Mike Bellotti

Karma bit Oregon in the backside, but the Ducks will recover

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USA Today

Karma bit Oregon in the backside, but the Ducks will recover

In the end, Oregon got what it deserved. 

Karma bit the Ducks in the backside when former coach Willie Taggart, after one Swag Surfin' season, hopped on his boogie board and glided out of town to become Florida State's new coach, leaving behind a lot of angry UO fans and jilted players (see Troy Dye).

For the first time ever (or at least based on what I can tell), an Oregon football coach has flat out left the program for another college job. It's no coincidence that this occurred a year after Oregon fired a coach for the first time in 40 years. 

Yes, I'm back on the Mark Helfrich kick once again. But only because I warned this time last year last year that firing Helfrich after one losing season and just two years removed from guiding Oregon to the nation title game could set into motion a vicious cycle of coaches coming in and out of the program for a variety of reasons. 

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Here we are a year later and the Ducks are already searching for their second coach post Helfrich. 

What's most amusing is all of the whining about "loyalty." Really? Loyalty is not sending a group of coaches that had accomplished so much at Oregon out to recruit when the writing was on the wall that they would be fired, then firing them while they literally were in the process of meeting with recruits. That was a messed up and totally disrespectful move by athletic director Rob Mullens on every level.

One recruit's family member, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled an awkward home visit with Helfrich, who clearly believed he was on thin ice. Helfrich told the family that he didn't know if he would remain Oregon's coach while also trying to recruit the player to UO.

That's just wrong. Let's go ahead and set aside Helfrich for a moment, how does one place in the same situation former long-time assistants like Steve Greatwood, Don Pellum, Gary Campbell, Tom Osborne and John Neal? 

Those guys only helped anchor the greatest era in Oregon football and what will likely remain the greatest era into the near future unless the Ducks magically win a national title, which remains only remotely possible. 

How Taggart dealt with Oregon's players is another story. But in terms of the business side of things. spare me the talk about how disloyal Taggart was to a program he worked for only one year. Especially considering that he didn't leave the Ducks for, say, Arkansas or Louisville. He left Oregon for Florida State, an all-time marquee program that Oregon can't measure up to, and it just so happens to be the team he grew up rooting for while growing up in Palmetto, Fla., where his widowed mother still resides. 

That, right there, is loyalty. Loyalty to family. Loyalty to roots. Loyalty to that childhood connection many of you have with Oregon. And, yes, loyalty to the almighty dollar, because Florida State offered more money (six years and $30 million) than Oregon did. 

And don't think that Taggart hadn't noticed how Helfrich and company were treated when fired.

During a candid conversation with Taggart last February, he said that he believed that the previous staff were unfairly fired given all that they had accomplished. But, that's the business, he added. On Tuesday, he played that business to his advantage. 

Oregon had avoided that side of the business for decades because the program didn't panic when things went south, as they did last year when the Ducks went 4-8 under Helfrich during the program's first losing season in 12 years. Oregon had a legacy coaching tree in place that went from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Helfrich. The latter three were promoted from within after serving as offensive coordinators to their predecessor. Bellotti retired from coaching in 2009 order to promote Kelly. Kelly left for the NFL in 2013 opening the door for Helfrich. All three came within a game, or two, of winning the national title. 

Then, well, Oregon got too big for its britches. The Ducks fans and hierarchy decided that the program was far too big to ever have a down season, which of course is absurd. So, UO blew out the former coaching staff and set out to find someone that would return the program to glory. 

That someone was expected to be Taggart. Oops. 

What Mullens should have done last year was sat Helfrich down and given him the "win or else" talk. Mullens should have made it clear that he must at least reach a bowl game in 2017 and reestablish discipline in the locker room.

One former assistant coach who didn't believe that the staff would be fired up until they were, stated late last season that had the staff returned in 2017 and had another losing season, he would fire himself.  

Instead, Mullens pulled the trigger last year. Clearly, he believed that Oregon could do better than a staff that had won four Pac-12 titles, two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl in six years. Yet, he ended up striking out with all of the so-called "big named" candidates before hiring a young coach in Taggart on the speculation that he was ready to thrive. 

Truth be told, I liked the hire. It was a bold roll of the dice on a young coach. Oh, and he is African-American, which for me (also African-American and long annoyed by the clear racism involved when it comes to the hiring of football coaches of color) earned Mullens triple bonus points.  

But the right move still remains to have given Helfrich and company one year to turn things around. With quarterback Justin Herbert in place, that turnaround would have happened and Oregon wouldn't be in the mess that it is now. 

The good news is that Oregon should still be able to find a good coach to lead what will be a potentially really good team in 2018. The trick, though, is finding someone that cares as much about Oregon as Oregon cares about winning. 

