UCLA needs a new head coach. Chip Kelly is gone, taking the Ohio State offensive coordinator job in a stunning move.
It was clear Kelly wanted out. He interviewed for several NFL assistant jobs and has openly complained about the state of college football. In leaving UCLA, he will take a major pay cut. Rumors surfaced late last season that Kelly could be fired, but no move was made after the Bruins finished 8-4 and won the LA Bowl. Kelly went 35-34 at UCLA, winning at least eight games in each of his last three seasons.
The move puts the Bruins in a difficult spot, even though they had begun preparing for Kelly’s departure.
“A national search for the next head coach of UCLA football has already begun,” athletic director Martin Jarmond said in a statement. “As we continue preparation for our move to the Big Ten conference later this year, it is imperative that we have the right leader in place to position the program to compete at the highest level for our student-athletes, fans and university. We are confident we will find a leader who develops young men on and off the field and embodies our True Bruin Values. We understand the importance of the timing of this search and will heed the advice of Coach Wooden, to be quick but not to hurry.”
So how good is the UCLA job? What names could get in the mix? Here are some factors to keep in mind.
The timing is difficult
Hiring a coach in February is obviously not ideal. Many of the head coaches who could be natural fits for the job had it opened in the fall have already gone elsewhere, like Jedd Fisch (former UCLA assistant now at Washington), Jonathan Smith (grew up in Pasadena, now at Michigan State) and Brent Brennan (Arizona).
Teams are back in class and going through workouts. Some sitting head coaches will not want to leave their teams at this point in the calendar. On the other hand, as the only open head job, UCLA won’t have competition for the coaches it seeks out.
Resources have been an issue
UCLA athletics has been in rough financial shape for a while. It’s one reason the school needed to make the Big Ten move. Current athletic director Martin Jarmond has spent much of his time cleaning up the financial mismanagement under previous AD Dan Guerrero, which included a $28 million deficit in 2022 and a $131 million deficit over four years.
UCLA has been a non-factor in the name, image and likeness market, which has hurt recruiting and the ability to land transfers (and keep players). The Bruins’ 2024 recruiting class ranks last in the Big Ten with just 10 players signed, according to 247Sports. Their highest-paid assistant last year, defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, made just over $1 million and left for USC this winter for more than double the salary.
The program opened a new football building in 2017, but the fan base has largely checked out, with just over 47,000 fans per home game this year and some calling to fire Kelly late in the season.
As the program moves into the Big Ten, the difference in resources will be even greater. Oh, and the Bruins will have to give some of that Big Ten money to Cal through an agreement within the University of California system.
It’s a Big Ten job now, but what is the ceiling?
UCLA football has found success but struggled to sustain it. Bob Toledo reached consecutive BCS games in 1997 and 1998, followed by a 4-7 season. Karl Dorrell won 10 games in 2005 but was fired two years later after a 6-6 season. Jim Mora won 10 games in 2013 and 2014 but went 4-8 two years later and was fired the following season. Kelly slowly built UCLA into a solid program again, but the Bruins had also hit a ceiling around eight or nine wins, clearly behind the Pac-12’s best.
The program has access to a lot of talented players in Southern California, but it hasn’t recruited well, in part because of the NIL issues mentioned above but also because of Kelly himself. Can a new coach change that?
It’s great to be in the Big Ten, but are the Bruins going to fall behind the pack because of their financial situation? When UCLA agreed to make the jump, it was only alongside USC. Now Oregon and Washington are coming, too, and the Ducks have been cleaning up in California recruiting. The 2024 schedule includes games against LSU, Oregon, Penn State, Washington, Iowa and USC. That’s tough.
This is a job that has always seemed to have more potential than actual success. Coaches can win here, but building and sustaining a winner has not happened in a long time.
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So what names could get in the mix?
Based on conversations with industry sources, here are some potential names to keep in mind.
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has turned Minnesota into a consistent winner, and his outgoing personality could excite a place like Westwood. The 43-year-old has taken the Gophers to five bowl games in six years, including three seasons of at least nine wins in a four-year span, highlighted by an 11-2 season and top-10 finish in 2019. He also took Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl to cap a 13-1 season in 2016.
Former Stanford head coach David Shaw remains greatly respected after spending a year out of coaching and interviewed for the Los Angeles Chargers head coaching job last month. Shaw took Stanford to five BCS/NY6 games from 2011 to 2017, with two Rose Bowl wins and three top-10 finishes. He’s familiar with difficult recruiting situations and always got talented players to Stanford, even in the NIL era. But his tenure ended with three losing seasons in the last four years, including consecutive 3-9 seasons. His son Carter Shaw just finished his first season with the program as a wide receiver.
