Tim O’Sullivan: Even with NFL success, NH’s Kelly remembers his roots

Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Chip Kelly is back in New England. But the Manchester Central graduate and former University of New Hampshire player and coach won’t make any trips to his old stomping grounds.

Kelly arrived in Foxborough on Tuesday with his Philadelphia Eagles for three joint practices with the Patriots leading up to tomorrow night’s preseason game between the two teams. Kelly addressed the media yesterday before practice in the rain, and he said this was strictly “a business trip.”

That’s understandable. NFL head coaches are pretty busy this time of year. They’re more likely to sleep in their office for a week straight than make a road trip to catch up on old times. If he did have time, however, there’s little doubt Kelly would have traveled north.

He spends time in New Hampshire in the offseason and keeps close ties with UNH. Asked why it was important to him to maintain contact with his roots, Kelly seemed almost incredulous, but he answered the question.

“That’s where we grew up. It’s your family. I think everybody does that. I don’t know many people that move away or something like that,” Kelly said. “There’s always a place in your heart where you grew up and that your part of. I’m fortunate that I get a chance to go home and spend time. My family still lives up there. I had a lot of really, really good friends that I grew up with. That’s foundations that we’re all built on.”

This is the second year that Kelly and his Eagles have practiced with the Patriots. The two teams got together at Philadelphia’s training facilities last summer. But that wasn’t the first time Kelly was on the same football field as Bill Belichick.

“When (Belichick) was coaching here and I was up in New Hampshire I used to come down and visit practice, that was probably the first time I met coach,” Kelly said in his usual rapid-fire cadence. “He was very gracious and he’s always been really gracious to the local college coaches. They were always open for us to come in and watch and visit.”

Now that he’s a head coach in the NFL, Kelly is paying it forward by inviting some college coaches to his practices.

“(This summer) I got an opportunity to down to (organized team activities) with the Eagles,” said UNH Coach Sean McDonnell, who isn’t exactly local to Philadelphia but did work with Kelly for more than 10 years and maintains a close friendship with him to this day. “I spent some down time with Jerry Azzinaro, the d-line coach. You know you’re lucky that you made some friendships along the way with guys that have taken another step and moved away from the program.”

Azzinaro also has roots in New England. He’s been an assistant coach at UMass, Maine, Boston College, Westfield and, in 2007, New Hampshire, where he was the defensive line coach. Azzinaro was also the d-line coach at Oregon from 2009-12, and when Kelly left the Ducks to join the Eagles, he took Azzinaro with him to become the defensive line/assistant head coach in Philadelphia.

The UNH/Eagles connections don’t end there. Mike Dawson was an assistant at UNH from 2000-2005, including a two-year stint as the Wildcats defensive coordinator from 2004-05. He joined the Philadelphia staff last year as the team’s defensive quality control coach and is now an assistant defensive line coach under Azzinaro.

“I actually worked with (Dawson) when I was in New Hampshire,” Kelly said. “Then he went on to Akron and was a special teams coordinator at Boston College. Real sharp, intelligent, does a great job in terms of helping Jerry Azzinaro with the defensive line. Really lucky to have him.”

The most well-known football entity that has followed Kelly from UNH to the NFL is not a coach, but his up-tempo offensive style. Kelly was one of the early innovators with the spread offense that has taken over college football, and he was one of the first to combine it with the no-huddle, hyper-speed pace that helped New Hampshire become an offensive juggernaut.

That offense kick-started UNH’s current string of 10 straight FCS playoff appearances and led Oregon into national prominence during Kelly’s six years there. Many thought Kelly’s offense would fail in the NFL, but he took a team that went 4-12 in 2012 and led it to a 10-6 record last year and the NFC East division title.

The Philadelphia offense, which ranked fourth in the league with 442 total points, deserves most of the credit for that turnaround, and Kelly deserves much of the credit for the offense. Just ask Belichick.

“I think you have to give Chip a lot of credit for that,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of other teams that have good players too. (The Eagles) produce more big plays than anybody else, so I think certainly his scheme has something to do with it. But, of course they have great players. … It was the whole combination of the staff, the players, the execution, play calling, all the above. Bottom line is though, it’s good. That was the bottom line.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)