Speaking Friday at Pac-12 media day, the state’s highest-paid public employee didn’t want to define what a successful season would be for his team.
He didn’t want to reflect on his program’s evolution under him.
And he definitely didn’t want to acknowledge that he has to prove to his school’s administration that he’s the right coach to lead UCLA into the Big Ten in two years.
“I’ve never worried about my contract my entire life,” Kelly said. “I’m blessed just that I get a chance to coach football.”
His refusal to address reality didn’t change his predicament.
Kelly has to deliver results.
UCLA’s roster is his, made up almost entirely of players he recruited.
He has a fifth-year quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the best running back in the conference in Zach Charbonnet.
The Bruins can win 10 games. They should win 10 games.
“Success is having a really good Friday,” Kelly said, recycling one of his go-to cliches.
“That part doesn’t change,” he said.
Plenty has changed from the first time Kelly represented the Bruins at this conference’s media day, however.
The Bruins aren’t the Gutty Little Bruins anymore. They’re now the Wasteful Spending Bruins.
The program has become the football equivalent of California’s high-speed rail, its costs unjustifiable and its results indefensible.
Kelly’s record at UCLA is 18-25, the worst record of any coach in school history who lasted four seasons.
Somehow, Kelly managed to not only to keep his job but also receive a new four-year contract.
The key was in the details.
If Kelly is fired after Dec. 16 of next year, UCLA wouldn’t owe him another dime.
In other words, athletic director Martin Jarmond can take the next year and a half to decide whether he wants Kelly coaching the Bruins in their inaugural season in the Big Ten. If Jarmond determines Kelly would turn UCLA into a West Coast version of Rutgers, he can look for a new coach without consideration of financial penalties.
There are no more excuses.
The additional eligibility that athletes gained because of the pandemic has shaped the Bruins into an experienced team, with Kelly saying they have 21 players who already have their bachelor’s degrees.
In addition to Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet, Kelly pointed to a group of fifth- and sixth-year seniors that included offensive linemen Jon Gaines II and Sam Marrazzo as well as safeties Stephan Blaylock and Mo Osling III.
“We have a lot of veteran leadership at key positions for us,” Kelly said.
UCLA also has a new defensive coordinator in Bill McGovern.
McGovern, an inside linebackers coach with the Chicago Bears last year, replaced another longtime friend of Kelly in Jerry Azzinaro.
The Bruins scored an average of 36.5 points last season, which ranked first in the Pac-12 and 16th nationally. The problem was their defense, which gave up 26.8 points per game and was ranked No. 75 in the country.
Their defense has to improve. Or else.
Kelly knows that.
While preaching about how he was more concerned about process than results, he acknowledged, “We’re always outcome-aware, but we don’t make predictions.”
USC’s Lincoln Riley has taken the opposite approach, as the first-year coach declared Friday that his objective is to win a national championship this season.
Perhaps Kelly subscribes to the theory that if he doesn’t set any expectations publicly, he won’t be held to them. In a school with a fan base as beaten down as UCLA’s, he could be on to something.
But the difference between Kelly’s and Riley’s rhetoric was striking. That doesn’t mean they don’t share the similar demands to produce results.