On the afternoon of February 6th, Oregon held its traditional Signing Day press conference during which coach Mario Cristobal commented on the Ducks’ 2019 signing class and offered a glimpse into the overall status and health of the football program.
Cristobal didn’t unveil anything new or revolutionary at the presser, but one thing did stand out. There was a marked difference between Cristobal’s presence at the podium and those of former head coaches Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart.
Cristobal spoke with resolve and genuine conviction. He exuded an air of certainty, sounding like the type of leader that has been missing from Oregon football since the departure of Chip Kelly, or maybe even since Mike Bellotti’s tenure.
It’s clear that Oregon’s “confidence crisis” is over. They once again have a leader with a vision and a structured plan for success. Even though the program has not yet returned to the greatness it achieved under Bellotti and Kelly, I have renewed optimism that Oregon football will once again become a national championship contender under Cristobal. Why am I so optimistic? It starts with the marked differences between Cristobal’s current tenure and those of his two predecessors. Let’s compare them to better illustrate these differences.
The Helfrich Era
Helfrich took over as head coach in 2013. His hiring was largely based on the wildly successful output of the Oregon offense from 2009-2012, when he was the offensive coordinator. The program seemed to be in very good hands following the solid building years under Bellotti and the national-title-contending years under Kelly, during which the Ducks went 45-7.
Helfrich, an Oregon native, resonated with the residents of the school and many of the Oregon alumni. He was a local kid who grew up in the state and was positioned to lead the program to an ever-elusive national title. Most fans wanted him to succeed, not only for their own sake, but for himself as a “local-boy-makes-good” matter of pride.
But the results on the field began to change under Helfrich’s reign following the Ducks’ trip to the National Championship Game at the end of the 2014 season. The team began to look vulnerable, no longer invincible as it once did. Uncertainty crept into the program. It started to lose its identity, and the fan base quickly picked up on those changes.
As for Helfrich, he never looked comfortable at his press conferences. Whether he was introducing new recruits or following up with reporters after a game, the podium was not his place of comfort. He seemed to like his seat in the coordinator box much more.
Some of us even cringed during his pressers. He just looked so small, sitting alone in his big chair, dwarfed by the imposing silhouette of the team logo and those over-arching Duck wings. His head would be down, and his eyes would start shifting as if he was searching himself for answers. He didn’t seem to want the spotlight or to claim responsibility for the overall health of Oregon football.
This is not an indictment of the man, who I am convinced is very honorable, but a description of what usually left me agitated and worried following his media appearances.
While some didn’t want to admit it, a change had to be made. And after a dismal 2016 season, Athletic Director Rob Mullens agreed.
The Taggart Era
Many fans were elated that Mullens dealt with the Helfrich issue and made the difficult but necessary decision to move on from him.
But another coach meant more change — something that was difficult for administrators and fans to swallow. For a program that had retained much of its staff for the better part of two decades, a second coach in five years felt like an un-parachuted free-fall.
Still, while fans were skeptical, they welcomed the breath of fresh air that Taggart brought to the program. He met the press and the fanbase with a wide smile and an easy laugh. And though his overall win-loss record was suspect, he built his candidacy on his reputation as a turnaround artist. And that’s what Oregon fans wanted and needed at that juncture.
But he turned out to be a hype artist.
He was slick with his delivery and magnanimous in his image. Following the deer-in-the-headlights sessions with Helfrich, Taggart’s charisma felt refreshing. And most importantly, he brought hope to the media and the fan base.
But that optimism soon ran its course. The team began to look disorganized. Play calling and execution began to erode. Internal strife surfaced. Some doubted the veracity and ability of the head coach. And disparaging whispers began to rise that Taggart couldn’t be trusted.
There was an integrity issue related to his persona. Fans sensed that something was wrong, but few wanted yet another coaching change so soon. Turns out, they had no choice. Taggart left abruptly to coach Florida State, still in his first season with the Ducks. He pulled the plug on Oregon and left Duck fans confused and frustrated.
The Cristobal Era Starts Now
Here’s where Cristobal enters the equation. The coach just completed his first full season as Oregon’s head coach, and he just locked in his first true recruiting class. (Last year, he had to quickly pick up the pieces after Taggart’s exit and strive to salvage committed recruits in the face of change.)
But what was made clear in that Signing Day presser is that Cristobal is not only well acclimated to the technical, coaching side of the job, but he is infusing the program with his spirit. Oregon football is truly his now. The roster is full of players who were identified, recruited and indoctrinated into Oregon Football by Cristobal and his staff. By the time the 2019 season kicks off, they will be players trained, coached and culturally influenced by Cristobal’s staff.
It’s officially the Cristobal era of Oregon football.
The press conferences are different now, too. They reveal both “Cristobal the coach” and “Cristobal the man.” As a coach, he’s quietly confident, coming across as a straight shooter. He’s great with the media, and he’s much more comfortable handling the spotlight than Helfrich was.
But we’ve also seen glimpses of his characteristics as a man, and the signs are very encouraging. He appears to be the kind of person whom others wish they could be themselves: successful, honest, giving and caring. Compared to Taggart’s salesman approach, it hasn’t taken fans long to fall in love with Cristobal’s genuineness.
But it’s not just the fans who endorse the second-year coach. From their own accounts, the recruits Oregon has pursued, along with their families, see the same traits and characteristics in Cristobal that I described.
Because of this, much of the turbulence that Duck fans have been feeling for the past few years has finally subsided. I’m prepared to sit back, relax and cheer for the Ducks, assured that the team is in the hands of a leader.
Watch the press conference for yourself and form your own opinion about whether Oregon coaching has ascended to a new high. There is an old nautical term that says: “Steady as she goes.” It means, “to hold the course.” Cristobal is doing just that, and because of him, Oregon football will once again become elite.
Greenville, South Carolina Top Photo by Kevin Cline
Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in digital marketing in Chicago, Illinois.
Born in Eugene, Brent Pennington grew up along the Siuslaw river in western Lane county competing in four Coast League sports. He attended his first Ducks football game in 1960, and was inside Autzen stadium for its opening game in ’67. Brent attended the UO College of Business Administration from 1969-1975 interrupted by U.S. Army service. He has traveled much of the world in the Lotteries and Gaming industry.
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