Two exes run into each other at the supermarket. Neither one is young and glowing. Both look a bit disheveled — wearing sweatpants, maybe, or an old Pearl Jam T-shirt.
They smile and make awkward conversation in the produce aisle. When the encounter ends they walk quickly in the other direction, pretending they have somewhere important to go.
That was how it went for Oregon and Chip Kelly on Saturday. When Chip tried an onside kick late in the third quarter, you could almost hear Paul Simon singing “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
Oregon came away the winner, 42-21. Whatever they’ve been through these last few weeks, the Ducks collected themselves and walked away with a little swagger. Chip walked away a loser for the third time in 27 career games at Autzen Stadium.
For the first time, Kelly made the short journey from the visitor’s locker room to the white tent where the opposing coach sits at a folding table surrounded by four or five plastic chairs, which on most days is enough to accommodate the visiting media contingent.
Kelly stopped along the way to chat with Nick Aliotti, his old defensive coordinator, on the Pac-12 Network. He then allowed himself approximately 43 seconds of reflection, naming off some of the old friends he saw this weekend: Mike Bellotti, strength coach Jim Radcliffe, boosters Phil Knight and Pat Kilkenny, golf coach Casey Martin, baseball coach George Horton and others.
“It’s an amazing place with amazing people,” Kelly said. “I’m always thankful for what they gave me and the opportunities they gave me. I just feel sad that we came out on the wrong end today.”
Kelly’s Bruins are 2-7. In nine games at UCLA, he’s already suffered as many losses as he did in 53 games at Oregon.
The two situations are completely different, he said, because at Oregon he took over a program that was up and running. Rich Brooks and Bellotti built the foundation. Kelly was surrounded by assistant coaches who knew the turf. At UCLA he came in cold, knowing he’d have to do all the grunt work to make the Bruins competitive.
“To be honest, that’s the fun part,” Kelly said. “No one wants it easy. That’s one of the reasons it was attractive.”
That’s not so different from what Mario Cristobal is doing at Oregon. I don’t know if they would admit it, but the Ducks suffered an identity crisis when Chip left for the NFL. They went through several years of pretending nothing had changed before finally letting go and moving on.
I don’t know if Cristobal’s plan is working, but at least the Ducks have one. They’re not trying to fool anyone. They want to be a team that can line up and run the ball down your throat, even when you know it’s coming.
The Ducks aren’t there yet. Too often it seems like they’re running into a brick wall. There was a fourth-and-one play Saturday when UCLA had 11 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, all focused on clogging the middle. Oregon gave the ball to Travis Dye and got stuffed.
The sad truth is that beating Chip Kelly’s UCLA team by three touchdowns doesn’t prove a whole lot in this year’s Pac-12. It was nice to see Oregon rebound from back-to-back stinkers on the road, nice to see Justin Herbert healthy and throwing bombs to Dillon Mitchell. But for long stretches of this game, I saw two teams that still don’t know who they are or how to get from Point A to Point B.
Imagine traveling back in time to 2012, when Chip and Oregon were still together, and showing those two a glimpse of their future. I suspect it would send a shiver down both of their spines. But that’s all history now, and there’s no changing it.
Unless you’re a Pac-12 official, time only moves in one direction: Forward. You can sit around and reminisce about how things used to be, but what’s the point?
“I’m a forward-thinking guy,” Kelly said. “To me it’s about the journey. It’s not about thinking about memories or thinking about moments. It’s about what’s next.”
After leaving the white tent, Chip shook a few hands and paused for a postgame radio interview before disappearing into the visiting locker room. A UCLA staffer in a black coat pressed an Apple Watch to her mouth and said, "He's in."
I don’t know where Chip and Oregon go from here. But wherever it is, they were headed there in a hurry.