PHILADELPHIA — Long before he carved out a reputation as an offensive mastermind and became known as one of the foremost innovators in the NFL, Chip Kelly introduced the Johns Hopkins football team to what became known as the "whistle ball."
Working as the Blue Jays defensive coordinator in 1993, Kelly incorporated into daily practices a Nerf ball that made a whizzing sound as it flew through the air. When defensive backs heard the sound, they knew to turn around and react to the ball.
"I had one of the greatest offensive minds in college football and pro football history coaching my defense," said longtime Johns Hopkins football coach Jim Margraff, who hired Kelly to run his defense. "I'm not the brightest guy."
Kelly, now entering his third season as Eagles head coach, was at Hopkins for only one season before returning to New Hampshire, his alma mater, to coach running backs. His second coaching stint with the Wildcats extended from 1994 to 2006 before he took his high-flying offensive philosophy to Oregon, first as the Ducks offensive coordinator and then their head coach.
Kelly eventually was hired to lead the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, but he still looks back fondly on his time at Hopkins, and remains friends with Margraff, his former housemate and boss.
"It was awesome," Kelly said Thursday before the second of three joint practices between the Eagles and Ravens at the NovaCare Complex. "That's truly a special place."
In his brief time at Homewood, Kelly made a strong impression on Hopkins officials and displayed the same characteristics that have made him a successful coach at the college and pro levels, and such a polarizing figure in the NFL.
He relied heavily on statistical analysis and advocated certain man/zone defensive concepts that had yet to become really popular in college and the NFL.
"I'd be lying to say that I thought he'd be an NFL head coach one day, but on the other hand, I knew that he'd be successful," said Bob Babb, Hopkins' longtime baseball coach who also was a football assistant from 1977 to 1998. "He was enthusiastic and he was innovative. He had some ideas that were kind of ahead of their time. I did think he would be successful because he thought outside of the box and he wasn't afraid to go beyond what was the conventional way of thinking and the conventional way of doing things."
If it's even possible given how much Kelly has been a lightning rod for attention lately, he has maintained a mostly low profile this week during the joint practices with the Ravens. Stationed on the field with his starting offense for most of the first two practices, Kelly has mostly stood off to the side by himself, taking in the action while carrying a stopwatch.
Whether he has been on the field walking around, quietly observing his players, or pulling out of the NovaCare Complex and onto Pattison Avenue on his bike as he did at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Kelly is seemingly always in control.
"I see a guy that believes in what he believes, and he's a guy that's willing to fight those battles early on. You have to," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who didn't know Kelly but has spent some time with him this week. "You can't back up from what you believe in as a new coach in this league. He has a nice record in college coming in here, obviously, but now he has done well two years in the pros, so he has backed it up. But he has not flinched one bit from what he thinks is right and proper, and he sticks to it, and that's what you have to do."
In his two seasons at the helm of the Eagles, Kelly has led the team to consecutive 10-6 records and one playoff appearance in 2013. His warp-speed and quick-strike offense has ranked second in the league in total net yards per game (407.0), points per game (28.6) and rushing yards per game (142.4) over the past two seasons. The Eagles have also led the league in plays of 20-plus yards.
But Kelly has also drawn much criticism from both inside and outside the organization, which only heightened this offseason when he was given total control of personnel decisions while well-respected vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble was fired and general manager Howie Roseman was reassigned.
In the past two years under Kelly, the Eagles have released standout wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, and traded star running back LeSean McCoy and Pro Bowl quarterback Nick Foles. Former Eagles and Ravens cornerback Cary Williams complained that Kelly pushed the team too hard in practice, while McCoy and cornerback Brandon Boykin, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, said that Kelly doesn't relate well to African-American players.
"I laugh at some of the stuff I read about him," said Margraff, who has taken trips the past two summers to watch the Eagles practice. "I think he has a plan. Whatever that might be, I would trust him with anything when it comes to football."
Margraff, Hopkins' head coach since 1990, first heard about Kelly from Sean McDonnell, who he met while both were assistants at Columbia. Kelly and McDonnell had coached together at both Columbia and New Hampshire.
Not only did Margraff take McDonnell's recommendation and hire Kelly for his vacant defensive coordinator job at Hopkins, but he put the young assistant up in his Baltimore-area home. Kelly lived for several months with Margraff and his wife, Alice, who had just gotten married about five months earlier. Margraff's in-laws also let Kelly borrow a car, though he didn't use it much because he spent most of his time at the Hopkins football office.
"We were basically working day and night," Margraff said. "I talk to our young coaches here about what was most unique about him and it's that every practice was like every holiday rolled into one. He came out with such energy. He was excited about it, loved to be around the players. He was a terrific coach in every aspect, but what really jumped out was the energy he brought out to every practice and the focus."
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When he wasn't on the practice field, Kelly was in a coaching office, poring over statistics or testing different theories or strategies with Babb or other Blue Jays coaches. Margraff remembers Kelly and Babb debating about the appropriate time to let the opposing team score so the offense would get the ball back, a strategy that really wasn't employed until much later.
"He questions why constantly and he's not afraid of anything," Margraff said.
"He gives you the impression that whatever he's going to do is going to succeed," Babb said.
In 1993, Johns Hopkins went just 4-6 and Kelly's defensive wasn't particularly impressive. However, Kelly raved about the year he spent at the school.
"It's a unique place," Kelly said. "It was a Division III school in every sport except for lacrosse, but I think it had a Division I mentality, maybe because of the lacrosse program. Bob Scott was the [athletic director] when I was there and he's a legend in terms of being one of the best lacrosse coaches ever. So it was a great experience."