Head Coaching Conundrum: To Hire Within or Without?

David Marsh Editorials

Another year, another coaching hire at Oregon. This is starting to become an unwelcome trend. Every single year of Mario Cristobal’s tenure has come with new coaching hires and is unlikely to stop any time soon. Hiring assistant coaches and coordinators can have a massive impact on a program, and Cristobal has done a fine job in hiring coaches that fit his culture and vision for the Oregon Ducks.

However, when given the choice, is it better to promote from within or to hire from without?

The Case For Internal Promotions

These hires tend not to get fans excited though often it can be highly effective to hire from within. For Oregon, this has resulted in the head coaching hires of: Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly, Mark Helfrich, and Mario Cristobal. When maintaining the trajectory of the program is at stake, promoting from within can be key to continuity of sustaining success.

However, the problem with hiring from within is usually inexperience. In the case of Kelly and Helfrich, neither had head coaching experience before they were promoted to the head coaching job at Oregon. In the case of Kelly, he was able to leverage his innovative offensive system to instant collegiate level success before leaving for the NFL. Helfrich, on the other hand, ran out of luck as he was unceremoniously fired at the end of the 2016 season. Both coaches finished their Oregon coaching careers with winning records and a championship appearance.

Mark Helfrich coaching against Cal in 2014.

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Hiring from within to find a new head coach certainly creates continuity within a program, but what about promoting from within for a new coordinator? Under Helfrich, Oregon did this on three occasions with mixed results. Helfrich’s first internal promotion was Scott Frost to Offensive Coordinator with Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams leading the offense over his three seasons as OC. Frost’s tenure as Offensive Coordinator at Oregon elevated him to his first head coaching job opportunity at the University of Central Florida following the conclusion of the 2015 regular season.

Don Pellum, another internal hire, struggled as Defensive Coordinator and was far less successful. In 2014, Pellum’s defense was loaded with veteran talent and did a fantastic job at generating turnovers, though the unit had some difficulties stopping the run. In 2015, the defense reached, what was then, its all-time low in school history which led to Pellum’s demotion back to a position coach.

In 2016, following Frost’s departure, Helfrich opted to promote from within again in hiring Matt Lubick as the new Offensive Coordinator. Lubick wasn’t as successful as Frost in this role but Lubick also didn’t have anywhere near the same caliber talent at his disposal. In 2016, Oregon turned to Dakota Prukop as a graduate transfer quarterback, but he soon lost the starting quarterback job to up-and-coming freshman Justin Herbert. Then there were the problems on defense as Brady Hoke’s output turned out to be worse than Pellum’s. In the end, Lubick’s offense simply didn’t have the ball in their hands enough to be effective.

Don Pellum was Oregon’s long tenured linebackers coach was was promoted to Defensive Coordinator before the 2014 season.

Frost was a successful internal hire, Pellum was a failure, and Lubick is difficult to quantify due to the multitude of surrounding circumstances with the disastrous 2016 season. Continuity was preserved with all these hires. In preserving that continuity, Oregon’s strengths were preserved, but so were weaknesses.

Hiring From Without

Cristobal’s approach to coaching hires has been different from his predecessors. Cristobal has frequently looked outside the Oregon program rather than opting to hire from within the program. This has led to coaches like Keith Heyward leaving the program as the prospects for advancement are slim. Though for Cristobal, hiring from without is a must because he can bring in experience and potentially reduce the risk of a coaching bust.

If the hiring process is done correctly, this is a solid way to bring in new coaches. However, this is not a guarantee as perhaps the greatest coaching hire failure in the last twenty years came from Helfrich opting to hire Hoke from outside the program. This hire was applauded by fans and pundits alike. Unfortunately, it was Hoke who quickly replaced Pellum as the worst defensive coordinator in Oregon’s history.

Keith Heyward has been a valuable part of Oregon’s coaching staff for the past two years but has moved to take a new job at Cal.

To date, Cristobal has avoided this great pitfall of hiring outside the program. He has done so by having a long and diligent hiring process where he vets any prospective candidates and extensively interviews each of them. It means as fans we have to wait weeks (if not months) to see who fills the vacancies opened by departing coaches, but the results have been good as of late. Cristobal has taken every opening as an opportunity to look for an upgrade on his staff and each time he has done so by looking outside of the program.

Cristobal’s decision to hire from without has come out of need. Oregon is on the cusp of returning to the College Football Playoff, and in order to reach the playoff, Cristobal needs experts in their craft. He simply doesn’t have the time to promote a young and ambitious coach, like Heyward from within, and hope he is a good Defensive Coordinator. Oregon needs a good Defensive Coordinator right now.

Tim DeRuyter and Marcel Yates are excellent hires and both have the ability to make an impact at Oregon right away. This urgency is needed to create a championship-caliber team. In turn, this can lead to coaches not staying very long at Oregon as they do their time and then move on to a higher coaching responsibility elsewhere. Andy Avalos came to Oregon, made an impact on defense in his first year, and at the end of his second year, he departed to become the head coach at Boise State. Joe Moorhead isn’t expected to stay at Oregon for more than another year or two as he will likely take a head coaching job somewhere like Avalos did.

Long tenured coaches built Oregon in the past, but in the Cristobal era? That will turn out to be the exception. Coaching turnover will continue at Oregon for the foreseeable future and with every new vacancy the question will persist: to hire from within or without?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: Kevin Cline

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