It’s the oldest cliche in football movies. The team is behind, they go into the locker room for half time, and the coach (or a player) digs deep for an inspiring speech that turns it all around.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap.”
Well, that was King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, at least with some spin by Shakespeare, but you get the idea.
Wednesday, a reporter asked Chip Kelly if that’s what this dreadful Niners team is missing — a fiery motivational speaker.
Q: You’ve got ... several veteran leaders but many of them are self admittedly not rah-rah, in your face type guys, like T Joe Staley and S Antoine Bethea. Is that, I don’t know, a missing element of the locker room? Is there any sort of I guess, leadership void in the sense of a guy that’ll stand up and rally the troops or is that overrated?
The reporter might as well have been talking about Chip, who does not go for big speeches. And maybe he was. But the coach has never been that kind of guy. It’s not his style, and he doesn’t consider it practical or effective. Way back in 2010, he said:
“There's not time for some rousing speech [at halftime]. It's businesslike. We play a full 60 minutes."
That the year his Ducks came back from a 21-3 deficit against 9th-ranked Stanford to win 52-31, so it’s not like he had problems rallying the troops. But in that game, it was actions — such as a 2nd quarter onside kick —that fired his guys up, not words.
Kelly likes the quieter style of leading by example, and that’s what he told that reporter on Wednesday.
I think part of being a good leader is being able to articulate your vision. You don’t have to be a yeller or a screamer to do that. There’s been different types of leaders as you go through and look at the history. Some guys are very vocal. Other guys don’t have to raise their voice at all and everybody listens to them.
But, I think part of it is you have to lead by example and I think Joe and Antoine definitely do that in terms of their work ethic, how they practice, how they approach it, how professional they are in terms of what they do. I don’t believe you have to be a real vocal, vocal guy. I think first off you have to lead by example and those two guys do.
The reporter pressed him, hinting that maybe some coaching fury was what the team needed, and Chip addressed that implication directly.
Q: I think people are looking for maybe fire or people to say this is not acceptable. Do you see some of that behind the scenes?
A: No, because I see our guys compete. I don’t think our guys aren’t competing. Arguably the best coach the game right now is [New England Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick. He’s not a fiery, fire and brimstone guy, but he has a very clear vision, understands exactly what he wants, leads by example and does a great job with it.
It’s possible that the Niners do need a screamer at this point, but outside of movies that’s usually a coach’s last stop on his way out the door. Terry Porter, the point guard on the Portland Trailbazers’ great early 1990s teams, is coaching in college now. He was asked about the big speech idea on a radio show recently and said
You try to do one or two [of those speeches] a year because it kind of runs their course. ... they'd be like, jeez, oh, you're going to pull that one out one more time?
His point was, you’d better save that for a very important moment because that can’t be your go-to move.
The reality is that very few people can give a speech anywhere near as articulate as those that Hollywood screenwriters cook up, and -- especially at the pro level — it’s going to sound like a lot of corny BS most of the time.
Then again, what do we know? Reporters aren’t allowed in the locker room for those key moments, and Kelly likes to keep them private. One Oregon beat reporter told me a story about the 2012 Civil War rivalry game, where the Ducks demolished 15th ranked Oregon State. He had wandered into the locker room unseen before the media were invited in, and watched Chip run in yelling:
We just laid 48 f---ing points on them!
This reporter, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t supposed to be there, told me he had never seen Chip that emotional in front of reporters.
Apparently the coach got emotional — and angry — in 2011, the next time Oregon played Stanford after that 52-31 comeback. That’s what former Duck (and now former Eagle) Josh Huff told reporter Sheil Kapadia years later.
Stanford — with Andrew Luck at quarterback -- had won 17 straight games after that 2010 loss in Eugene, the nation’s longest win streak. This game was in Palo Alto, and though the Ducks led 22-16 at halftime, that wasn’t enough for Chip. Huff remembered it this way:
"[At] halftime... it was a close battle and he came in and I’ve never seen him so fired up. He came in, flipped the table over, he was cussing a little bit. It fired the whole team up. Eventually we went out there in the second half and did what we had to do, made plays and came out with a victory."
The Ducks ended up winning 53-30.
Apparently a little bit of yelling goes a long way. Though he never saw much emotion from his college coach, Huff said that was his favorite memory of Kelly.