Mullens Takes a Mulligan, Then Makes the Right Hire

Darren Perkins Editorials

The thoughts, opinions, and hot takes of so many all over the internet over the past three days have probably left most die-hard Oregon Ducks fans’ heads spinning. I’ve spent the last 72 hours or so jotting down enough ideas on the Dan Lanning hire, the Justin Wilcox turn down, and the letter from 14 ex-players to do a dozen articles, but in the name of keeping things relevant on the topical meter, I need to get my ideas out in a hurry, not over three months.

So, I’ve done some condensing, and have kept to what seems most important. It is a longer post than usual, but there is just too dang much that must be addressed. Here we go…

WWAD? (What Would Alabama Do?)

If you are going to play like a champion, you need to think like a champion.

Oregon has the money, the resources and the facilities, but if the Ducks are going to win a national championship then the Ducks need to think like an Alabama. If Nick Saban retired at the end of this season, would “safe” options such as the likes of Chip Kelly or Justin Wilcox be on their radar? Not even close.

But, I bet a guy like Lanning would be. Sure, you’d have sitting head coaches such as Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Lane Kiffin on the list, but it is possible they could pass because they like their current gigs and/or do not want to follow in a legend’s footsteps. So, a hot, young, top-notch SEC coordinator like Lanning would assuredly be on their list of candidates.  

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New Oregon Head Coach Dan Lanning.

Playing it safe is like playing not to lose, and we know that usually does not end well. I mean, if a tycoon buys a Lamborghini, is he going to hire a professional race-car driver to show him how to drive it? Or the highest-rated Uber driver? Nike encompasses the Oregon spirit of taking chances and the “Just do it” mentality; not taking the easy route of what we already know, but the challenging route to what we aspire to be — to continue to progress, not to rest easy on some comfortable plateau.
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“But He Doesn’t Have Head Coaching Experience”

It means nothing. Many fans online have expressed that Lanning is a bad/highly-risky hire because he lacks head coaching experience. Oregon’s own Rich Brooks, Kelly, and Mark Helfrich had no prior head coaching experience. Current big-time head coaches Lincoln Riley, Ryan Day and Kirby Smart also had no prior head coaching experience. Oh, and the guy who preceded Lanning as the Georgia Defensive Coordinator, Mel Tucker, has done pretty well for himself after scoring his first head coaching gig. I think of Lanning as the Sean McVay of the college ranks. He’s young and energetic and seems to have that magical it factor.

Sure, you can make a laundry list of first-time head coaches who have failed. But, you take almost any scenario in life and you will find people who succeed and people who fail under that given scenario. Now, simply reverse this scenario and you will find plenty of experienced head coaches who have gotten new jobs and failed.  

The overriding point is that head coaching experience is neither a valid nor legitimate measuring stick as to whether a coach will succeed or fail. It is essentially a non-factor.

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Oregon coaching legend Mike Bellotti.

We Need an Oregon Man”

The No. 1 consideration that should have been employed in this search is who is the best coach we can get, not who is an Oregon liferAgain, this is how a championship program would think. Now, if an “Oregon Man” is the best available then hire him, but Wilcox was simply not the best available. Thankfully he turned down the job

As mentioned, he would be on no top-tier program’s radar if they had a current vacancy. He has just not done enough at Cal (26-28 record) to warrant being offered the Oregon job. Granted, Cal is a tough place to win, but you can have success there. If he was mirroring the early success that Jeff Tedford found at Cal, then I would be on board with hiring Wilcox.

Tedford had a 70% win percentage, was challenging for conference titles, brought in some very good talent, and had created a “buzz” around the Cal program. Wilcox simply has not done that. Perhaps he even realized this and it is the reason he passed on the job. It was not his time, yet.  

The “Steppingstone” and “Family” Factor 

There are not a lot of coaching jobs that are better than Oregon. Perhaps I’m splicing hairs here, but to me, “steppingstone” implies that one goes on to “better” things. I do not look at Mario Cristobal leaving as an upward move; I think the Oregon program is better than the Miami program. It was at best a lateral move by Cristobal, but ultimately, he was just going home.

The 14 players who signed a letter penned by Joey Harrington who encouraged the next hire to be in the “Duck Family” were certainly well-meaning, but I believe misguided.

First-of-all, how “family” was it for Oregon to push the successful and loyal Bellotti out the door to promote some relative “stranger” (Kelly) from New Hampshire? That was not about “family,” that was about winning. Nobody complained because the Ws ensued, and nobody will complain when Lanning succeeds. The “family” ship sailed long ago.