For all of its bells and whistles, Oregon is not a marquee job. The stadium is small, it's tough to get to Eugene, the region is short on recruits, the fan base is fickle and not nearly as rooted as they are in places such as Michigan, Nebraska, Texas and Florida State. Oregon has accomplished a lot with many disadvantages thanks to what was an innovative offense, Nike's support and brilliant marketing that elevated the Ducks brand, making UO a desirable place to play for high-end recruits. But not many proven coaches out there are going to view Oregon as a destination job. Helfrich did. But UO wasn't even on Taggart's radar until he interviewed for the job. 

So where does UO go from here. 

Kevin Sumlin and Mario Cristobal are good options. Sumlin, fired this year by Texas A&M, is looking to rebuild his career. Cristobal, once fired by Florida International and from Miami, Fla., longs to return to being a head coach. 

But would either consider Oregon a place to set up roots? At this point, Mullens will have to build a contract for UO's next coach that makes it very painful to leave for another collegiate program.  He failed to do that with Taggart. However, I'll bet that Taggart and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, would not have allowed such language to get in the way of the coach taking off for FSU. 

All of this is why I want to see Oregon go after California coach Justin Wilcox. He is an up-and-coming talent that has deep connections to Oregon. He played there. His brother, father and uncle also played there. He likely wouldn't leave Oregon down the road unless it were to jump to the NFL. 

Hiring Wilcox would return the Ducks to a place that values connections and roots, a formula tha worked so well for 40 years, save for a few bumps in the road such as the 2016 season. 

Whatever Oregon does, the Ducks will have a chance to return to greatness but will never avoid having bumps in the road here and there. Few programs ever do.  

But maybe returning to the past in terms of how the program hires and fire people should be more important than the unrealistic quest to become something the program will never be, a place strong enough to keep a Taggart from jetting off to a Florida State.  

At the end of the day, the entire Helfrich debate comes down to one more year. Had he succeeded, everyone would be happy. Had he failed, then he would be gone. The former staff deserved that one year more so than a Florida State fan with ambitions beyond Oregon. 

Oregon's penalties have reached ludicrous levels

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USA Today

Oregon's penalties have reached ludicrous levels

The Oregon Ducks are no strangers to having officials throw numerous yellow flags at them during games but this year's team has raised the bar on infractions accrued to new heights. 

Oregon (3-1) was penalized 14 times on Saturday night during a 37-35 loss at Arizona State to run the Ducks' season total to a Pac-12-leading 42. It could have been worse. Technically, Oregon committed 17 penalties against ASU but the Sun Devils declined three.  

Oregon's 10.5 penalties per game are the most for the program since at least 2000 (see chart below). The most Oregon has ever committed in a season since 2000 is 8.8 in 2015. The Ducks have plenty of time to reverse the trend for this season but averaging double-digit penalties per game certainly is cause for alarm. 

"It's as frustrating as it gets," Oregon redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said following Saturday's loss. "You can't expect to win games when you have over a 100 yards of penalties. We have a lot of stuff to cleanup this week."

Oregon was charged with 99 yards in penalties on Saturday and is averaging 89.2 on the season (third most in the Pac-12). The penalties hurt. Earning flags and a general lack of execution contributed to the Ducks converting on just one of 11 third down attempts during their loss to the Sun Devils. 

"I think penalties are a huge factor," UO sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. "Anytime when you're moving backwards it isn't a good thing." 

UO coach Willie Taggart said the proper technique is needed to avoid penalties such as holding (Oregon committed five total on offense and defense vs. ASU) and pass interference.

"We've just got to teach," Taggart said. "Teach and practice."

False start penalties on the offense were also a big problem against ASU (2-2). The Ducks committed five, four in the first half when UO managed to score just 14 points with one touchdown set up by a muffed punt return by ASU at its 11-yard line. 

'You can't do that," Taggart said of the false starts. "You've got to listen for the call."

Interestingly, while penalties have been a problem for Oregon over the years, they typically haven't hurt the team's won-loss record. The Ducks have ranked at or near the bottom in the conference for much of the past 17 years. In fact, Oregon has committed a whopping eight or more penalties per game in eight out of 17 seasons since 2000. 

In 2010, when Oregon went 12-1 and reached the BCS National Championship game under coach Chip Kelly, the Ducks ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in both penalties per game (7.2) and penalty yards per game (61.2). Kelly's teams ranked ninth in the conference in total penalties in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ranked eighth in 2009. 

The 2014 team, which reached the national title game under coach Mark Helfrich, ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in penalties per game (8.2) and seventh in penalty yards (72). 

Some of the elevation in numbers over the years could be contributed to the number of plays generated by an uptempo offense. More plays could certainly lead to more penalties. But not enough to account for the poor overall rankings. And, tempo certainly wouldn't necessarily impact the team's conference ranking in that area during today's era when most teams run an uptempo offense. 

In 2004, the year before the Ducks moved to the spread offense and began running some no-huddle, the Ducks committed 8.6 penalties per game, the third most (counting this season) since 2000.

While great UO teams, such as the 2010 and 2014 squads, were able to overcome their penalty totals, lesser Duck teams did not. The aforementioned 2004 Ducks went 5-6 that year. The 2016 season, the program's only other losing campaign since 1993, saw the Ducks rank last in the Pac-12 at 8.3 turnovers per game. 

This Oregon team is closer in playing level to the 2004 and 2016 teams than it is to any of the Ducks' championship teams. These Ducks are simply too young and too inexperienced to be good enough to win many close games while giving away yards through penalties. 

Oregon and Taggart had better clean up this penalty mess or more close, frustrating defeats will surely come their way this season. 

OREGON'S PENALTY TOTALS - 2000-2017

2017 (3-1)

Penalty per game game = 10.5 (12th PAC-12)

Penalty yards per game = 89.2 (10th)

2016 (4-8)

Penalty per game game = 8.3 (12th)

Penalty yards per game = 75.8 (12th)

2015 (9-4)

Penalty per game game = 8.8 (10th)

Penalty yards per game = 61 (10th)

2014 (13-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.2 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 72 (7th)

2013 (11-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.2 (12th)

Penalty yards per game = 70.2 (10th)

2012 (12-1)

Penalty per game game = 7.9 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 71.1 (9th)

2011 (12-2)

Penalty per game game = 7.2 (9th)

Penalty yards per game = 65 (7th)

2010 (12-1)

Penalty per game game = 7.2 (9th PAC-10)

Penalty yards per game = 61.2 (9th).

2009 (10-3)

Penalty per game game = 7.3

Penalty yards per game = 62.7

2008 (10-3)

Penalty per game game = 7.3

Penalty yards per game = 62.7

2007 (9-4)

Penalty per game game = 6.1

Penalty yards per game = 55

2006 (7-6)

Penalty per game game = 7.5

Penalty yards per game = 60

2005 (10-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.0

Penalty yards per game = 72.7

2004 (5-6)

Penalty per game game = 8.6

Penalty yards per game = 79.7

2003 (8-5)

Penalty per game game = 7.8

Penalty yards per game = 69.7

2002 (8-5)

Penalty per game game = 8.5

Penalty yards per game = 71.2

2001 (11-1)

Penalty per game game = 6.4

Penalty yards per game = 57.9

2000 (10-2)

Penalty per game game = 8.0

Penalty yards per game = 72.0

DB coach John Neal reflects on his time at Oregon, his future, Helfrich's firing and 'Win the Day'

DB coach John Neal reflects on his time at Oregon, his future, Helfrich's firing and 'Win the Day'

John Neal isn't bitter and he isn't angry.

Granted, the defensive backs coach isn't exactly pleased that Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens decided to fire coach Mark Helfrich on Tuesday. Neal would have liked to have seen Helfrich and the rest of the coaching staff get a chance to turn things around following a 4-8 season. But Neal also said he understands how the coaching game works. Firings are a part of the business. Tough decisions need to be made. 

“I’m not one of the ones that is surprised," Neal said. "I’m not ill-prepared, either. You have to win games and you have to produce.”

For 12 out of 14 seasons at Oregon, Neal was a part of a coaching staff that under three head coaches produced great success. During the last eight seasons, Oregon made two trips to the national championship game, claimed four conference titles and won two Rose Bowls. 

Most of all, however, Neal said he will remember working with so many great coaches, and building great relationships with players that will last a lifetime. 

“That’s what I’m most happy about in my time at Oregon," Neal said. "I’ve received a lot of feedback from a lot of my players just thanking me for everything that’s happened here. Ultimately, it’s about relationships.”

--- Reflecting on the positives

It took only the program's second losing season in 12 years to end a legacy that stretched from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly and then to Helfrich. All are linked through a chain of successions from within. For the first time in 40 years, Oregon has fired a head coach. There is a chance that a new coach could retain some of Oregon's assistants, but it appears obvious that most, which includes some who have been at Oregon for more than 25 years, if not all will be gone. 

Rather than lament on the end, Neal accepts his part in the rise and the downfall. 

Neal recruited and developed many great defensive backfields. Several of his former players reached the NFL, including Patrick Chung, T.J. Ward, Jairus Byrd, Terrance Mitchell and Walter Thurmond. 

