Oregon’s superior investment, marketing and leadership has enabled the school to build a football program into a destination. Considering the modest local talent and unspectacular history until about a generation ago, Oregon’s work into becoming a consistent voice in the national football conversation has been remarkable.
From Heisman Trophy candidate billboards in Times Square to neon uniforms to innovative hires, Oregon has been defiant in its relevance. And now that it’s arguably the second-most coveted address in the Pac-12, the question looms whether the school can get anyone to stick around to exploit what has been built.
Oregon football’s latest crossroads comes after Mario Cristobal’s clunky departure for Miami. That puts Oregon on the cusp of its fifth coach since 2012. Three left for greener pastures – Chip Kelly, Willie Taggart and now Cristobal. The one who got fired, Mark Helfrich, played for the national title in the 2014 season.
It’s hard to fault Cristobal for leaving for home and enough money to buy a third of South Beach. It’s also hard to fault Oregon fans and administrators for being frustrated, as the spin cycle on the Autzen Stadium sideline continues.
Continuity is the sport’s new strategic advantage, with change being the sport’s only constant and program stability becoming a myth. There are buyouts more than $20 million, the endless sprint to the transfer portal for players and the reality that name, image and likeness cash may make things crazier.
The challenge for Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens and his wealthy band of benefactors – most notably Nike founder Phil Knight – is finding someone who can dig in on an elite foundation made on decades of success, elite facilities and one of the coolest stadium environments in the country.
Mullens wants someone who is going to stick around after the Taggart one-and-done and Cristobal getting lured by the exact suitor that scared Oregon officials. Here’s a look at where the Ducks could go with their search.
Chip Kelly, UCLA
Can Kelly run back one of the most rollicking runs in recent college football? A sheer glee accompanied Kelly’s 46-7 record during his time in Eugene from 2009 to 2012. A lot has changed since then, including defenses’ ability to slow down spread/up-tempo offenses and Kelly’s current more smash-mouth scheme at UCLA. Perhaps a Kelly reboot delivers the missing continuity?
Matt Campbell, Iowa State
One of the more popular names in this hiring cycle hasn’t found a home. There aren't any ties here, which could scare Mullens because of the past runaway coaches. But Campbell’s willingness to stay six years in Ames and turn down a slew of jobs is a reminder that he’s not a fly-by-night coach. Mullens got a close-up view of his work when the Ducks got waxed, 34-17, by Campbell’s Cyclones in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
Bill O'Brien, Alabama offensive coordinator
If USC is going to become the place for spread quarterbacks, perhaps bringing in O’Brien and branding Eugene as an NFL training ground would be the perfect counter. He went to a Super Bowl as Tom Brady’s play-caller and reached the NFL playoffs four of six full seasons as a head coach in Houston. He also did admirable work under awful circumstances at Penn State, going 15-9 in two years and recruiting well amid sanctions and relentless bad publicity. Few coaches can match his resume as play-caller and quarterback developer.
Kalani Sitake, BYU
For a guy who went 21-3 the past two years, it’s surprising more schools haven’t expressed interest in Sitake. He has proved to be a high-end program builder who brought in a talented group of young players, watched them grow up and then replenished them with another successful class. Sitake single-handedly flipped Zach Wilson from Boise State, a sign of his recruiting chops.