The Oregon “family” way only got the Ducks so far. Being open-minded, such as Bellotti was when bringing Kelly in from a small, east-coast school to run his offense, is all within the Oregon tradition of unconventional thinking. Outsiders with fresh ideas and a fresh approach have made Oregon better. This is how most big-time operations that pass the test of time, such as Nike, succeed. 

The Ducks are past the point of no return. Oregon is all in on winning a national title. Not as a blue-blood, but as an unprecedented “New-Blood.” And, in recent history, a “new-blood” has never won a national title. The goal is for Oregon to be the first.

Yes, it is a cold business. Progressing into a top-tier program comes with growing pains, and perhaps part of that is losing the folksy “family” feel that we grew up loving in Eugene. It was fun playing David and having no expectations and being the little train that could rise up on occasion to slay Goliath. Those were fun times, but now the Oregon program must play the role of Goliath, and its top responsibility is to win a national title.

Ah, yes, the fear of success. It is not always fun growing up, is it?

Mullens

As I read the news Sunday on how Rob Mullens had at first offered the job to Wilcox only to have him turn it down, one probably could have heard from the street outside my house an exasperated me grumbling, “What the f—! Are you kidding me?”

Just when I thought the leadership at Oregon had finally fully matured, it turns out Lanning was the backup plan and not “the plan.At least it was not Kelly. 

(Sigh)

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Chip Kelly was a great coach at Oregon, but would not have been the best decision in 2021.

Now, I understand Mullens has a tough job. He is getting pulled in all directions and has a very short window in which to hire a coach. He probably spent the past week getting little to no sleep, running on caffeine, and in a near state of delirium. But, the decision to go with Wilcox just struck me as being the ultimate “cover your ass” move. Mullens set himself up not to lose. If Wilcox works out, then great. But, if he does not, then Mullens could simply say, “Don’t look at me; everybody was telling me to hire an Oregon Man who wouldn’t bolt for another job, so that’s what I did.”

Pretty weak, really. But now, Mullens is in all or nothing on Lanning.

Oregon is too good to make the safe, Johnathan Smith type of hire. Corvallis has many disadvantages, so a place like OSU needs to hire a person like Smith or Mike Riley who embraces those disadvantages and can make the program better than what those disadvantages should allow.

It reminds me of the Ernie Kent hire back in 1997. The Ducks basketball program needed a guy who would embrace the liability that was Mac Court. The Oregon football program of today has no such disadvantages, a coach has everything he needs to succeed nationally. So, pick a winner.

Putting It All Together 

Cristobal left the roster stacked with talent, so I feel the Wilcox route would have resulted in early success — but as the recruiting tailed off the talent would lessen and the Oregon program would regress back into the Bellotti era. Now, by no means is this a shot at Bellotti. He was a very good coach who was building the program on an upward trajectory, so let’s not go back there; let us keep the arrows of success moving up.

Oregon has to maintain the recruiting momentum put in motion with Cristobal. Lanning is a high-energy guy who is an excellent recruiter. The naysayers will claim that it is easy to recruit in the SEC with all that talent down south. Well, the same thing was said about Cristobal when he came from Alabama, and things turned out just fine.

Eugene Johnson

Mario Cristobal brought amazing talent to Oregon.

Every Oregon coach from Brooks on has added something to get Oregon to the point of being a perennial national power. Brooks got it going, and Bellotti built off what Brooks had started and got the facilities race going. Chip brought the high-flying offense and got the Ducks contending for titles. Helfrich continued what Chip had brought. Willie Taggart was a disaster but he brought along Cristobal. Cristobal proved everybody wrong about recruiting to Oregon; you can bring in talented big bodies and have annual Top-10 recruiting classes.

With Cristobal’s recruiting success, the Ducks have overcome the final doubt surrounding the program. Can the Ducks recruit big? Yes. Oregon is probably not a job a top SEC blue-blood coordinator would have taken in 2016. Recruiting was the final hurdle in making Oregon a perennial powerhouse. Now, Oregon has a guy who can take the recruiting baton from Cristobal and marry that with being a much better football coach. As in preparation, Xs and Os, and game management. If this all falls into place, then what can stop the Ducks?

Nothing.

Thankfully, Oregon is not straddled with the “safe,” “playing not to lose” coaching hire, which would have set the program years back. Sure there is a chance down the road that Lanning could land the Alabama job, but that would only get offered if he does one hell of a job at Oregon. So, I’ll take it!

The Ducks are shooting for the stars with a talented up-and-comer who can hopefully put it all together and take the Ducks to the promised land. First, you must put yourself in a position to succeed, and then, as they say at Nike, “Just do it!

Darren Perkins
Spokane, WA
Top photo credit: ESPN Video

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