The past couple of seasons, however, have seen a dip in production out of Neal's group, and the rest of the defense. Hurting the situation has been missing out on some quality prospects such as Washington's Budda Baker.

Whether or not the staff deserved a mulligan is neither here nor there for Neal. He said he readily shares in the blame for the team's fall from grace. 

“I look at myself and I know I could have done better in a lot of ways,” Neal said.

Neal said that he would always reflect kindly on working at such a great place for so long and being a part of the greatest run of success in program history. Now, at 60, Neal said he gets an opportunity, albeit forced, to stop, reflect and decide what his next move should be. His religious faith, Neal, said leads him to believe that good things will happen for him. 

If the chance arises, he would love to interview for a position with the next Oregon head coach. If that doesn't work out, Neal said he would look for other opportunities. 

“I absolutely have to keep every option open that I have,” Neal said.

Some have questioned how Mullens handled the firing of Helfrich. Instead of informing him on Sunday, Mullens waited until Tuesday while the assistants were already out recruiting. Neal said the "how" is not important to him. He said he understands and respects that the Mullens is making what he believes to be the right choice for Oregon. 

“I don’t care how it was handled," Neal said. "The bottom line is that you’ve got to do the right things. If the right thing takes time, it takes time. It’s not personal...I don’t blame anybody.”

Neal said all coaches live with the constant fear of being fired at any moment. It could be for a personality conflict, or for breaking a rule, or simply because someone simply wanted to make a change. 

"National championship game, or not, the feeling is, 'I've got to do it again,'" Neal said. "You have that constant motivation to try to keep this standard going...We live in a world of constant pressure. The pressure from winning is the same as when you lose."

--- Reflecting on 'Win the Day'"

Neal remembers how bad things were after the 2006 season when the Ducks finished 7-6 after getting destroyed by BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl under Bellotti. 

“There was very, very high probably I could lose my job," Neal said. "Mike might have had to fire people."

Instead, the coaching staff set out to fix the problems by exploring all ideas from all avenues.  Neal said Bellotti allowed anyone and everyone to chime in on how to turn things around. 

It was then that Neal reached out to BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, one of his former players, to discuss his team's strong culture. That led to a more day-to-day focus that manifested itself into the "Win the Day" mantra under Kelly, who took over for Bellotti in 2009 after serving as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. 

"That was the beginning of the cultural turn around," Neal said. 

Neal was a big part of the creation of that mindset, which led to a lot of success. The Ducks contended for a national title in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon, a Heisman Trophy favorite, went down with a knee injury. 

“That was the greatest experience of my life because I got to be extremely and heavily involved in what ultimately came down to Chip Kelly saying 'let’s win the day,'" Neal said. 

Kelly, Neal said, is a one-of-a-kind coach.

“Kelly is a standard I’ll never get to work with again,” Neal said.

The team-wide mantra has somewhat eroded in recent years, Neal said.

Mullens, while announcing Helfrich's firing, referred to a lack of attention to detail and program direction for reasons to make a coaching change.

Neal said the bottom line is that the further away Oregon moved from the past it becomes more and more difficult to get new players and coaches to fully buy into the established culture.

Those who weren't there when it all began were tougher and tougher to get onboard. New assistants who hadn't experience that culture shift and new players had no reference point. If things went south, some who hadn't experienced the previous magic would question the philosophies. 

"Believers are the ones who were there and went through the (creation) of it all," Neal said. 

His biggest fear, Neal said, was losing that momentum.

“The minute momentum changes it starts rolling back on you,” he said.

Negative momentum rolled right over Oregon this season. 

--- Oregon's future remains bright

Neal believes Helfrich and this staff could have fixed the problems and returned the program to glory. He also believes a new coaching staff could accomplish the same. 

“No doubt," he said. "Everything is there to win. We have infrastructure. We have the fan base.”

The first step is becoming consistently competitive again. Oregon had a very young team and was beset by injuries this season. That contributed to Oregon getting blown out by Washington, USC and Stanford. 

Neal said dealing with Washington, coached by Chris Petersen, in the Pac-12 North Division is going to be tough for the Ducks moving forward. 

"I looked at Washington two years ago and went 'oh crap.'" he said. "In two years this team is going to be scary. Chris Petersen is going to go down as one of the top 10 football coaches in history."

Recruiting to Eugene will always be a challenge, but Neal said the elements remains there to be successful.

“I still think it’s extremely attractive," he said of UO. "I think it’s a remarkable deal in the sense of marketing and having your product be the best out there.”

However, not having a ton of regional talent to choose from does hurt.

“You’re going to lose in geography," Neal said, "but you can win in personality and what they believe your saying to them."