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Kelly's innovative ways began at Johns Hopkins 20 years go

BALTIMORE - It was during the one season he worked with a coach nicknamed Tommy Edison that the lightbulb flashed on in Chip Kelly's head.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

BALTIMORE - It was during the one season he worked with a coach nicknamed Tommy Edison that the lightbulb flashed on in Chip Kelly's head.

Kelly's epiphany occurred 20 years ago in a starless football universe light-years removed from the NFL. As a first-year defensive coordinator for Division III Johns Hopkins - the Baltimore school that has produced thousands of physicians but not a single regular-season NFL player - he earned less than $20,000, drove a borrowed car, and lived in the head coach's spare bedroom.

But it was a passion for statistical analysis born here in 1993 that set Kelly on the less-traveled road to the NFL, where, despite losses in his last two games, the rookie Eagles coach's innovations have created a nationwide buzz.

That season the baby-faced 29-year-old met Bob Babb, an inquisitive, baseball-mad Pennsylvanian who coached Hopkins' linebackers in the fall and its baseball team in the spring. Babb believed in the power of data. Ahead of his time, he prodigiously collected and consumed it. And with it, he helped satisfy his insatiable curiosity about the ways football was taught and played.

"Bob," said Jim Margraff, Hopkins head coach then and now, "is the ultimate 'Why not?' guy. Chip's the same way. They really hit it off."

That analytical approach and the innovations it spawned earned Babb, who also has won 953 baseball games at Hopkins, his reputation as a coaching Edison. And no one was more profoundly or lastingly impressed by that inventiveness than Kelly.

"It was phenomenal," Kelly said in 2010. "Everything was a situation that had its answer. I learned as a young coach that if you get your players to understand the situation, that's half the battle."

Nine years older than Kelly and then in his 16th of 21 seasons on JHU's football staff, Babb convinced the young coordinator to trust statistics over instincts. The two, along with Margraff, watched film incessantly on the walls of their tiny White Athletic Center offices, giddily compiling every opponent's tendencies.

Babb's constant questions and ideas helped the eager defensive coordinator devise his own answers and concepts, all based on what the numbers told him. Soon, like Babb, Kelly was filling notebooks with statistics.

"He and Bob really worked well together," recalled Margraff, now in his 24th season as the Blue Jays coach. "Bob just has an interesting mind. He looks at everything. He and Chip, they'd go on for hours. They'd constantly go through different situations.

"Chip actually took an interest in baseball because Bob showed him that baseball is nothing but situations. They'd draw up plays, talk football constantly. They're both creative and they're both not afraid to try things."

At Hopkins, Kelly began using data to formulate defenses and, just as important, the means to communicate them quickly and simply to players. There were so many coverages, in fact, that eventually Hopkins defenders donned wristbands that listed them all. Before Kelly departed this handsome campus on the edge of downtown, he was convinced that the best-prepared coach was the one who knew the percentages.

"I used to tell Chip that as a coach you want to be like a fireman," said Babb, a mustachioed native of Bloomsburg, Pa. "When a fireman goes to a fire, he can't get there and say, 'Darn, I should have brought my ladder.' Or 'I wish I had my ax to knock down that door.' You have to take all you need. I said you never want to go into a game where they come out in some crazy formation and you don't have an answer. Our kids can't be running around. We can't be using a timeout. We've got to always have something they can fall back on."

They were fortunate, Babb said, to be at Hopkins, where the players were able to grasp their innovations nearly as fast as they could devise them.

"One of the advantages of coaching here in any sport is that you have kids who pick things up fast and understand concepts," said Babb, 58. "If you can convince them with data that it makes sense, they grasp and remember. They're not big, fast, or strong, but they can certainly comprehend."

A big move

After the 1992 Hopkins season, defensive coordinator Bob Benson, the only full-time assistant on Margraff's six-man staff, left for the same job at Georgetown.

Margraff, a Hopkins quarterback before becoming his alma mater's head coach in 1990, had worked briefly at Penn, Rochester, and Columbia. Kelly had been an unpaid graduate assistant at Columbia in 1991 and a mutual friend at that Ivy League school suggested Margraff consider the young New Hampshire grad for the vacancy.

"He'd coached the D-backs at Columbia, so I only knew him as a defensive coach," Margraff said.

