A man of mys­tery

Ea­gles’ coach Chip Kelly is chang­ing football but is still an enigma

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KENT BABB

Chip Kelly draws at­ten­tion to him­self with his coach­ing. Off the field, he’s off-lim­its.

On a Mon­day af­ter­noon nearly two years ago, a woman in her mid40s set­tled into a long Metro ride, Dupont Cir­cle to Lan­dover, bound even­tu­ally for FedEx Field. ¶ Jen­nifer Jenk­ins hadn’t been to an NFL game since she was a lit­tle girl, football mak­ing so much noise dur­ing one part of her life that for a long time she tuned it out. But this day in Septem­ber 2013 was dif­fer­ent: Chip Kelly was coach­ing his first NFL game, his Philadelphia Ea­gles play­ing the Washington Red­skins. ¶ Kelly, 51, coaches football in a way that calls at­ten­tion to him­self, but he keeps much of his life of­flim­its. Even the pro­files that have been writ­ten give lit­tle sense of him away from the field, apart from the oc­ca­sional men­tion of how he is a life­long bach­e­lor, seem­ingly mar­ried to the game. ¶ Wear­ing nei­ther team’s col­ors, Jenk­ins reached the sta­dium that af­ter­noon, and an old friend from her na­tive New Hamp­shire pushed a ticket into her hand. She found her seat near the 50yard line, be­hind the Philadelphia bench, sur­rounded by the hope­ful, the jeer­ing and the cu­ri­ous. ¶ A while be­fore the game, she pulled out her cell­phone and sent a text mes­sage to the Ea­gles’ rookie head coach, the man who had been her hus­band for seven years.

‘A dif­fer­ent kind of weirdo’

The most in­ter­est­ing man in football walks through the doors at Ea­gles head­quar­ters, to­ward an out­door lectern. It is late May, and more than 100 re­porters have gath­ered un­der a tent.

Dur­ing the next 13 or so min­utes, Kelly will be asked about the ac­tion-packed way he spent his off­sea­son: en­gag­ing (and pre­vail­ing over) for­mer gen­eral man­ager Howie Rose­man in a front-of­fice power strug­gle, trad­ing away quar­ter­back Nick Foles (who passed for 40 touch­downs the past two sea­sons) and ac­quir­ing Sam Brad­ford and Tim Te­bow (who ap­peared in a to­tal of seven games the past two years), and deal­ing with for­mer Ea­gles run­ning back Le­Sean McCoy’s sug­ges­tion that Kelly has spent the past two years prun­ing “all the good black play­ers” from Philadelphia’s ros­ter.

“I’mnot gov­erned by the fear of what other peo­ple say,” Kelly says, and his first 30 months as an NFL coach have shown even more proof of that. Since that de­but game at FedEx Field in 2013, the Ea­gles have parted ways with more than half of the play­ers who suited up — in­clud­ing McCoy, wide re­ceiver DeSean Jack­son and guard Evan Mathis, with their com­bined eight Pro Bowls.

Kelly is sar­cas­tic and dis­mis­sive of re­porters; he declines most ev­ery in­ter­view re­quest, in­clud­ing one for this story, and re­fuses in any fo­rum to an­swer ques­tions about his per­sonal life. His fam­ily has been or­dered to keep quiet in public about Kelly, and Mike Za­marchi, the coach’s long­time buddy, says Kelly’s friends are “sworn to si­lence.” Play­ers, too, are kept at a dis­tance, and so are fel­low coaches: Mike Bel­lotti, the for­mer Ore­gon coach and ath­letic di­rec­tor who was Kelly’s boss for three years, knows lit­tle more about Kelly than that he hates green veg­eta­bles and loves beer. “I’mnot sure I would con­sider that I know Chip,” Bel­lotti says.

There are holes in the Kelly story, unan­swered ques­tions and mys­tery that have grown his leg­end as much as any­thing. His mid­dle name is ab­sent from many public records, and even Mark Saltveit, who­has writ­ten two bi­ogra­phies of Kelly, has had trou­ble ac­count­ing for a six-year pe­riod of Kelly’s life, be­tween his fi­nal game as a col­lege player at New Hamp­shire and his grad­u­a­tion from the school.

Af­ter one of his four sea­sons as Ore­gon’s head coach, Kelly spent part of one sum­mer run­ning with the bulls in Pam­plona, Spain; later a story cir­cu­lated that his 6,300square-foot house in Eu­gene con­tained lit­tle more than a couch anda tele­vi­sion. It was bizarre, but be­cause it was Kelly, it was also be­liev­able.

