Grant Cohn: Inner thoughts of 49ers’ Chip Kelly still a mystery

Coach brought a new management style to San Francisco - he shares his football knowledge and runs startlingly efficient practices - but he’s loath to reveal much about himself.|


That's my first impression of 49ers new head coach Chip Kelly. I could be totally wrong. I'm trying to get to know the guy, and he's hard to know.

He doesn't do one-on-one interviews. I have no idea why. I asked for one and got turned down, politely. His predecessor, Jim Tomsula, did one-on-ones all the time. Even Tomsula's predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, did one-on-ones. That's how he and Tomsula got to know the writers, and the writers got to know them. Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary did one-on-one interviews. You name the coach, he did interviews. It's a 49ers tradition.

Kelly doesn't seem interested in getting to know us. Or maybe he is interested but doesn't feel comfortable around new people. Maybe meeting others gives him anxiety. Or maybe he's obsessed with business. I am not judging him. I'm describing.

Even during group interviews, Kelly seems nervous. He talks reallyreallyfast, like he's trying to fill awkward moments with as many words as possible, as opposed to Harbaugh, who actually enjoyed creating awkward moments in group interviews. Got a kick out of it.

Kelly also tells jokes which tend to fall flat. Maybe it's his delivery. Maybe it's his timing. Whatever it is, he's not particularly funny, as opposed to Harbaugh, who had a wicked sense of humor, and Tomsula, who was a laugh riot even if he didn't mean to be.

Tomsula was funny because no matter how hard he tried — and, boy, did he try — he simply couldn't articulate his thoughts. Even the most basic explanations involved multiple tangents, sentence fragments, hand gestures and sound effects. He was almost impossible to transcribe and even harder to understand. But he was colorful.

Kelly explains himself extremely well. Enjoys explaining himself. Wants to explain himself. Wants to show how smart he is and how much he knows about football and how easily he speaks that language. Wants you to know he's the real deal. He's generous with his insights.

Harbaugh was not. Harbaugh could be a lot of fun when he wanted to be — he had stories and catch phrases and historical anecdotes. Had a lot of ways to divert interviews away from football.

How many times did we hear about the low-hanging fruit, or how he had already plowed that ground?

But Harbaugh didn't like to talk about his sport with the media. His explanations could be short and hostile. 'That's scheme,' he would say, a man guarding state secrets. He didn't feel he needed to justify himself or answer to people who didn't know the game half as well as he did.

Kelly is the opposite. Kelly wants to dazzle you with his football acumen. He answers questions like he's teaching a seminar, like he's trying to raise the football IQ of the media and the fans and the United States of America.

I appreciate Kelly's style of answering questions in group interviews. He's collegial, as opposed to Harbaugh, who was combative. You had to fight Harbaugh for a good answer. The interview was a battle, a battle I grew to appreciate. I miss Harbaugh.

I miss the way he coached practices. He was obsessive. He couldn't just watch a drill — he had to participate in it. Had to blow his whistle. Had to yell. Had to be the leader of the team. You always knew where Harbaugh was on the field.

Kelly is tougher to find. He's short, and he wears gray shorts, a gray T-shirt and white tennis shoes. He dresses like he's an equipment guy or a ball boy. He blends in.

And he's always moving. He seems to have a quick take on things. He'll watch one drill for 45 seconds. Then he'll move to another drill and watch that for 45 seconds. Then another. And another. Then he'll walk over to a player and tell a joke. I saw Kelly and Bruce Ellington smiling and chatting for a good 30 seconds at the beginning of Tuesday's practice.

Then Kelly walked over to the sideline and said hello to Bob Holtzman from ESPN. Then Kelly walked over to a high school football coach and welcomed him to practice. Then I lost Kelly temporarily. You take your eyes off of him for one second and he's gone.

Kelly is not a commanding presence, not a leader during practice. He's an observer. He looks. He studies. Doesn't teach or yell or blow a whistle. Stands quietly and watches. Says nothing when it's time to switch drills. An artificial air-horn noise blasts out of two giant speakers, and then a robotic Stephen-Hawking-sounding voice tells players where to go and what to do. Kelly delegates most of his talking to a computer program.

Shy? Or efficient? Maybe a bit of both.

I can tell you Kelly's practices are highly efficient. I've never seen a football practice move so quickly. One play after another after another with no huddles or breaks in between. Just get the ball and go. The choreography is almost hypnotic.

You get the feeling there are levels to Kelly, levels he hasn't shown and we haven't seen. We wait, wait with interest.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor