This story appears in the October edition of Hail Varsity. Don't miss another issue by subscribing to the magazine today.
Just south of the McKenzie River and west of Interstate 5 sits Camp Harlow. Travel north from Eugene, Oregon, away from the University of Oregon’s campus, away from the Nike money and the fancy football facilities and the loud uniforms and the hum of the machine Chip Kelly built, and you’ll find 200 acres of camp ground.
It’s meant for kids. During the winter of 2006, it served as the birthplace for Oregon’s “Win the Day” makeover.
“We got our butts kicked by BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl,” said Nate Costa, an Oregon quarterback from 2006-to-2010, Oregon assistant from 2013-to-2014 and current offensive analyst with Kelly at UCLA. “That winter, we had a little heart-to-heart.”
Costa called it a way for the whole team to isolate itself and figure out what went wrong that season and how to fix it moving forward. A 38-8 loss to BYU capped a 7-6 season that saw the Ducks lose their final four games.
“Everyone wants to create a catchy slogan,” he said. “Really what came out of that was just win the day. Win the day, overarching academics, socially, athletically, what are you doing to improve yourself and win the day?”
It was Kelly’s first winter with the Ducks. The head coach at the time, Mike Bellotti, brought Kelly over from his offensive coordinator role at New Hampshire to run the Ducks’ offense. Kelly was running a spread, no-huddle system at New Hampshire similar to what Bellotti was running at Oregon and Bellotti, nearing retirement, needed his successor, someone who could take Oregon football to the next level without taking it back a step first.
“He understood football,” Bellotti said, “so I hired him as my offensive coordinator.”
And even though the schemes were similar, the philosophies were different. Kelly believed that football games weren’t won on Saturdays; they were won on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Reggae Thursdays.
“Win the Day” was Kelly’s creation.
It was a cultural makeover.
And it was one that set the table for another, some 10 years later and 1,600 miles east. A Kelly disciple took the approach that turned a Pac-10 team into a national power, sprinkled some of his own flavor on it, and set in motion a plan to turn a Big Ten team back into the national power he knew it to be.
Not overnight, but Day by Day.
Bellotti met Scott Frost at the AFCA coaching convention in 2008. Frost was coaching defense at Northern Iowa as the co-defensive coordinator and Bellotti wanted him to coach wide receivers.
“We spent about 20 minutes of the interview or 25 minutes talking about tackling and talking about the Tampa 2 defense and you might think that was weird if I was going to hire him as a wide receiver coach but I liked his understanding of football, very much like Chip,” Bellotti said. “We needed to be better blockers out at the receiver position and understand defenses better.”
Frost compared blocking to tackling. It’s all about the details, he said. About balance, about shooting the hands and keeping your eyes where they’re supposed to be and timing up your block. Bellotti was as enthralled as he was intrigued by Frost’s combination of football pedigree (Tom Osborne and Bill Walsh to name a few coaches he played for) and physicality. The fact Frost played safety in the NFL was a major plus in Bellotti’s book.
So he pulled Frost away from the Panthers to coach his wideouts. There’s still a tinge of regret in his voice when he talks about hiring Frost but never getting to coach with him. (Bellotti retired from coaching after the 2008 season and moved into the Athletic Director role for Oregon. Frost’s first year in Eugene was 2009.)
A year later, Kelly called up Northern Iowa’s tight ends coach to interview for another position on his staff.
“So when Chip called me and said, ‘I want you to come out,’ I was all fired up,” Erik Chinander, now the Huskers’ defensive coordinator, said.
“I want you to coach on defense,” Kelly said on that call.
“Hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Chinander replied.
“I know what I’m doing and it’s going to work out, trust me. We need you on defense. We don’t have a spot on offense.”
Chinander wasn’t interested. He ended the call thinking he’d go on coaching tight ends at Northern Iowa. Over the course of a few more calls, Kelly changed his mind.
He went west with the expectation he’d learn for a few seasons, diversify his coaching portfolio and then head back to Northern Iowa and the offense.
Chinander has been coaching defense within the Kelly School of Thought ever since.
