Should Nike-U be X’s & O’s University? Oregon Among Elite In Developing Coaches

From the first football game played at Oregon in 1894 (a 46-0 victory over Albany College) to the Ducks’ 45-38 victory in the Rose Bowl a few weeks ago, Oregon has been extraordinarily fortunate to maintain coaching stability for the vast majority of its history.  The University of Oregon has long been a place of tremendous individual talents, even when the team performances were not noteworthy. From the College/NFL Hall of Famers that once graced the Oregon sidelines (14 in total) to the long lineage of recognizable coaches that at one time did the same, Oregon always has and continues to be a place of both tremendous long-term loyalty while developing some of the greatest football minds.

34 different head coaches have led the men of Oregon in its 117-year football history, but half of those 34 did so prior to 1913.  After 1913, that averages out to a change in head coaches every 5.8 years.  That may not seem like much at first glance, but in a sport where turnover is commonplace as coaches are on the move each year looking for bigger and better jobs, that kind of stability can make the difference in the success of a program.  Consider that only two programs in the last three years have maintained the same coaching staff top to bottom, Oregon and Army.  Oregon perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, is also the only team in the country to have played in a BCS game the last three years in a row.

Stability breeds success, and in the last 34 years Oregon has had only three different head coaches, a stretch that has seen the team go from one of the worst programs in the country to a perennial elite powerhouse thanks largely to the coaching staff.

The longest tenured head coaches at Oregon were Len Casanova for 16 seasons (1951-66), Rich Brooks for 18 years (1977-94), and Mike Bellotti for 14 (1995-2008) before stepping aside for current coach Chip Kelly, now entering his fourth season at the helm.  Of Oregon’s coaches, two have been recognized as the national collegiate head coach of the year; Rich Brooks in his final season at Oregon (1994) before taking the St. Louis Rams job in the NFL in 1995, and Chip Kelly in his first two seasons.

Hugo Bezdek (1906, 1913-1917) was at the time considered by many the best coach in the country

However before an individual award existed honoring coaches, Hugo Bezdek (1906, 1913-1917) was considered by many to be the greatest coach in the country.  While such an honor for Bezdek is left up for debate, what is without question was Bezdek’s unique versatility in the coaching ranks.  He remains the only person in history to take three different teams to the Rose Bowl (then known as the East-West Tournament Game), and also the only individual ever to coach both a major league baseball team and NFL franchise.

Legends of the coaching world like John Madden, John McKay, and John Robinson have all at one time called Eugene home. Chris Peterson, Dirk Koetter, Jeff Tedford, Mike Nolan, Norv Turner, Justin Wilcox, Gunther Cunningham, Bill Musgrave, Al Borges, Tom Donohue and many others have also emerged from the Oregon program to blossom elsewhere in the collegiate and pro ranks.  Countless former players have entered the coaching ranks at all levels applying the skills gained in Eugene to their teams, passing along the knowledge of doing things “the Oregon way” to the next generation of football players.

While the on-field results may have shown mixed results over the years, Oregon’s prowess as a coaching factory is among the very best in the nation. In fact, when Oregon made the radical switch to the spread offense before the 2005 season after years operating a highly-successful pro set offensive scheme, Head Coach Mike Bellotti cited that the switch was necessary because so many former Oregon coaches and players had been sought elsewhere for their football I.Q. that half the conference knew Oregon’s entire playbook.

Oregon has at times at fault shown too much loyalty to a coach, running several out of town who had been successful but were undesirable because they did not match the lofty expectations and iconic presence of their predecessors.  Charles “Shy” Huntington, despite a terrific six-year run in Eugene from 1918-1923 resigned after the university made attempts to lure Bezdek back to Eugene to coach again, going so far as to making Huntington give a speech in public honoring Bezdek when he returned to Eugene in 1923 to accept an award, being forced to call Bezdek “the greatest coach in the country” before a large crowd welcoming Bezdek as the conquering hero.  The award and ceremony was a lure of hoping to get Bezdek to come back to Eugene permanently to replace Huntington, but Bezdek refused the repeated attempts to return choosing instead to stay with Penn State. Huntington resigned shortly thereafter, stating that “while my players are behind me, it has become clear that the university and community are not.” Huntington’s departure from the program ended the glory days for the Webfoots, sending the program into a spiral that did not see a return to respectability until the 1950s under Len Casanova.

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Many thought Jerry Frei was unfairly fired after five seasons leading Oregon (1967-1971)

So too was Jerry Frei’s departure unfortunate and premature, the victim of having to replace the legendary Len Casanova in a five year tenure from 1967-1971 that left many players bitter that their coach was unceremoniously given the hook just as they were turning things around (1972 was the senior year for Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad).