When he took over the Ea­gles, play­ers sawhis quirks and em­phases up close. Kelly asked them to sup­ply daily urine sam­ples, to doc­u­ment their sleep and heart rates, to prac­tice while a net­work of speak­ers blared drill ca­dences and fa­vorites from Ricky Martin or “The Lion King.” “There’s plenty of weirdos in the NFL,” one of Kelly’s for­mer play­ers says. “He’s just a dif­fer­ent kind of weirdo.”

Who, it should be pointed out, led Philadelphia to the NFC East ti­tle that first year. In the time since, Kelly has been called a ge­nius and an in­no­va­tor, a nar­cis­sist and a cow­boy, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary and a racist. It’s pos­si­ble his act will get him fired, but be­cause it’s Kelly, it’s just as be­liev­able he will win mul­ti­ple cham­pi­onships. “Ev­ery time I’m talk­ing to him,” the for­mer player says, “I’m stand­ing there won­der­ing what the hell he’s think­ing.”

‘He likes to ask why’

Jenk­ins was a se­nior at New Hamp­shire when a friend in­tro­duced her to Kelly on Thanks­giv­ing day in 1989. The Manch­ester city football cham­pi­onship was that day, a rea­son to celebrate no mat­ter the win­ner, and so she and Kelly, four years older than Jenk­ins, talked for a long time.

He was 25 and shy, but when he spoke his words were thought­ful and en­er­getic; football was more than a pas­sion — even then, as Jenk­ins put it in a re­cent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, the game was a “way of life” for Kelly. He was am­bi­tious and bright, the son of a trial lawyer who be­lieved in chal­leng­ing the es­tab­lish­ment, one of four broth­ers, a young man de­ter­mined to leave his mark on the world.

“I don’t know when he be­came in­quis­i­tive, but I know he likes to ask why, and I know he likes to un­der­stand why things are hap­pen­ing,” says Bob Leonard, who coached Kelly as a high school player. “Even as a kid he was like that.”

Jenk­ins and Kelly kept see­ing each other, she learn­ing that he was a reader but had no pa­tience for fic­tion; he read self-im­prove­ment books be­fore it was trendy, and his im­pa­tient in­tel­lect led some peo­ple to mis­take him for aloof. Jenk­ins stayed in New Hamp­shire when Kelly took his first col­lege coach­ing job in 1990, work­ing with the de­fense and spe­cial teams at Columbia Univer­sity, but af­ter two sea­sons he was back home.

A few weeks be­fore Kelly’s first game as New Hamp­shire’s run­ning backs coach, his name spelled “Chip Kel­ley” in the school’s 1992 media guide, he and Jenk­ins stood in front of about 250 guests and mar­ried. “A great party,” Jenk­ins says now, and it is around this time that she won­ders whether she should con­tinue. She fig­ures Kelly wouldn’t like her shar­ing all this.

Dif­fi­cult to de­fine

At Ore­gon the coaches learned that a good way to kill a con­ver­sa­tion with Chip Kelly— in the football of­fices, on­the golf course, over burgers and beers — was to ex­pand the dis­cus­sion.

“In terms of football, he’s awe­some; he’s will­ing to talk about any­thing,” Bel­lotti says. “But be­yond that, he does play things very close to the vest.”

Nick Aliotti, who spent six years along­side and un­der Kelly as the Ducks’ de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, can’t re­mem­ber one con­ver­sa­tion in which the men talked about fam­ily. When Bel­lotti el­e­vated Kelly from of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor to head coach in 2009, Kelly asked Bel­lotti, who be­came Ore­gon’s AD, to con­tinue mak­ing public ap- pear­ances and meet­ing with boost­ers be­cause Kelly didn’t like mak­ing small talk. Bel­lotti, who has spent all his life on the West Coast, fig­ured that’s just how peo­ple from the North­east must be; Aliotti as­sumed the dis­con­nect was be­cause he’s nine years older than Kelly — and that Kelly is acer­bic and un­yield­ing. “I like the guy a lot,” Aliotti says, “but he can piss you off.”

There was no doubt, though, that the man knew how to coach, keep­ing play­ers mo­ti­vated and chal­lenged. At New Hamp­shire, he might run the sin­gle-wing of­fense one game and the spread the next; to mix it up, one week the Wild­cats at­tempted six passes, for­mer New Hamp­shire quar­ter­back Ryan Day says, and the next they threw it 65 times.

