Rob Mullens

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. 

There are questions about UO strength coach certification -- no answers from Ducks

There are questions about UO strength coach certification -- no answers from Ducks

CBS Sports has an interesting investigative piece about certification of football strength and conditioning coaches and Oregon's football program is at the center of it.

The story alleges that Oregon football's strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde was certified as a strength coach by the track and field coaches association, which is, in their estimation, a low standard of certification for football strength coaches. The story goes into detail about the difference in certification between what Oderinde has and a higher standard that is recommended for someone in his position:

For a $245 fee, the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) offers a 21-hour strength training course to become a certified NCAA strength coach in any sport. By comparison, the widely-used Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCA) requires 30 times as much training -- a 640-hour certification process.

It's a very important story and what caught my eye was this line:

Oregon did not grant CBS Sports requests to interview Taggart, Oderinde, the three players who were hospitalized or athletic director Rob Mullens.

That just doesn't work for me. Last time I checked the University of Oregon was a public institution. People who work there are entitled to State of Oregon benefits, including PERS. That seems to make them public employees, and as such I think they need to provide transparency like any other arm of our government. But the UO athletic department lately seems to act as if it's bigger than the school -- or the state of Oregon.

Interviews with anyone connected to the athletic department are highly regulated and difficult to obtain. The CBS Sports story was a serious one, an investigative piece that talked about players dying while playing collegiate sports and a lack of true regulation by the people hired to protect them. It went so far as to label football's off-season as the "killing season" because that's when "the overwhelming majority of deaths" occur.

Are you telling me that even the school's athletic director couldn't make himself available for an interview regarding this hot topic?

Football coach Willie Taggart is obviously tired of taking about the incident involving his strength coach and the three players who landed in a hospital -- he engaged in a very public spat with The Oregonian's Andrew Greif about his reporting of the story. But Taggart didn't yet seem to realize he's the virtual COO of a very public company and is going to constantly be held accountable for that company. Mullens, of course, is in an even more important role, the CEO, and is supposed to be the spokesman for the entire athletic department.

But very seldom do you ever hear anything from him other than statements contained in news releases. And I seem to recall a disturbing trend of those news releases coming out at times when reaching sources was next to impossible.

Cover-ups are almost always worse than the incident itself. Shunning interviews or refusing to comment often means a suspicion of guilt -- and always leads to the same question:

"What are you hiding?"

 

 

Taggart's ability to handle adversity being put to the test

Taggart's ability to handle adversity being put to the test

One has to wonder who called whom first?

Did soon-to-be former co-offensive coordinator David Reaves call Oregon coach Willie Taggart to inform his boss that he had been arrested for DUII and reckless driving at 2:12 a.m. early Sunday morning? Or, did Taggart call Reaves after hearing the news from a third party?

That third party could have been UO director of athletics Rob Mullens. Did Mullens learn of the incident then call Taggart? Or, did Taggart find himself in the position of having to call Mullens to inform him that the Ducks were about to be embroiled in their second controversy involving a coach in less than a week?

However the chain of communication went down the discussions probably involved a lot of profane language.

What happened with Reaves is certainly unfortunate, especially on the heels of last week's controversy surrounding three players being hospitalized following grueling workouts that led to strength coach Irele Oderinde being suspended for a month.

After six weeks of hot recruiting, putting together a great staff and reenergizing the fan base after a 4-8 season, Taggart finds himself having to deal with back-to-back controversies. But while Reaves' situation is certainly unfortunate, let's not blow this thing out of proportion and start tossing blame around for sport.

This is 100 percent on Reaves. He is a 38-year-old married man with children who just signed a two-year contract worth $300,000 per year to coach at Oregon then decided that he would get behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated. And he did so on a weekend when he should have been solely focused on swooning teenagers from across the country sent to Eugene by their parents to decide if they want to play for the Ducks.

Horrible judgment. Let's hope Reaves comes out of this okay in the long run and resumes a successful career.

As for Taggart, he knew his assistant coach well. They worked together for four seasons at South Florida. So there's reason to wonder if Taggart had any prior knowledge that Reaves would be a candidate to do something so irresponsible. Or, it's simply possible that Taggart was completely blindsided. Either way, Taggart shouldn't be blamed for Reaves' actions. 

What Taggart should be judged on is how well he responds to this mess. So far he has been silent publicly on the subject. He is likely very busy searching for a replacement. LSU wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig could be a possibility. Back in December Craig was reportedly a candidate to become UO's offensive coordinator.

As long as these two coach-involved events don't torpedo what looks to be a strong recruiting class by causing  recruits to decommit, or not commit at all, the program won't experience any long-term impact from Reaves' arrest and subsequent firing. He would likely become a footnote in history very quickly.

What Oregon doesn't want is for parents and recruits to wonder what's going on with this new coaching staff in Eugene. Drunk driving. Players sent to the hospital following workouts. What's next?

Taggart said last week that he expected opposing programs to use the hospitalization of players as fodder for negative recruiting. Imagine what Pac-12 rivals could do with the Reaves story.

The person at Oregon who should be gripping the most is Mullens. Ultimately, this is his baby.  Mullens' legacy at Oregon will largely be shaped by the success or failure of Taggart. Mullens, hired in July of 2010, had nothing to do with the hiring of men's basketball coach Dana Altman, hired in April of 2010.

Mullens has had zero to do with Oregon's success on the football field. The team was already humming before his arrival. Yet, he had the power to get rid of those who helped make the Ducks a national power and he wielded that power after the program's first losing season in 12 years. 