“Obviously it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
The same year Chinander started in Eugene, 2010, Greg Austin landed his second coaching gig as an intern for the Ducks.
For the new guys on staff, the first day was a wake-up call. “They practiced hard,” Austin said of what stood out when he stepped on the field.
“If you look at Oregon and their roster when we were there — and this is no discredit to recruiting or anything else — but within a four-year time span we had a couple of guys go to the NFL,” Austin said. “We weren’t more talented than teams. Our culture was better than teams and the reason why is because we focused on the little things and the effort in practice and holding your teammate accountable.”
Oregon had a thing Kelly called the “Faceless Opponent.”
“You don't really go into a game saying, ‘I am going to defeat this Opponent X,’” Costa said. “It's more about a personal challenge for yourself to have the best week of practice regardless of if you're playing Sisters of the Poor or you're playing Wisconsin. You go into each week of practice saying, ‘I'm going to prepare to improve and be the best person that I possibly can be,’ and it's not about the opponent that you're playing.
“Obviously prepare against that specific scheme and what they do on offense or defense, but it's more about preparing yourself to play the best football that you possibly can. So that term, 'Faceless Opponent,' became a way to exemplify that.”
And just like Nebraska is dealing with currently, Oregon saw a team that was slow to adopt things when Kelly officially took the reins of the program. For two years he worked on the offense, massaging it into what he wanted it to be, recruiting the personalities that would fit into his vision, but when Kelly took control and changed practice, there was pushback.
Pushback from the players on the team.
“I won't name names, but I think if you look at the roster that was there in ‘06 and there in ‘07, a lot of those guys didn't make it all the way through,” Costa said. “Whether it be for one reason or another, discipline issues, academic issues, they just weren't bought into the system.”
There was pushback from the adults in the room, too.
“The defensive coaches especially didn't believe it could happen and were very frustrated by the pace at which practice was run, we had to do some things to help them and give them looks that they might not normally get from our offensive practice,” Bellotti said. “So yeah, there were some (who were slow to buy in).”
A deep-dive into Kelly’s personal life by the Washington Post in 2015 cited a confrontation between defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and Kelly about practice. “I like the guy a lot,” Aliotti told the Post, “but he can piss you off.” Bellotti didn’t go into much detail and Chinander simply said the staff was made up of competitive guys and football brings with it confrontations every day. But Costa went exactly to one situation when asked about it.
“I don't think I would call it a fight,” he said. “I think that there was definitely a disagreement.”
The main pressure point came from practice. Aliotti came up in a traditional scheme where the offense huddled and he had anywhere between 20 seconds and a minute in between plays. Kelly took a three-hour practice, crunched it to two hours and completely eliminated on-field coaching from the equation. That minute-long coaching period evaporated; assistants had five seconds at most. Coaches had to learn to let their players play through mistakes and address them later in the film room.
Oregon had to teach its trainers and equipment managers how to run fast. Bellotti had to talk with officials before games and tell them to spot the ball and “get the hell out of the way.”
“I can remember the coaches being in a full sweat those first few practices in the spring under Chip,” Costa says.
Then there’s the music.
Kelly loves his music.
“Chip really likes ‘The Lion King,’” Costa said. “Chip really has a lot of flavor-of-the-month songs that he likes. Like, if we're playing Oklahoma, you know, there might be a little more country music mixed into the mix than you'd expect. We don't have a lot of country music fans on our team, but you know, you're playing in Oklahoma, the whole cowboy thing.”
Chinander says music serves two purposes. One, the music is for auditory exclusion. Simulate a game environment with distractions galore and force the players to focus on communication. Since the quarterback can’t walk up to the center and have a conversation about the upcoming play in the middle of a second quarter inside Ohio Stadium, hand signals are key. And you’ve got to be able to concentrate on those.
“The other thing you need to do is … the music has to mirror the tempo you want,” Chinander said. “So, if you want full-speed chaos, it needs to be whatever kind of music that means, whether it's full-speed metal or full-speed hip hop music or whatever techno music, whatever that is. And when you want to slow it down, that music has to be slowed down. So, some of those walk-through periods or whatever, you might have ‘The Lion King’ played.”
