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UCLA football: Navigating a difficult coaching search in the chaotic aftermath of Chip Kelly’s departure

The Bruins could pursue an interim coach for 2024, hope the candidate pool improves next winter

Stanford running back Caleb Robinson (21) is tackled by UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) and defensive back Mo Osling III (7) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Stanford running back Caleb Robinson (21) is tackled by UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock (4) and defensive back Mo Osling III (7) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Jon Wilner, Stanford beat and college football/basketball writer, San Jose Mercury ɫ̳, for his Wordpress profile. (Michael Malone/Bay Area ɫ̳ Group)
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UCLA’s recruiting class is ranked dead last in the Big Ten and 87th nationally, just above Georgia Southern, in the closely tracked 247Sports database.

You know what’s even worse than the Bruins’ recruiting? Their timing.

Chip Kelly’s morphed into when he left a Big Ten head coaching position in Westwood for a Big Ten offensive coordinator position in Columbus.

Kelly’s departure for Ohio State has forced UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond to conduct a coaching search in the middle of February, long after three coaches on the wish list committed to other schools.

  • Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith, who grew up in Pasadena, relocated to Michigan State.
  • Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, who spent one season as UCLA’s offensive coordinator (under Jim Mora), accepted Washington’s offer last month.
  • San Jose State’s Brent Brennan, a UCLA alumnus, has already moved over to Arizona.

With Smith, Fisch and Brennan off the market, Jarmond is without an obvious candidate — a proven winner with ties to UCLA (or the area) who would have satisfied donors and fans and viewed the position, for all its challenges, as an upward move.

So Jarmond must get creative.

There are two options: Identify a permanent head coach to lead the program into the Big Ten next season; or appoint an interim coach for 2024.

Why even consider the interim route?

Because chancellor Gene Block is retiring this summer, and his yet-to-be-named replacement might be willing to spend the cash required to lure an established coach, resulting in a more attractive candidate pool.

(Block’s indifferent approach to athletics is one of the reasons the Bruins haven’t won a conference title during his 17-year tenure.)

Also, an interim coach likely would have a chance to keep the staff and roster intact.

The downside to that approach, of course, is the lack of permanence, boldness, commitment — all the qualities that an apathetic fan base would welcome.

This much is clear: The Bruins aren’t in position to allow someone to learn on the job. They are entering the Big Ten with a mediocre roster and a horrendous recruiting class and a brutal schedule and an abyss at the very top of the campus org chart. They need a cool, calm, experienced hand to navigate the tumult.

At the same time, Jarmond cannot risk getting played by an established coach whose agent creates the impression of interest in order to leverage more cash out of his client’s current employer.

Might the Bruins pursue Barry Odom, who coached in the SEC with Missouri and last season produced a remarkable turnaround at UNLV.

Or perhaps they target Jeff Ulbrich, a former UCLA assistant (under Mora) now serving as the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator.

Another possibility: Nebraska defensive coordinator Tony White, who played for the Bruins decades ago and has been a well-regarded defensive coach at multiple stops, including Arizona State and Syracuse.

Or could they pursue Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, one of the nation’s best coaches? Campbell has been linked to numerous vacancies in the past but seems content in Ames. Given the , is Campbell ready to leave the Big 12?

Whether he pursues a permanent coach or opts for an interim, Jarmond will need a first-rate sales pitch to rally his key constituents after Kelly’s embarrassing departure.

So far as we know, he’s the first head coach in the sport’s current era to quit on his school and accept a coordinator position in the same conference.

That group of constituents includes UCLA’s current players, who have 30 days to enter the transfer portal and seek shelter elsewhere.

Kelly’s disenchantment with UCLA and with the demands of the job was no secret. His name has been linked to openings in the NFL for weeks.

Jarmond knew this was a distinct possibility.

In theory, he developed a short list of candidates suited for this unusual situation and will conduct an efficient, brief search.

If UCLA doesn’t have a replacement in place by early next week, something has gone very wrong.

Then again, the Bruins are in this position because something already has gone very wrong.

Many things, in fact.


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