EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon athletic officials were so convinced that Chip Kelly was destined to be head coach of the Ducks they offered him the job before it came open.
In just his second season leading Oregon, Kelly is taking the second-ranked Ducks to the national championship game on Jan. 10 against No. 1 Auburn — and for that he was voted AP Coach of the Year on Tuesday.
Kelly received 24 of 55 votes to beat out his BCS title game counterpart, Gene Chizik of Auburn, who had 17 votes.
Stanford's Jim Harbaugh was third with five votes, TCU's Gary Patterson, last year's winner, and Mark Dantonio of Michigan State each received three votes. Nevada's Chris Ault, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and Mike Haywood, who led Miami, Ohio, to a Mid-American Conference championship before taking the top job at Pittsburgh last week, each received a vote.
Kelly has made a rapid rise from I-AA coordinator in New England to leading the Pac-10's new powerhouse program to within a victory of its first national championship.
Mike Bellotti, Oregon's longtime head coach through the 2008 season, hired Kelly away from New Hampshire to run the Ducks offense in 2007. He installed an up-tempo, spread-option attack that has been growing more potent ever since.
It didn't take long for it to become clear that Bellotti had hired his heir apparent. When Bellotti was tapped to take over as the school's athletic director, Oregon announced in December 2008 — as the Ducks prepared for the Holiday Bowl — that Bellotti would become full-time AD at some point and Kelly was the head-coach in waiting.
That spring, Bellotti made it official and Kelly took over the Ducks.
In his first season as head coach, Kelly led the Ducks to a 10-3 record and the Pac-10 championship, tailoring his explosive offense to the dual talents of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and weathering the storm of negative publicity brought about when star running back LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player after an opening game loss.
Oregon regrouped and went on to the Rose Bowl for the first time since New Year's 1995.
Kelly was met by more turbulence this past spring when both Masoli and running back LaMichael James got into trouble.
After Masoli pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge tied to the theft of a campus fraternity house, Kelly suspended him for the season. The coach later won praise for dismissing Masoli — considered to be a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful — when he was caught with marijuana in his car.
With Masoli gone, Kelly developed sophomore Darron Thomas into not just a replacement, but an upgrade.
James was suspended for the opener after pleading guilty to misdemeanor harassment for an altercation with his ex-girlfriend — but Kelly maintained that James was both honest and contrite about what had transpired.
Just as he had after Blount and the punch, Kelly had his team focused on moving forward in fall camp. The ability to reign in his team and shut out distractions has become one of his trademarks.
This season's Ducks have fully bought into Kelly's "Win The Day" philosophy. The motto is the last thing the players see above them as they emerge from the tunnel onto the field at Autzen Stadium. The acronym "WTD" graces the four corners of the stadium. And it will be written on the team's helmets in the national championship game.
Oregon reached No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history and Kelly has become college football's genius du jour. While plenty of teams are pushing the pace at which they play offensively, nobody does it as well and as quickly as the Ducks.
"Our vision is we want to play fast. We want to play hard. We want to finish," he said.
The Ducks led the nation in scoring during the regular season with 49.3 points per game. They were second in total offense with an average of 537.50 yards a game.
Kelly was named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year and won the Eddie Robinson coach of the year award from the Football Writers Association of America.
Kelly, 47, has a gruff exterior in those drive-by halftime interviews on television. A native of Manchester, N.H., his wry and dry wit rarely makes catchy sound bites. At times it seems as if he fell right off the set of one of those Ben Affleck movies based in the Boston area.
He isn't much for talking about himself or deep analysis.
Asked recently what reaching the national championship game meant to him personally, just a few years removed from his first big break, Kelly wasn't much for being reflective.
"I never really think of it that way," he said. "I have a job. I love my job. I love to get up every morning and do it."