May 20, 2024

Put away the pitchforks, UCLA fans.

Would school administration have made a move on Chip Kelly if his Bruins had backed up their lifeless performance against Arizona State by rolling over for USC in the Coliseum? Only UCLA president Gene Block, athletic director Martin Jarmond and a handful of others know the answer — which is now irrelevant.

UCLA outclassed the Trojans on Saturday, further exposing the alarming state of Lincoln Riley’s program and making it clear that despite some obvious warts in Westwood, only one team in town is potentially built for Year 1 in the mettle-testing Big Ten.

I feel for the die-hard Bruin backers after Saturday. They want the program to take the next step — to win a conference championship for the first time since 1998 — and have plenty of evidence to suggest that won’t be happening under Kelly. Those UCLA fans will be able to separate the fun of whipping a flawed USC team from the reality that the Bruins probably have a 9-3 ceiling as they’re currently constructed.

But, ultimately, even the most ardent supporters won’t factor into this decision. What do Block and Jarmond want UCLA football to be?

If they are content as a perennial bowl program that stays within the rules and graduates players at a high rate, Kelly gave them everything they needed Saturday to maintain the status quo.

If they secretly (and shockingly) wish to mix it up with the brands at the top of professional college football in the coming years, is this really the moment for UCLA to officially enter the arms race?

It was just last March that Block and Jarmond approved a two-year extension for Kelly through 2027. Jarmond cited the team’s improved record in each of its previous five seasons under Kelly, and, while the Bruins won’t improve on last year’s 9-4 mark, few would have expected them to do so without departed quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

UCLA showed it can play great defense for the first time under Kelly. Next year, first-year defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn will be asked to produce a competent unit without soon-to-be All-American defensive end Laiatu Latu and twin edge playmakers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy.

Kelly will have his work cut out for him improving the offense, but he’s got a career’s worth of evidence that he’s up to the challenge. Plus, remember: He doesn’t have to convince fans, only administrators.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches pregame warmups before the Bruins' win over USC on Saturday.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches pregame warmups before the Bruins’ win over USC on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Block is retiring at the end of this academic year. The university has to find his replacement, who will take over the transition to the Big Ten, which becomes official in August. It would be a surprise for him or the regents to toss hiring a new coach into those winds of change.

Despite the long-term financial benefits of the Big Ten move, the Bruins won’t be awash with cash for a while. Paying a buyout of any kind to move on from Kelly would be viewed as fiscally irresponsible, particularly following an extension within the calendar year.

I understand why many fans want Kelly gone and won’t be deterred by Saturday’s emphatic victory. He does not make any effort to connect with his base and build excitement for the program, and he does not attempt to recruit the top high-school prospects in the country. The one five-star he lured to Westwood, freshman quarterback Dante Moore, could end up in the transfer portal this offseason.

Still, none of that is going to trigger a rash decision by this UCLA administration.

Our UCLA beat reporter Ben Bolch tweeted Saturday night that “UCLA has never fired a football coach during a season in which the Bruins beat USC. Some retired, died tragically or moved on to other jobs after a win over the Trojans, but none were fired.”

Don’t expect Kelly to be the first.

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