Mario Cristobal is a program builder. He took over as head coach at FIU under serious penalties from the NCAA and had few, if any, good facilities for his players. The Panthers had never blown the world away in the win column prior to his arrival, and he had no head coaching experience at the time.
With the cards stacked against him, Cristobal built FIU into a respectable program, capable of developing players into pro prospects and competing for conference championships.
He was fired for having what amounted to a single bad season. FIU evidently forgot all of the good the coach had done for them and fired him. Alabama was quick to pick up the young coach, and Cristobal absolutely thrived under Nick Saban. He has said, on numerous occasions, that coaching under Saban made him better as a coach, and the results speak for themselves. At his next head coaching gig, Cristobal has taken the conference by storm.
In only his second year as head coach, Cristobal won Oregon a conference championship and a Rose Bowl. He has reshaped the Ducks’ program into the premier program on the West coast, and there are a few reasons why.
The History of the Ducks
We all wanted Mark Helfrich to be great. He was the offensive coordinator when our beloved Ducks came closest to winning it all — not to mention that he was from Coos Bay, went to a small in-state college and was generally very likable.
Helfrich had three issues that ended up getting him fired. First, his defenses were genuinely awful as soon as he had to find a defensive coordinator for himself. Second, he was not a good evaluator of high school talent, often getting highly-rated but under-performing recruits. And third, he did not separate himself from Chip Kelly.
Helfrich, in his opening press conference, said to expect the program to stay more or less the same. He was going to run a buttoned-down program, with the same mantra, the same offense and the same philosophy. But the program did change. Helfrich got bigger, more powerful running backs. He went after highly-touted defensive players, he repeatedly targeted graduate transfer QBs, and the team generally shifted from “always go fast” to “maybe the SEC is on to something.”
He was fired, and the fact that we never got to know him is a big reason why. How are the fans going to go fight for a coach when that coach won’t even tell the fans when a player is injured?
After Willie Taggart took over, the change was immediate. Taggart was flashy, he was a smooth talker and it was evident from his first interview getting off the plane in Eugene through the time the words “Vegas Bowl baby!” exited his mouth. Taggart saved the Oregon program. The previous staff thought they could get players because they were Oregon, but when they weren’t winning that pitch worked as well as the same pitch does at USC. Taggart brought Oregon football into the modern era. A new mantra and players who finally looked like they were having fun highlighted his program.
Taggart brought Cristobal and a slew of talented recruits to Eugene, and just like that, *poof* he was gone.
Cristobal took over a fan base that craved stability in their program. Helfrich had a revolving door of coordinators and Taggart wasn’t interested in being in Eugene, only where Eugene could take him. At the time, I was pulling for a defensive hire at head coach, as I was tired of the poor defensive play, but after talking to a friend on the team I knew that the Ducks made the right hire in Cristobal.
Coach Cristobal has found success in Eugene by getting involved in the community. He has also brought grass-roots excitement to the once stale program, allowing fans to feel like they are a part of the program, not some nuisance like Kelly treated them or some part of the job the coach doesn’t like, a la Helfrich.
You can’t have a great program if no one wants to watch your team, and Cristobal is as watchable as they come.
Hiring the Best
Great programs have great coaches that other programs want. The simple fact is that Cristobal surrounds himself with fantastic coaches, and he cannot label every single one of them “associate head coach” or that title will have no meaning. So all the great coaches around the program have garnered interest from other schools, and some have left. Going into his third season, Cristobal has needed to hire a different offensive and defensive coordinator than those with whom he was hired.
For many teams, including Oregon in the past, losing a coordinator might kill your program. But with each coordinator vacancy, Cristobal has brought in a seemingly better coach than the one who departed. With Andy Avalos and Joe Moorhead most likely out of Eugene for head coaching jobs in the next two years, you have to wonder if that trend will continue.
Besides having the best coordinators, Cristobal fills his position staff with high ceiling guys, as well as top tier recruiters. Cristobal has focused on recruiting almost above all else in the program. The staffers he hires are all among the best in the nation recruiting at their position, and the results have spoken for themselves after the Ducks landed two of their top classes in program history his first two years.
All Cristobal has to do is keep his freight train of momentum heading in the right direction, and he will continue to have success at Oregon.
Top Photo Credit: Eugene Johnson
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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