The 1972 and 1973 years would prove a disappointment in the switch to a different offensive scheme, and Dick Enright was quickly replaced, setting in motion some of the darkest years in program history until the slow climb from mediocrity began in the mid-80s under Rich Brooks.  In the cases of Huntington and Frei it was not their coaching expertise or lack of on-field success that led to their dismissal, but the discontent of others that they were not Bezdek or Casanova.

In addition, on four separate occasions the University of Oregon has called on previous head coaches to return for an encore, with mixed results.  In 1901 and 1903 Warren W. Smith led Oregon to an 11-8-2 overall record in his two seasons. Hugo Bezdek’s first coaching experience was in 1906 at Oregon before departing for the University of Arkansas for six seasons (where he coined the nickname “Razorbacks”) before returning to Eugene from 1913-1917, a five-year stretch that saw Oregon rise to national powerhouse status. Richard Shore Smith was the coach at Oregon in 1904, and returned for one season in 1925 resulting in a dismal 1-5-1 record, a temporary fix after Shy Huntington’s initial replacement Joe Maddock in 1924 could only muster a 4-3-2 record. Tex Oliver also served double duty, first from 1938-1941, and again after the war from 1945-1946.

Rich Brooks spent 18 years in Eugene as head coach (1977-1994)

However, other times coaches have stuck around long after the community felt it was time for a change, the university showing immense loyalty and vision to see the possibilities of long-term results if patience was shown during down years.  Rich Brooks spent more time at Oregon as a head coach than anyone, tallying 18 years in all, 17 of which had many in the community calling for his head, some perhaps not willing to accept an Oregon State grad as their new coach.

In the record books Coach Brooks finished with a losing record (91-109-4), but he took over a program in the late 70s that was as low as it could be stuck in a quagmire of embarrassing losses and facing NCAA sanctions.  Yet over time Brooks was able to mold the Ducks from laughing stock to bowl-eligible program while simultaneously key funding was collected to build the facilities that enabled the program to improve recruiting, the lifeblood of any program.  Following the remarkable 1994 season where Oregon, picked in the preseason to finish 9th or 10th in the conference, won the Pac-10 title and appeared in the Rose Bowl, Brooks was named the national coach of the year and was able to leave on his own terms, taking an opportunity to coach in the NFL. For his long-term efforts in Eugene, the field at Autzen Stadium is named after him.

With coaching genius so too comes innovation, the ability to see the game differently, and the University of Oregon has from its inception been a hotbed for out-of-the-box thinking.  In 1899 the Webfoots created a new blocking technique, the arm-to-back formation, that completely changed blocking schemes, resulting in outscoring opponents 102-17 that season in six games.

Upon his return in 1913, Hugo Bezdek’s training techniques and coaching style revolutionized the game, being the first coach to create a training table, focus on nutrition and made Oregon one of the first programs to openly embrace the forward pass, a novelty at the time.

In 1928 Oregon featured two black quarterbacks, Robert Robinson and Charles Williams, in an era where few if any African-Americans were given the right to play collegiate or professional sports much less a prominent position such as quarterback. Coach John McElwan referred to Williams as “the toughest man I ever met.”  Years later Oregon graduate Woodley Lewis would be one of the earliest black players to be drafted into the NFL.

After World War II Tex Oliver became one of the first coaches in the country to utilize pre-snap motion, which became known as “Oliver’s Twist.” Oliver’s teams implemented a wide open passing scheme that could be considered a pre-cursor to the modern spread offense.

Dick Enright in 1972 was unafraid to change Oregon to an option team, despite featuring senior QB Dan Fouts, future NFL Hall of Famer still among the all-time leaders in career passing yards.

In 1996 Oregon’s new defensive coordinator Rich Stubler brought with him from the CFL a bizarre defensive “edge” scheme that had the defensive line being over a yard off the ball at the snap.  It proved a failure and was scrapped halfway through the season, but the willingness to attempt such a radical change from traditional football seemed perfectly acceptable at the University of Oregon where innovation was deemed routine, while at other schools considered traditional powers such a move would have been blasphemous.

Today Oregon features a coach that many unabashedly consider the most innovative football mind in the country, Chip Kelly.  From the tempo to the practice techniques to the scheme to the implementation of various experimental technologies happily supplied by Nike, there is no other program in the country operating quite like the University of Oregon, a philosophy that starts from the coaching staff.

It is difficult to imagine storied programs such as Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State, or Alabama ever accepting the brash changes that are so readily implemented at Oregon from year to year.  Others can see the writing on the wall that perhaps their traditional ways have passed them by though, sometimes at their own peril.

