretty amazing what's happened over the last 3 or 4 years here," Zamarchi says. "Once people started following him everybody became an Oregon fan. The colors have become very fashionable to wear."

McDonnell and Kelly still talk regularly, and when his schedule allows, the UNH coach has joined the other East Coast Ducks on their Portland-to-Portland cross-country junkets to Oregon games. Back in 2010, amid recruiting trips, award ceremonies and the preparations for an upcoming bowl, Kelly even dropped in unannounced to New Hampshire's playoff game in Delaware.

Much to his chagrin, he was recognized.

"Chip is just that way," Scarano says. "It's part of our culture. UNH is understated. And Chip is a product of this place. He isn't impressed by what people portray themselves to be. He's not impressed by finances particularly."

Kelly even had a luxury box for his friends worked into the last contract he signed with Oregon. He put them up when they were out there, too. He has also been able to move his parents out to Oregon and now back East, buying a house in Maine not far from where they once summered.

Kelly has, of course, also used some of it to heighten the hijinks with his core of friends. Besides the spontaneous trip to Spain last July, there was a safari trip in May. That trip, it should be noted, had to be preempted so he could attend the funeral of a high school coach he had known for a long time.

"He's about self-efficacy, modest, but very, very confident," Scarano said. "Bill kind of infused that into the UNH program and it has carried through. We don't promote ourselves a lot - sometimes to our detriment. And I think that's part of the answer when it comes to Chip as to why it took so long.

"He clearly had the capabilities to do this. But he clearly also does not promote himself. Nobody here does. Chip is absolutely sincere when he says his dream job is the job he's driving to today. He will give you 110 percent today."

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