Kelly re­lied on ef­fi­ciency — more of­fen­sive plays means more po­ten­tial for points— and thought about ways to sim­plify a com­plex game. One way was aban­don­ing long and non­sen­si­cal play calls; one sea­son at New Hamp­shire, he nick­named deep routes af­ter longdis­tance phone com­pa­nies: “AT&T” meant the pass was go­ing to the A re­ceiver, “Nex­tel” bound for the X.

He ex­per­i­mented with con­cepts and plays, took an in­ter­est in sports science and re­fused to change. Aliotti once con­fronted Kelly about run­ning prac­tices too fast; the Ducks’ de­fen­sive staff had lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to coach play­ers and make ad­just­ments. Kelly care. Now Aliotti ad­mits Kelly’s at­ti­tude and in­creased tempo forced the de­fense to ad­just, help­ing shape Ore­gon into one of the na­tion’s most feared al­laround pro­grams.

“He was never afraid of what peo­ple thought or afraid to fail,” says Day, who’s now the Ea­gles’ quar­ter­backs coach.

Play­ers on Kelly’s first Ea­gles team saw their new­coach as a look into the NFL’s fu­ture— but also as some­thing of a cu­rios­ity. He had seem­ingly come out of nowhere, hav­ing never been a head coach be­fore 2009 and spend­ing most of his ca­reer in the rel­a­tive anonymity of the At­lantic 10 Con­fer­ence.

Kelly’s first im­pres­sions showed a coach who spoke of­ten about be­ing quick and ef­fi­cient but also a man un­afraid to spend hours cy­cling through Pow­er­Point slides about the ef­fects of al­co­hol, mar­i­juana, sleep and wa­ter on an NFL player’s body. It seemed Kelly val­ued each morn­ing’s urine test — plas­tic spec­i­men cups wait­ing in locker stalls, jersey num­bers writ­ten in black ink — as much as how a player per­formed dur­ing prac­tice or a game.

“He wants guys who care about that stuff,” Ea­gles tight end Brent Celek said, “be­cause that stuff does mat­ter. A lot of the guys who are in our fa­cil­ity think the same way.”

Kelly backed up his meth­ods with science and com­mit­ment, but what some saw as a revo­lu­tion, oth­ers sawas mis­guided. One NFL player com­pared Kelly with Elon Musk; another re­ferred to the coach’s meth­ods as “Or­wellian.” Re­gard­less, each day play­ers were greeted at the team fa­cil­ity by screens re­veal­ing who had com­pleted the morn­ing rou­tine — an iPad sore­ness and mood sur­vey, the re­sults of a heart-rate mon­i­tor and, of course, the urine test— show­ing play­ers’ head shots and a back­ground that turned green when the daily as­sess­ment was com­pleted.

“Most peo­ple were very re­cep­tive to it, [but] some guys were like: ‘What are we do­ing? Why are we do­ing this?’ ” a for­mer Ea­gles player says, adding that as quickly as play­ers learned how to cheat the hy­dra­tion test, adding a splash of wa­ter from the uri­nal, Kelly or­dered the sys­tem re­vamped to dis­cour­age di­luters.

Kelly was ap­proach­able and, many times, jovial. But like at Ore­gon, his emo­tions and back­ground story were largely out of bounds. Play­ers pon­dered In­ter­net ru­mors about their coach and won­dered aloud about his psy­cho­log­i­cal chem­istry. “I don’t know if he was al­ways the un­der­dog or some­thing or if his par­ents were al­ways hard on him,” the for­mer player says. “But it’s al­ways like he’s got a chip on his shoul­der.”

It had be­come com­mon to won­der about the truths in Kelly’s life, and when he made those un­avail­able, the con­ve­nient re­sponse for any­one in his or­bit was to ac­cept leg­end as fact.

Why such a se­cret?

In 2011, Jenk­ins read an ar­ti­cle in the New York Times that de­scribed bach­e­lor coaches and how, even in the im­age-con­scious and po­lit­i­cal world of col­lege football, Kelly had never been mar­ried.

“Why does ev­ery­thing say that you weren’t mar­ried?” Jenk­ins said a friend re­cently asked her. “I just roll my eyes.”

It used to hurt, she says, as if seven years of her life had been washed away. But now she finds the hu­mor in it. Jenk­ins’s for­mer co-work­ers knew the real story, and a friend joked about call­ing a sports ra­dio show to re­veal that the friend had been in Kelly’s wed­ding party. Af­ter enough strangers told Jenk­ins they didn’t be­lieve her, she be­gan car­ry­ing a wed­ding pho­to­graph on her iPhone. “No­body talks about it,” she said. “But ev­ery­body knows.”