Consider for a moment the 2007 season as an example, Chip Kelly’s first year at Oregon as offensive coordinator. The Michigan Wolverines (thought to be a preseason national title contender) were beaten in the first two weeks of the season in embarrassing fashion by Appalachian State and Oregon on their own turf, two teams implementing wild new spread systems. “The winningest program in history” fired Head Coach Lloyd Carr at season’s end and scrapped their traditional power-I set offensive schemes in favor of hiring Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia. Rodriguez was thought to be a coach who could mimic the offensive innovation displayed in the Big House by App St. and Oregon.  The Rodriguez era was short-lived at Michigan, a program too set in its traditional ways could never fully accept nor properly implement the 21st century football being played by a program like Oregon.  Shown the door after three seasons in Ann Arbor, Rodriguez was recently hired as the new head coach at Arizona.

Yet while those programs embrace their proud winning traditions, Oregon embraces its proud history of innovation, possessing and developing some of the brightest football minds of their eras unafraid to think and act differently.  That is Oregon’s tradition, the influence of UO players and coaches spread across the country after departing the program now teaching the next generation the innovative techniques that have made the Ducks successful on the field, nurturing football’s future.

Just as head coaches Brooks and Bellotti nestled into Eugene for long hauls, so too have assistant coaches.  Current assistants Gary Campbell, Don Pellum, Steve Greatwood, and Jim Radcliffe have experience in the Oregon program stretching back decades. For Pellum and Greatwood, both played for Oregon before becoming coaches, and both recently were honored as top assistant coaches in the country in their respective areas of expertise.  Another perfect example of this homegrown coaching talent nurtured at the University of Oregon is Joe Schaffeld, a player under Len Casanova during the 1957 season that culminated in a trip to the Rose Bowl, who then became an assistant coach with the Ducks from 1974-1997, helping lead Oregon back to the Rose Bowl again in 1994.

Mike Bellotti led Oregon to 12 of its 25 total bowl games

The success of the Oregon program in the past two decades can largely be attributed to this stability in the assistant coaches.  When Brooks left for the pros, he took a few coaches with him but the majority of the staff was left relatively intact when Offensive Coordinator Mike Bellotti was elevated to the head coach position in 1995.

So too when Bellotti stepped aside for Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelly did he have the luxury of inheriting an almost completely intact top-notch assistant coaching staff, compiled by Bellotti during his time as captain.  To note all the phenomenal coaches that have grown up in the Oregon program to spread their wings elsewhere to great success and recognition only further showcases the immense talent that exists among the long-tenured assistants at the U of O.

It was interesting to witness the reactions recently in the wake of the rumored news of Chip Kelly’s potential departure for the NFL.  Some fans overreacted likening it to the death of the program as we knew it, that Oregon could never ascend to heights it has seen the past three years under Kelly with a different coach leading the way.  As this is pure speculation who is to say whether such a claim holds validity or not, but from a historical perspective it would not have been the first time that “the most innovative coach in the nation” would have left Oregon, nor may it be the last.

By the time Chip Kelly eventually leaves, he may be considered the best coach ever at the University of Oregon

Oregon’s proven and sustained track record of developing coaching talent, both homegrown and from afar, has led to the program’s success, as much as any shiny new facility or new Nike toy given to the Ducks.  Talk to players, and the unanimous declaration is that while the uniforms and flash is nice, it’s still the person behind the uniform making the plays that is the difference.  Facilities help to maximize an athlete’s potential and prepare them for the battle to come, the uniforms and marketing help bring the top talent to Eugene, but in the end it is the athlete themselves being nurtured and taught by premium coaching minds that is the true beacon of success for Oregon.

Currently the Oregon Ducks have witnessed a rise to national prominence unprecedented in their history, led by the brash Chip Kelly following in the footsteps of Bezdek and others as a true innovator of their respective eras, the top football minds while benefiting from some of the best assistant coaches in the country.  Whether Kelly chooses to stay in Eugene coaching for as long as Casanova, Brooks, or Bellotti, or instead chooses to one day take his immense talents elsewhere like Bezdek, the University of Oregon athletic program will continue on developing players and coaches that will be among the elite football minds in the nation for many years to come.

There will come a day when Chip Kelly is no longer the head coach at Oregon, but just as before Kelly arrived so to will Oregon be after Kelly departs, an established coaching factory helping to mold the brightest minds in the game.  Oregon is often referred to as “Nike-U,” but from a historical perspective the long-standing tradition of developing coaching talent lends the university a far more deserving nickname, X’s & O’s University.

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