EUGENE, Ore. – Like that, he was gone.
Chip Kelly boarded a plane at the Eugene Airport on Wednesday afternoon headed for Pennsylvania and a new job as the coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.
In Eugene, stunned fans were left wondering how the coach who appeared to be staying was now gone. Even athletic director Rob Mullens seemed a bit shocked as he described getting a call from Kelly at 7:15 Wednesday morning breaking the news.
"It's a very difficult decision for me," Kelly said in a brief statement just before he boarded the plane. "It took me so long to make it just because the people here are special."
Kelly said he was excited by the challenge of coaching in the NFL, but he added that it's a "sad time."
"I wanted to make sure I talked to my players and did it in the right fashion and talked to my staff," Kelly said. "I feel like I did."
The news came as such a shock because the school and fans had been assured that after a serious flirtation with the NFL, Kelly had decided to stay with the Ducks. Mullens even held a news conference saying the school was “ecstatic” that Kelly was staying in Eugene
Mullens said the topic of the NFL had not come back up until the call Wednesday morning at 7:15 a.m. Mullens said Kelly met with the team at 8 a.m. to break the news to them himself.
“Chip Kelly will be an outstanding head coach for the Eagles,” said team owner Jeffrey Lurie. “He has a brilliant football mind. He motivates his team with his actions as well as his words. He will be a great leader for us and will bring a fresh energetic approach to our team.”
Kelly replaces Andy Reid, who was fired in December. He is coming off a career 46-7 record as a head coach in Oregon, including two straight BCS bowl wins.
Future of the Ducks
Mullens said moving forward he is "laser-focused" on finding a new coach, although he refused to set a timeline.
A person close to the team who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Oregon had not yet formally announced Kelly's departure told The Associated Press early Wednesday that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was still considered the "frontrunner."
Mullens said the school would follow all the appropriate procedures when interviewing candidates. Under Oregon state law, the school must also interview at least one qualified minority candidate for the job.
"We want someone who understands the culture, not only within our football program but within our community," he said.
Mullens praised his veteran group of coaches, who are all out on the road recruiting.
"We have a number of internal candidates," he said. "We have a staff that has been highly successful for a long time."
Asked who he thought the Ducks should hire, Kelly said "they should hire anybody that's on that staff right now because it's the best staff in college football."
Kelly and the NFL
Following the Fiesta Bowl, the 49-year-old Kelly said he wanted to get the interview process over "quickly." Turns out, it was anything but.
He came close to jumping to the pros last year but turned down an offer from Tampa Bay to return for his fourth season as coach at Oregon, where he is 46-7. He has boosted the school's national profile — flashy uniforms helped — with a high-powered offense capable of turning any game into a track meet.
"It's more a fact-finding mission, finding out if it fits or doesn't fit," Kelly said after the Ducks defeated the Wildcats, 35-17. "I've been in one interview in my life for the National Football League, and that was a year ago. I don't really have any preconceived notions about it. I think that's what this deal is all about for me. It's not going to affect us in terms of we're not on the road (recruiting). I'll get an opportunity if people do call, see where they are.
"I want to get it wrapped up quickly and figure out where I'm going to be."
Kelly doesn't have any pro coaching experience, but aspects of his up-tempo offense are already being used by some NFL teams, including New England and Washington.
Kelly never said if he was leaning one way or another following the bowl.
"I said I'll always listen, and that's what I'll do," he said. "I know that people want to talk to me because of our players. The success of our football program has always been about our guys. It's an honor for someone to say they'd want to talk to me about maybe moving on to go coach in the National Football League. But it's because of what those guys do. I'll listen, and we'll see."
The Eagles are known to have interviewed 11 candidates, including two meetings with Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
Kelly interviewed with the Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills.
Oregon could be facing possible NCAA sanctions for the school's use of recruiting services, but Kelly indicated in Arizona that he isn't running from anything.
"We've cooperated fully with them," he said. "If they want to talk to us again, we'll continue to cooperate fully. I feel confident in the situation."
Oregon's players gave Kelly a Gatorade bath as the final seconds ticked off the clock vs. Kansas State, and afterward a few of the Ducks seemed resigned to their coach moving on.
"We'll have to see," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Whatever he decides to do, we're all behind him. He's an unbelievable coach. He's not only a football coach, but he's someone that you can look to and learn a lot of life lessons from. Whatever happens, happens. But we're all behind him.
"We'll see where it takes us."
For a while, it seemed like Cleveland was the front runner, if indeed Kelly was to make the jump. He met with the Browns for seven hours at an undisclosed location — five in negotiations with a two-hour break for dinner — and agreed to talk again. But talks never progressed from that point.