Why, Jenk­ins some­times asked her­self, was this con­sid­ered a se­cret? It didn’t seem like one to her, and if it was, the ar­ti­fi­cial in­trigue was ei­ther the most NFL thing ever or the most bor­ing se­cret of all time. The truth was no more scan­dalous than Kelly’s mid­dle name (Ed­ward) or how he spent those six years be­tween play­ing at New Hamp­shire and grad­u­at­ing (coach­ing ju­nior var­sity football, Jenk­ins said, and work­ing as a gym teacher as he slowly com­pleted his de­gree re­quire­ments).

As for the mar­riage, the years had sim­ply come and gone in New Hamp­shire, Kelly an as­sis­tant on his men­tor Bill Bowes’s staff and Jenk­ins work­ing at the univer­sity. They lived in Durham for a while, and then Kelly took a coach­ing job at Johns Hop­kins, mov­ing to Bal­ti­more for one year while Jenk­ins re­mained in New Hamp­shire.

Kelly re­joined Bowes’s staff yet again in 1994, and four years later he and Jenk­ins had be­gun to drift apart. They were no longer liv­ing to­gether, and in 1999 they didn’t di- vorced.

Football, as the most im­por­tant thing in Kelly’s life, was a strain, Jenk­ins ad­mits. But the game can­not be blamed for the demise of their mar­riage. Like many other things in Kelly’s seem­ingly com­pli­cated life, re­al­ity was sim­ple: For a long time they were happy, and then af­ter a while, they weren’t.

“It wasn’t his fault, be­cause he was fo­cused on football,” she said. “That’s just not the way we’ve ever — that’s not it. That’s not what hap­pened.” She took a breath. “We were just young,” she said, pre­fer­ring to keep the de­tails to her­self.

Back into the breach

A few days from now, a quiet patch of land near the cor­ner of South Broad Street and Pat­ti­son Av­enue will come to life. Ninety play­ers will file into the Ea­gles’ train­ing com­plex, equip­ment will be moved onto the prac­tice fields, and the re­sults of a dra­matic off­sea­son— led mostly by the ac­tions of a pri­vate man and dar­ing coach — will soon be­gin to re­veal them­selves.

Will Foles and McCoy be re­mem­bered as foun­da­tion blocks or ex­pend­able pawns? Was it wise or foolish to cut ties with Mathis, the guard named to the last two Pro Bowls, and sign John Mof­fitt, who spent the past two years re­tired from the NFL and fac­ing crim­i­nal charges? Has Kelly, who now pos­sesses full con­trol over Philadelphia’s football op­er­a­tion, taken on too much re­spon­si­bil­ity?

“You start chas­ing per­cep­tion,” Kelly said dur­ing that stand­in­groom-only news­con­fer­ence in late May, “and you’ve got a long life ahead of you, son.”

For a few weeks, Kelly dis­ap­peared into the si­lence, re­turn­ing to New Hamp­shire and his sum­mer home — a football man pass­ing the days un­til it was time to re­turn to work. One day in July, a text mes­sage popped into Kelly’s phone. Jenk­ins does this some­times, a joke she thought Kelly might like or, be­cause she’s su­per­sti­tious, the same note of en­cour­age­ment she sent the last time the Ea­gles won. Even at the end of their mar­riage, she said, they have re­mained friends.

Jenk­ins is 47 now, liv­ing most of they ear in Washington; she started a care pack­age busi­ness called Momma LuReme­dies, and like Kelly, she has never re­mar­ried. These last twoyears or so, Jenk­ins has, for one iden­ti­fi­able rea­son, found her­self sup­port­ing the Ea­gles.

“I want him to win. I want him to be suc­cess­ful,” she says. “It’s ev­ery­thing that he has worked for.”

Some­times Kelly texts back im­me­di­ately; other times days or weeks come and go. Jenk­ins know she’s a busy and com­pli­cated man, prob­a­bly off some­where try­ing to an­swer the most glar­ing ques­tion: Can he make the leap from football’s most in­ter­est­ing man to one of its most suc­cess­ful?

Next Sun­day, af­ter seven months of in­ter­mit­tent noise, hope­ful and cu­ri­ous play­ers will push through the doors and flood the prac­tice fields. Kelly will jog onto the turf be­hind them. Then the speak­ers will fire up, the football sea­son be­gin­ning, mu­sic and in­struc­tions so loud noth­ing else can be heard.




Do­ing things his way, Kelly led the Ea­gles to the NFC East ti­tle in his first sea­son. And do­ing things his way, Kelly has parted with sev­eral top play­ers, lead­ing LeSeanMcCoy to say he was prun­ing “all the good black play­ers” from the ros­ter.

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