When the Ducks went through walk-throughs at Oregon, they did them on Thursdays and Kelly pumped reggae music through the speakers. Then on “Fast Friday,” as Costa called it, it was back to full-speed chaos.
Through everything, Kelly had one goal: to be the most efficient practice team in the country.
“Based on what program you're in previously, you’re probably going to practice harder than you've ever practiced before because people from this school of thought believe that practice should be harder than the games and if it's done right, it will be that way,” Costa said. “So, when you actually get into the game, it'll actually seem kind of slow and you'll be more successful in the game than you were in practice. Obviously, there's a lot of other things that go into that, it doesn't just happen, but that's the goal. The intensity of practice, the demands of practice are definitely one of the things that scares people away.”
That first year under Kelly began with the Boise State Punch. Following a 19-8 loss to the Broncos on Boise’s home turf, Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount sucker-punched defensive lineman Bryon Hout. Frost was the first staff member to get to Blount and get him off the field.
The Ducks then won 10 of their next 11 to win the conference and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. It’s one of Bellotti’s proudest moments at Oregon.
In 2012, Kelly, Frost and one of Kelly’s old friends picked up and flew to Pamplona, Spain, to run with the bulls. All any of them have said about it since is simply, if given the chance to do it again, they would. Frost has gone swimming with sharks in South Africa and mountain hiking and Grand Canyon hiking.
“I don't think there's ever a vacation with him. If you want to go on vacation and sit on the beach and read a book and have some umbrella drinks, he's probably not the guy to go with,” Chinander says.
Kelly, few know, has gone skydiving. He works to put out this aloof persona, but Kelly cares about his team as much as any. “It's not uncommon to hear Coach Kelly use the ‘L’ word when talking to his players,” Costa said.
The similarities between the two coaches don’t stop at their 2018 records. “Scott learned a lot about the organization of practice, the simplicity of the game plan (from Kelly),” Bellotti said. And, culturally, what Kelly built lingered in Eugene even after he left, but maybe the biggest sign of his legacy is in what Scott Frost does as a head coach.
Frost learned how to care for his players from Nebraska legend Tom Osborne. Costa has talked with Frost about Osborne before; he’s everything to Frost. But the current Husker head coach learned how to run a successful football team from Kelly.
Frost’s UCF turnaround mirrored that of Oregon’s. The head coach came in with a fast, fun, no-huddle offense and put the emphasis on practice.
“The guys at UCF didn’t know how to practice at first,” Austin said. “We ended up beating our first opponent because we were just better than them talent-wise but it really wasn’t until the ECU week (game No. 5) our first year at UCF that they understood.”
The game plans Kelly devised at Oregon were simple. There were five or so run plays that were run over and over again out of different formations with different window-dressings. Kelly took a complex game and made it simple; Frost is doing the same in his coaching career.
Walk-throughs for Nebraska are held on Thursdays. Fridays are fast. Music is blasted through the loudspeakers, ranging from Fall Out Boy to DMX. Players are leaving and guys who don’t practice hard don’t play.
Bellotti says this type of transition takes two years. Simply moving from an offense that huddles to an offense that doesn’t takes a year alone. “The first year usually doesn't look the way you want it to,” Chinander said. “It was the same thing at Central Florida and it's the same thing here. The practices don't look like they did when we were running at high octane.”
Oregon experienced immediate success because the deck was stacked for Kelly on arrival. To some extent, the Knights in Orlando were too; UCF was winless the year before but 21-5 in the two years previous.
Nebraska is different.
But it’s maybe the same, too.
The Huskers isolated themselves after a loss to Purdue. There was a team meeting designed to figure out what’s wrong and figure out what they need to do to fix things. They didn’t travel to some campground, but after the meeting, there was talk of finally getting it.
“Just tell people over there to be patient,” Costa said from one then-winless Kelly-ian program to another. (UCLA picked up its first win the weekend this story went to press.) “If people keep the faith and they get the right people in there, which I think they will, the whole place will be rocking.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.