Chip Kelly had an impressive debut as the San Francisco 49ers coach on Wednesday, relaxed, confident and (mostly) humble with flashes of his old jokey self. His first two to three wisecracks got crickets as the press adjusted to his blunt, deadpan humor, but his counter jabs and self-deprecation were landing regularly by the time he finally walked away.
The mood was distinctly more relaxed on the Left Coast than it was in Philadelphia, especially this past season. The venue may have had something to do with it, a comfortable auditorium with plush seats and plenty of elbow room, compared favorably to the wind-whipped tent on the side of the Novacare field or the grim cinderblock press room in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field.
One difference that immediately caught my eye was the (relative) gender balance of the press corps. Philadelphia's media is nearly all male, but at one point in Chip's formal press conference three questioners in a row came from female reporters. I don't think I saw that many in any one year back East.
There were actually 3 parts to the interviews: the formal presser that many saw live, streaming; some TV interviews that I listened in on; and a scrum outside in the lobby where the coach entertained lots of questions and got bigger laughs.
Asked a followup about his earlier statement that he hadn't brought any clothes with him to San Francisco for his meetings with Baalke and York, Kelly pounced on a poorly worded question as he often does, clarifying that "I DID have clothes ON. Let's not make this something weird."
Later when asked if it was the first time he had ever been fired, the 50-something Kelly said "Yeah. But that's OK. It's all part of growing up."
Chip and the Niners were clearly determined to refute the "lack of emotional intelligence" narrative that the Philadelphia front office is pushing hard, and he was pretty effective. While he dodged a few questions, he was for the most part direct, reflective and humbled by his failures. He also spoke in an extremely quiet voice that also lowered the emotional temperature of the room (and made it hard to hear).
Chip did not display any resentment or anger, he listened carefully and responded thoughtfully. He warmly hugged Shelley Smith of ESPN (who recently took time off to battle cancer) before she interviewed him, and asked about her daughter. When asked why he postponed his introductory press conference, he said he didn't want to miss his dad's 87th birthday.
Kelly is a smart enough man to know how to project looks that might not be accurate, but there are some things you can't fake. It was clear that the caricature of an autistic football savant who can't speak to normal people was way off base.
That doesn't guarantee that Chip can be an effective leader for 53 much younger guys from different economic, geographic and ethnic backgrounds who put their body at risk with every play he calls. But it's an encouraging sign.