USC defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn was a bright spot on last year’s UCLA team. In his first season on staff as defensive coordinator, Lynn improved UCLA’s defense from 72nd in yards per play allowed to eighth, and defensive end Laiatu Latu won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top defensive lineman. The 34-year-old Lynn left for USC, as mentioned above, but it wouldn’t be hard to head back across town.
Alabama offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb followed Kalen DeBoer to Tuscaloosa after taking Washington to the national championship game. Grubb turned Michael Penix Jr. into the Heisman runner-up and was a nominee for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. Before Washington, he spent five years at Fresno State, where he helped quarterback Jake Haener become an NFL Draft pick.
Oregon defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi is a California native, played at Cal and has been one of the best recruiters in the country. He could improve the Bruins’ fortunes in the talent-acquisition game, having often finished in the top 10 in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings. The 42-year-old spent five years under Nick Saban at Alabama, rising to defensive coordinator in 2018. He moved to the NFL the next year, then came back to college football in 2022. Lupoi was the target of an NCAA recruiting investigation a decade ago while at Washington but ultimately wasn’t penalized.
Florida Atlantic head coach Tom Herman is a Southern California native with just one losing season on his resume. He went 22-4 at Houston with a Peach Bowl win, and he posted three Top 25 seasons in four years at Texas. That wasn’t enough to keep his job, but he left UT better than he found it. Herman went 4-8 in his first year at FAU in 2023, his first losing season as a head coach, but the program was set back by a season-ending injury to quarterback Casey Thompson. Another factor to keep in mind: Herman was an Ohio State assistant when Jarmond was an assistant AD in Columbus.
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has been a consistent winner. He just finished Year 8 in Ames, getting the Cyclones to a sixth bowl game after a disconcerting 2-3 September and a summer in which several players were charged in the state of Iowa’s investigation into sports wagering by college athletes. He’s approaching the top 10 longest-tenured head coaches in the Power 4 and has only finished under .500 twice at Iowa State, along with a top-10 finish in 2020. He has never coached this far west, but he’s an Ohio native with deep ties to Big Ten country.
UCLA linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. could be an internal option. The L.A. native and former UCLA player was an assistant during USC’s dynasty days in the mid-2000s before following Pete Carroll to the NFL. The 57-year-old returned to college football in 2022 to coach at his alma mater.
Las Vegas Raiders running backs coach DeShaun Foster was on UCLA’s staff from 2017 to 2023 before taking a job with the Raiders this month. The former Bruin player has spent all but one season of his coaching career with UCLA. Some current UCLA players called for him to get the job in the immediate aftermath of Kelly’s departure.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White is a former UCLA player who was in the mix for the San Diego State job in this cycle. He spent almost a decade as an Aztecs assistant, coaching one of the best defenses in the country before moving to Arizona State and Syracuse.
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun has continued to win. The 57-year-old Oregon native is 29-10 over the last three seasons and has won at least nine games in each of the past four full seasons. Calhoun, who has experience as an NFL offensive coordinator and wouldn’t be tied to the triple option, is 130-82 at Air Force since 2007 with 13 bowl appearances. He’s another coach who has kept winning in an era where service academies are held back by transfer and NIL rules.
UNLV head coach Barry Odom took the Rebels to 9-5 in his first season with an appearance in the Mountain West championship game, the program’s best season in almost 40 years. UNLV led the Mountain West in scoring offense but recently lost talented freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava, who transferred to USC. Before UNLV, Odom went 25-25 as Missouri’s head coach from 2016 to ’19 with two bowl appearances. In between those stops was a successful three-year stint as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator.
Could Baylor head coach Dave Aranda be an option? The California native is heading into a must-win season coming off a 3-9 year, but he’s just two years removed from a 12-2 season with a Big 12 championship and a Sugar Bowl win. He also might have too high of a buyout after signing an extension in early 2022.
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox beat Kelly and UCLA 33-7 to cap the 2023 regular season. Wilcox is 36-43 in one of the tougher Power 4 jobs, but he turned things back in the right direction with a bowl appearance last season. The 47-year-old Oregon native was also USC’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and ’15. There are already hard feelings between UCLA and Cal right now over the Big Ten move, which could make this option too difficult.
New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was a UCLA assistant from 2012 to ’14 before moving to the NFL. He’s a California native who has done a really good job in the pros. Would he have any interest in college again? He didn’t get an NFL head coaching interview in this cycle despite running one of the best defenses in the league.
(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)