GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Chip Kelly sweepstakes has intensified once again.
ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported Wednesday morning that UCLA met with Kelly on Tuesday and put a “full-court press” on the former Oregon and NFL coach and said Kelly is expected to make a decision between UCLA and Florida in the coming days. USA Today’s George Schroeder reported that Kelly is receiving offers of around $6 million per year and that he turned down Tennessee.
With the race for Kelly heating up, it’s now or never for Florida to seal the deal, if it hasn’t already.
The Gators made their biggest known push for Kelly on Sunday, when athletic director Scott Stricklin, president Kent Fuchs and Stricklin’s entourage of higher-ups at the University Athletic Association flew to New Hampshire. Stricklin said Florida was having “productive conversations” with its prospective targets and would continue to have productive conversations over the coming days.
The fact that Fuchs was on the plane is the notable aspect. Former Florida president Bernie Machen never went with former AD Jeremy Foley to meet with prospective football coaches during the three coaching hires under his watch. So having Fuchs spend the day flying to and from New Hampshire at least indicates the Gators were far enough along to be interested in finalizing a deal.
Sports attorney Darren Heitner tweeted Wednesday that Florida and Kelly have a non-binding verbal agreement in place but nothing is finalized on paper. That might be enough to keep Kelly in Florida’s grasps, but nothing is guaranteed until Kelly signs on the dotted lines.
Kelly, 53, is arguably the top hire the Gators could make from this crop of coaching candidates.
The offensive mastermind went 46-7 during his four seasons at Oregon and never averaged fewer than 36 points per game during his tenure with the Ducks. His fast-paced spread offense is still regarded as one of the best to be used in college football and would give a needed boost to a Florida offense that has been lackluster for the last eight seasons. There are the noted hesitations — namely Kelly’s disdain for recruiting and his desire to coach in the NFL — but those are risks Florida seems willing to work with in order to get the guy they believe is the best target on the market.
Should Florida miss out on Kelly, though, the Gators would need to make sure they have their backup plans in place. UCF’s Scott Frost — Kelly’s protégé — would be the next best option. We’ve talked about Frost’s prowess and how, in just two years, he turned around a UCF program that was winless before his arrival. The Knights are 10-0, ranked No. 15 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, and leading the country in scoring.
After that, well, things start getting tricky.
The Gators’ candidate pool shrinks considerably without those two. They could go for Charlie Strong, who was a defensive coordinator at Florida for seven years before head-coaching stints at Louisville (2010-13), Texas (2014-16) and now South Florida (2017). They could go for Mike Norvell, the up-and comer in his second year as coach at Memphis. Or, if the $9.4 million buyout isn’t too much of a roadblock, they could go for Matt Campbell, the 37-year-old who is making a name for himself at Iowa State.
None have the pedigree or offensive prowess that Kelly presents, but they seem like the most viable backup options.
Either way, a decision on any of those coaches would not be made until after this week or next, depending on which teams make it to their conference championship games. That would put the Gators behind in the battle to keep their top-10 recruiting class intact and ensuring the commitments of the nine who plan to utilize the early signing period that starts on Dec. 20.