Chip Kelly and Nick Saban have combined for five conference championships, 91 wins and made four BCS championship game appearances since 2009. Each has set set a much different bar for competitors to meet at the college level: Saban has built a machine via aggressive and prescient recruiting strategies, replacing NFL caliber talent as if on a conveyor belt. Kelly has mastered the spread offense with an innovative approach that has taken the system to an unprecedented level. His oversight of a defense that plays at a pace as torrid as his offense gives Oregon balance other quick-strike based teams lack.
The success of each piques curiosities among the NFL set. Rumors tying each to various NFL openings have persisted, but can either be pulled away from what they’ve established in the college game?
Saban has downplayed the rumors repeatedly, though his most recent refusal is the classic non-commital commitment. He told the press on Monday that leaving for the NFL “wouldn’t be fair” to Alabama.
Perhaps, but the NFL might also be Saban’s great, white whale.
His underwhelming tenure with the Miami Dolphins juxtaposed with his historic success at Alabama demonstrate why he might be better suited to the college game. Saban has emphasized — recently, almost seven years after the fact — how much differently his time with the Dolphins would have unfolded had his quarterback been Drew Brees.
Brees was on the free agent market in 2006. Miami’s front office opted for Daunte Culpepper. Returning to South Beach for the BCS championship game has apparently brought back the harsh reality of Saban’s lone shortcoming in an otherwise illustrious head coaching career.
At Alabama, or anywhere in the college ranks, Saban is the GM. His recruiting acumen has subsidized his victories in Tuscaloosa. Obviously, recruiting well isn’t the sole determiner of Saban’s collegiate success. The man can assemble a staff, and he can coach on game day. Plenty of programs recruit top shelf talent; the rarest of the rare win multiple championships.
Saban has job security for life at Alabama. Employers don’t typically commission statues of coaches who might every occupy a hot seat. Thus, the NFL franchise that lures Saban out of Bryant-Denny Stadium will do so because its front office is an extension of Saban.
That would not be such a risky gamble. Saban has professional roots, as well as every credential that should translate to NFL success. He employs a Pro Set offense, predicated on dominant line play. He cycles multiple, workmanlike backs seamlessly through the offense. That complements a defense built on the perfect combination of speed and power, which adapts regardless of the offense it’s facing. All of it screams NFL.
Kelly is another story. The intrigue surrounding him is that he is somewhat of a mystery. His rise is meteroic. While Saban has an NFL pedigree, Kelly emerged from the obscurity of the University of New Hampshire, to transform Oregon’s offense under Mike Bellotti, then propelled the Ducks into the stratosphere. The only accomplishment eluding him at the college level is a national championship. From there, the next frontier is the NFL.
An immediate parallel to draw to Kelly is Steve Spurrier. His Fun-and-Gun offense revolutionized Florida, but did not translate well to the Washington Redskins.
Spurrier’s spectacular failure at Washington is the quintessential example many will cling to when arguing against a college coach in the NFL — particularly a college coach who employs an unorthodox system.
Kelly’s style is starting to transcend that mentality. The interest NFL franchises express in him is a testament to that. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pursuit of Greg Schiano after a deal with Kelly fell through is equally telling. Schiano’s style at Rutgers was much as the antithesis as Kelly’s in Oregon as one might imagine. Schiano was also much closer to the prototypical NFL style.
The NFL is showing gradual shifts toward spread and zone-read offenses working. Washington is using it with Robert Griffin III; Kelly’s Pac-12 rival at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh, has integrated elements of it in San Francisco; and in the Pacific Northwest not far from UO, Russell Wilson is thriving running a similar system at Seattle.
Of course, this is all based on an assumption Kelly is married to his current incarnation of the spread, like Spurrier was married to his Florida system when arriving in the NFL. What makes Kelly an intriguing professional prospect isn’t so much the what as the how. Perhaps to that end, Kelly could be more Bill Walsh than Steve Spurrier. Kelly devised his style at Oregon because it gave his program the best opportunity to win. He perfect it by assembling the right staff on both sides of the ball, and implementing a practice system that made it work as fluidly as possible. A similar philosophy would allow Kelly to adapt to the professional style.
Saban and Kelly differ vastly. Saban has openly criticized the style Kelly coaches (though not Kelly specifically). Their differences spark heated debate among fans. But the way in which each implements his scheme couldn’t be more similar.