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Before coaching in the NFL, he was the head coach of the Oregon Ducks from 2009 to 2012, leading the program to four consecutive BCS bowl game appearances including the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
Kelly broke into the coaching ranks in 1990 at Columbia University, where he served as secondary and special teams coach for the freshman team.
He left to become the defensive coordinator at the Johns Hopkins University for one season.
He returned to his alma mater as the running backs coach for the next three seasons (1994–96).
In recognition of his coaching achievements, Kelly received the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award, the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award and was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year for the second year running.
The 2011 season began with the #3 Ducks facing the #4 LSU Tigers in the Cowboys Classic where they were defeated 40–27.
Under Kelly's guidance, Dixon was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
In 2008, the Ducks once again led the Pac-10 in scoring (41.9 ppg) and total offense (484.8 ypg), while breaking the school record marks set the previous season.
It was the closest that a team from the Pacific Northwest has come to winning a share of the national championship since Washington was crowned co-national champion alongside Miami by in 1991.
With a 37–20 win over the Oregon State Beavers on December 4, 2010, Kelly led the Ducks to a 9–0 finish in conference play, winning their second consecutive outright Pac-10 North title.
With Darron Thomas at quarterback and Doak Walker Award winner La Michael James at running back, the Ducks averaged 49.3 points and 537.5 yards per game in the regular season.
In his first season as offensive coordinator at Oregon, the Ducks led the Pac-10 in scoring (38.15 ppg) and total offense (467.54 ypg), and also became the highest scoring team while amassing the most yards in the history of Oregon football.
Prior to Kelly's arrival at Oregon, Dennis Dixon struggled in his first three seasons at quarterback.