Oregon Head Coaches: If You Leave, Your New Team Will Fire You

Drex Heikes Editorials

From a couple of bleacher bums, here’s a revelation that every Oregon head coach should consider: if you jump ship for a new head coaching position, you won’t last three years there.

You can look it up. Going back through 128 years of Oregon football, not one Oregon head coach who traded up to a better gig has survived more than three years without being fired.

I’ve spent the last week trying to puzzle out a reason, a unified field theory for the pattern of failure. I got nothin’. I’m hoping the Forum Irregulars have some ideas.

Mike Bellotti retired in Eugene and was inducted into the university’s sports hall of fame.

Mike Bellotti “Got It Right”

This subject came in a text from a great friend, a prince of a guy whose only known character flaw is associating with me. We live a plane ride apart, so we spend every away game on the phone, televisions synced so the ball is snapped in unison. We phone-bellowed our way through the win at Ohio State last year, the ugly 2016 collapse in Alamo Bowl against TCU, the astounding comeback against Wazzou 10 days ago — and all the rest.

My friend’s text arrived the day after Mario Cristobal’s Miami lost by two touchdowns at home to Middle Tennessee State on Sept.24. Look at the last half century of Oregon coaches, he said. “Only Mike Bellotti got it right.”

What was “it” that Bellotti got right?

He stayed at Oregon to the end of his career, leading the Ducks to unprecedented success and setting up retirement as a revered figure in Eugene. Bellotti had to slap away many hands to stay at Oregon for 14 seasons, turning down USC and other schools.

Mario Cristobal was 35-13 at Oregon. He’s just 2-2 in Miami and being hounded by critics.

Perfect Record of Future Failure

Here’s what happened to the four most recent head coaches who traded on their Oregon success to get new jobs:

  • Rich Brooks, whom Bellotti replaced: fired after two seasons as head coach of the St. Louis Rams. Brooks resurfaced at Kentucky, where he inherited a team better than the Ducks were when he started his remarkable 18-season rebuild. Even so, he couldn’t muster a winning record with the Wildcats before retiring to Eugene.
  • Chip Kelly, who succeeded Bellotti: Fired after three years as Philadelphia Eagles head coach and fired again after a year with the San Francisco 49ers. He has a losing record in 48 games at UCLA.
  • Willie Taggart, who bolted for Florida State: Fired nine games into his second season. He went to Florida Atlantic, where he has a losing record.

The jury is still out on Cristobal, but four games into his tenure the Hurricanes are 2-2 and his critics are angry and loud. Maybe Cristobal will become the exception to the Bellotti Law of Success, but he seems to be Stony-Brooking it.

Just for grins, here’s the collective math on those four coaches. At Oregon, they had a combined record of 179-134. After Oregon, their record is 126-155.

The gap is more eye-opening when you take away Oregon’s losses during Brooks’ long turnaround of the program, 1977 to 1994. Take away the Brooks years? Kelly, Taggart and Cristobal were 88-25 at Oregon, which they traded for three firings and a 74-89 record.

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly has a losing record at all three of his jobs since leaving Oregon.

Pattern as Old as Oregon Football

Looking back further, none of the 33 head coaches since Oregon began playing football in 1894 have survived three seasons after leaving for a new head coaching job.

Two, however, require asterisks, if only for amusement. Hugo Bezdek left in 1917, but not to coach football. He became manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates major league baseballers, lasting two years before Penn State wooed him away.

John McEwan left in 1929 to coach in Massachusetts at Holy Cross University, a Jesuit school then one-third the size of Oregon and closer to home for the former West Point player. Despite a 25-5-1 record at Holy Cross, McEwan was sent packing in his third season after a sideline row with his head trainer while playing Brown University. (Ahh, the game within the game.)

One other revered Oregon coach got it Bellotti-right. Len Casanova stepped down in 1966 after 15 years. He, like Bellotti, moved up to become athletic director before retiring in Eugene.

To all other head coaches: The good news is that you lead a terrific program in the best college town east of the Pribilofs. The bad news is that if you leave, you are condemned to unrelenting failure — and to tutorials about formatting a résumé.

To Forum Irregulars: why is the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex the Hotel California of college football (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”)?* Can any of you help via Our Beloved Duck Forum?

Drex Heikes
Los Angeles, California
Top photo by Eric Evans of goducks.com of Dan Lanning, who history tells us will never be more successful than he is as a Duck.

*The Hotel California sendoff comes courtesy of my editor nonpareil, Bob Rodes. Thank you.

Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.

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