A Decade in Review: Oregon’s Coaching Carousel

Cameron Johansson Editorials

Another decade of Oregon football is just about in the books. This one was a little bit different. After the long coaching tenure of Mike Belotti, the Ducks saw four different coaches at the helm: Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich, Willie Taggart and lastly, Mario Cristobal. Each of these coaches formed their teams to have a unique identity to ensure success on the field. 

Each coach only lasted a couple of years, but they all have their own unique place in the history of Oregon football. Here’s a quick crash course on the four eras of Ducks football in the 2010s. 

Chip Kelly Era

Chip Kelly celebrates a victory in the first ever Pac-12 Championship game at Autzen Stadium.

Chip Kelly kicked off the decade coaching the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl since 1994. The saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression,” and Kelly did that in a big way after taking over for Belotti. Of course, Kelly was an offensive coordinator on Beliotti’s staff and he had done some innovative things with the offense, but there was still a level of concern with the new coach. 

Oregon did lose the eventual matchup to Ohio State, but Kelly brought a new identity that incorporated speed and flash to the Oregon program. Kelly was the first coach in modern history to turn the iconic “O” into a brand. The most important aspect of that Rose Bowl game was that the future was beginning to look brighter than the past. There was a strong belief among the Ducks faithful that a high-stakes bowl game could be an annual occurrence. 

Just one year after the Rose Bowl, Kelly guided the Ducks to the school’s first No. 1 ranking, and most importantly, to the BCS National Championship to play Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers. Although the Ducks’ first loss of the season had poor timing, Kelly had a year of firsts and solidified Oregon among college football’s elite. 

Ironically, Kelly’s best team, top to bottom, was in 2012, which ended in an eventual Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl win against the Wisconsin Badgers. Kelly’s overall record with the Ducks was 46-7 over four seasons.

Mark Helfrich Era

Mark Helfrich at the 2015 Spring Game.

When Kelly eventually heard the calling of the NFL, Oregon was again in the midst of a coaching search. This ended pretty quickly, as the Ducks promoted from within, once again from the offensive side of the ball. Helfrich was named head coach and was poised to pick up the baton.

Helfrich caused a little bit of a stir in his first season by providing more of a balanced attack as opposed to quickness and speed up the field on the ground. Granted, it made sense that he would want to throw the ball more than run because he had Marcus Mariota under center. 

Oregon proved the naysayers wrong when it went to the inaugural College Football Playoff and produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Helfrich’s second season. Most fans remember this playoff with a deflating loss to a stout Ohio State team in the National Championship and Florida State’s quarterback Jameis Winston slipping on the banana peel in the semifinal game in Pasadena.

After the second appearance in a national championship in four years, Helfrich and his coaching staff had a subtle fall from grace, which had an eventual crash landing after the 2016 season. A historic loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl was just the beginning of the end, as one bad decision was followed by another. The quarterback position was supposed to be saved by Helfrich’s transfer recruit Dakota Prukop and a past-his-prime Brady Hoke was hired to be the defensive guru. A 4-8 season, which included a blowout defeat to Washington and a Civil War loss, meant the writing was on the wall. Helfrich would finish 37-16 over his four-year tenure with the Ducks.

Willie Taggart Era

Willie Taggart only coached one season at Oregon.

For the first time since the Rich Brooks hire, Oregon went outside the program to find a new coach and essentially cleaned house in hope of a fresh start and a revival of the Oregon program. Florida native, Willie Taggart was hired and the “Swaggart Era” began. Oregon fans were happy to see a new face, with a new motto, which read, “Do Something.” Taggart had a reputation of a coach who could recruit very well and put together a good coaching staff around him. 

Taggart was able to gain some recruiting traction in Southern California and states like Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. Taggart also hired the likings of Marcus Arroyo, Jim Levitt, Joe Salave’a and Mario Cristobal

Oregon saw a quick and vast improvement under Taggart, but considering the previous season’s 4-8 record, it couldn’t get much worse. Injuries in the 2017 season certainly didn’t help the cause, with Justin Herbert going down with a shoulder injury in the second game of Pac-12 action and running back Royce Freeman battling nagging injuries all year. 

At the conclusion of the regular season, Taggart’s name was repeatedly tied to the Florida State Seminoles and their coaching vacancy. When asked by Oregon media, Taggart stuck with the narrative that he was Oregon’s football coach and wasn’t seriously considering any other jobs. History tells us this was false, because just days before Oregon was set to play Boise State in the Vegas Bowl, Taggart took the job to become the next coach of the Seminoles.

Taggart’s tenure at Oregon only lasted 12 games, where he went 7-5. The departure to Florida State left a bitter taste with both fans and players. Many felt lied to and that Taggart used Oregon as a one-year pit stop to get to another major program. To avoid another long coaching search, the players took matters into their own hands to ensure they had the coach they wanted.

Mario Cristobal Era

Mario Cristobal celebrates a Pac-12 Championship with player and coaches.

The players pushed for Mario Cristobal to become the next Oregon head coach. Recruits were flipping their decisions to follow Taggart to Florida State and current Ducks at the time were threatening to leave the school if Cristobal was not head coach. This left Oregon’s athletic director Rob Mullens with no choice, but it was the right choice. 

Since Cristobal has taken over as head coach, the program has been trending upwards in all facets. After going 9-4 his first full season, he is 11-2 so far this year with the Rose Bowl left to play. This is partly because of his incredible work ethic, but also because he has surrounded himself with good assistants, most left over from Taggart. 

Recruiting has also been on the upswing with Cristobal securing a top-10 class in his first year, which included Kayvon Thibodeaux, the top recruit from California. In his second year, he decided one five-star recruit wasn’t enough, as he snagged two five-star recruits for the first time in Oregon history. This includes Justin Flowe, once again the top-ranked recruit from California, which is yet another feat no Oregon coaching regime has ever accomplished. 

With the decade winding down, the Ducks have come full circle. The decade began with a Rose Bowl Game, and so will the next. The four different eras of coaches were all vastly different, but each had their own forms of success. They each have had their fair share in contributing to the national brand that is Oregon football.

Whether it be with speed, conference championships, bowl games or outrageous uniforms, each brought a different aspect to the brand. Although Taggart was only in Eugene for one season, he brought the man responsible for the current state of Oregon football, Cristobal. It’s fair to say in this growing world of media, over this past decade Oregon has become a nationwide brand because of these four and the teams they put on the field.

Cameron Johansson
Eugene OregonTop Photo by Tom Corno                                                                                                                                                                       


Chris Brouilette, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a current student at the University of Oregon  and is from Sterling, Illinois.


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