Kelly got the job and moved immediately from New Hampshire, where he had been a graduate assistant in 1992. He had no place to live and no car. Margraff's in-laws loaned the young aide a vehicle, and the head coach convinced his new wife to let Kelly use a bedroom in their suburban Timonium home.

Kelly didn't use either very often.

The only nonfootball activities his ex-colleagues can recall were an occasional basketball game and a weekly TV show that he and Margraff's wife never missed. The young staff frequently worked until midnight. And in Babb, Kelly found a combination mentor and kindred spirit.

"Those two guys always looked at football a different way," Margraff said. "I was very rigid when I started out, and they really opened me up."

The '93 version of Kelly had a full head of hair and was at least 20 pounds lighter. But he wore the trademark visor on the sideline even then. And while he was the staff's rookie, he wasn't shy.

"The one thing that struck me most about Chip was that he was a very self-confident guy," Babb recalled. "He wasn't egotistic, but he was convinced of his abilities to make decisions. He would listen, but unless you convinced him you were right, he knew how he was going to do it."

One of the ways to convince him, say, to pressure the quarterback was to show him statistics that proved an opponent passed 75 percent of the time when facing a third-and-4. Statistics, Babb persuaded Kelly, didn't lie.

"More than any other sport, football is like chess," Babb said. "A coach has so much control.

"I didn't have a football background when I started, so I had to think outside the box. The first thing I asked was, 'Why can't we blitz and still play zone defense?' That's common now, but we might have been the first to use it. As a result, I started keeping all sorts of charts on formations so we could use automatic calls. This was precomputer, so we'd just watch film, write, and tabulate."

According to Margraff, Babb, who gave up his football position in 1998 to devote himself exclusively to baseball, "has an incredibly creative mind." He still walks into the head coach's office once or twice a week with trick plays.

In baseball, Babb is a small-college legend. Through 33 Hopkins seasons, he has compiled a 953-342 record and led his team to 17 NCAA appearances. And his baseball team offers a glimpse at how he coached football and why he was so appealing to Kelly.

The Hopkins dugout is filled with players writing on clipboards. They are charting such details as how often a pitcher glances at second with a runner there, or how much a second baseman cheats to his left against righthanded hitters.

He's devised his own set of theftproof, one-word signals for every contingency. ("Finnegan", for example, indicates a batter with speed) as well as his own statistical categories. One of Babb's favorite creations is bases per plate appearance, which takes into account stolen bases.

"Let's say I have four singles in 10 at-bats and do nothing else," he said. "That's a .4-per-plate appearance and that stinks. You wouldn't play for me. I want base accumulators."

For all the innovations the Hopkins staff developed, that '93 season was at times a struggle. The Blue Jays finished with a 4-6 record and Kelly's defense yielded 20.7 points a game.

But the new reliance on statistical analysis gave Kelly a rationale and a base from which to experiment - exactly what his creative mind craved. With statistics behind him, he implemented complex secondary schemes that involved underneath coverages, frequent shifts from zone to man-to-man, and the "unfulfilled matchup" techniques he'd seen Rod Rust's New England Patriots run.

"He wasn't afraid to experiment," Margraff said. "Nearly everyone does that stuff now, but Chip was trying it out then. We weren't a very good football team and it was a challenge for our guys to do. But it was neat to watch him develop these things."

If Kelly is remembered for anything from his one Hopkins season, it was his fondness for the "whistle-ball." After throwing around the toy foam football that whistles when it's tossed, Kelly decided to make better use of the device.

"He used it to practice with his DBs," Babb said. "Once they heard the sound, they'd have to react quickly. He was never without it."

Along with the X's and O's, Kelly managed to imbue his players with energy and curiosity.

"He coached with amazing energy," Margraff said. "We've had some very good assistants here. But the thing that really jumps out about Chip is how much energy and enthusiasm he had. Without question, he passed it on to the kids. He was high-level all the time."

After the '93 season, Kelly returned to New Hampshire and to the other side of the ball, becoming his alma mater's full-time running backs coach. But, as his funky offense and volumes of statistics attest, the lessons learned at Hopkins remain with him still.

A few years ago, on a football Saturday, Babb got a phone call from a Hopkins assistant. The man had been watching Oregon on TV when he saw the Ducks run a play Babb and Kelly had drawn up two decades ago.

"By the time he left," Margraff said, "we said, 'God, he's so creative, he'd be a great offensive coach.' I'm the dumbest guy in America. I had one of the greatest offensive football minds of all time coaching on defense."