There were plenty of fans and boosters that didn't want to see the entire staff gutted, and who haven't exactly been enamored with the hiring of Taggart, who successfully rebuilt Western Kentucky and South Florida but has yet to captain a Power Five conference team on game day.

In other words, there are enough skeptics out there to make life very uncomfortable for Mullens if this doesn't work out very well.

Remember, Helfrich's losing season was magnified by player criminal misconduct, reports of players not being held accountable for football-related laziness and some recruiting missteps. All of the above would have been ignored had the Ducks been in contention for the Pac-12 title in 2016. Going 4-8 made those misgivings stand out and gave Mullens more ammunition to justify pulling the trigger on the entire coaching staff.

All of Taggart's early problems will also be ignored if he wins. If not, then the incidents involving Oderinde and Reaves will become much bigger deals down the line. But Mullens can't simply fire Taggart and eat whatever is left on his five-year, $16 million deal as he did when UO swallowed $11.6 million to fire Helfrich. 

If Taggart goes, Mullens likely goes, as well. Heck, he might leave on his own before any real judgement can be made on Taggart.

Either way, Mullens needs this to work. It has a good chance to do so. There have been far greater positives than negatives surrounding the program since Taggart's arrival.

But all of the negative national press at the moment reflects poorly on the program that Mullens essentially took over with the firing of Helfrich.

 

Oregon rolls the dice and they come up Taggart

Oregon rolls the dice and they come up Taggart

Oregon stepped up to the craps table on Wednesday, grabbed the dice and let them fly with the hiring of Willie Taggart as the next head football coach. 

How this roll plays out won't be determined for a few of years. Oregon could hit its number with the hiring of the South Florida coach who comes with a modest 40-45 record but has rebuilt two programs, or the Ducks could roll snake eyes. 

Right now, many fans and boosters are freaking out a bit. How, they ask, could UO athletic director Rob Mullens fire former coach Mark Helfrich (37-16) after one losing season (4-8) just two years removed from appearing in the national championship game only to hire a successor not from a Power Five conference and someone armed with arguably a weaker résumé ?

Fair questions, to be sure. But to surely be fair, Taggart must be given a chance. Said one current UO player about the firing of Helfrich and the hiring of Taggart: "Yeah, kinda surprising, but there's nothing to be done about it now. Hopefully they come in and do a great job."

That's all anyone could hope for. The problem is measuring what "do a great job" entails. 

Helfrich went 9-4 in 2015 and that was viewed by many as a down season, even though it's tied for the 11th most victories in the history of the program. The bar has been set so high that even the coach of arguably the greatest season ever (2014) didn't survive one losing season in 2016. Taggart, most certainly, will be given at least three seasons to prove himself before his job would be in danger. But what will constitute success? Must he get to 10 wins inside of those three years? Must he have won a Pac-12 championship?

If so, Taggart, who will be introduced during an 11 a.m. press conference on Thursday, could be in big trouble. The Pac-12 is deeper than it's ever been and is loaded with quality proven coaches from Washington's Chris Petersen to Stanford's David Shaw to even Oregon State's Gary Andersen, who is clearly rebuilding the Beavers.

Oregon should certainly be in the thick of the Pac-12 race in most seasons, but is also not immune to the occasional down year. Oregon's run of dominance from 2009 through 2014 (the first four seasons under Chip Kelly) was largely done within an inferior conference that where it stands now. 

What Taggart certainly brings to the table is offensive firepower.  No. 25 South Florida this season ranks 10th in the nation in total offense (515 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (43.6). With Oregon's returning talent, led by a promising offensive line and quarterback Justin Herbert, the Ducks' offense should remain formidable.

The questions come on defense. USF, 10-2 this season, this season ranks 120th in total defense (482.1 yards per game) and 86th in scoring defense (31.0). Taggart must make a strong hire at defensive coordinator to assure improvement for an Oregon defense that ranks 126th in the nation but does return 10 starters.

Taggart is considered to be a strong recruiter. But check yourself if you think he is going to start a flood of Florida's rich talent base to Oregon. First off, Taggart mostly recruited to USF the talent left over after Florida State, Florida and Miami (and major out-of-state programs) got through combing over the area. USF's 2017 recruiting ranks 54th in the nation, according to Rivals.com. The 2016 class ranked 72nd, and the 2015 class, 57th. 

The truth is that Oregon would never be after most of the commits Taggart recruited to USF. However, that doesn't mean that he couldn't entice some higher-ranked players to turn down the local bigger programs and get them to Eugene. 

Speaking of Eugene: It will still be a tough sell to get Florida kids to travel to the small city in the much colder and wetter Northwest to play football when there are plenty of options in sunny Florida, including Central Florida, coached by former Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost. The city of Eugene is not easy to get to. Travelling to home games can be a burden for some families who would prefer that their children remain closer to home. 

So while Taggart has recruited well to USF, there's zero guarantee he will recruit well enough to the Ducks to return the program to glory. 

One aspect of Taggart that will help him is that he reportedly possesses a strong personality. He's reportedly a very positive person who runs a tight ship. Oregon's players became at least somewhat lackadaisical in the area of discipline over the past couple of seasons. Taggart could establish some order with a fresh voice and approach.

Taggart, the running backs coach at Stanford from 2007-2009, comes highly recommended from former Cardinal and current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, as well as from former NFL coach, Tony Dungy. Harbaugh's coaching tree also produced Shaw, who worked alongside Taggart at Stanford. 

None of that, however, has stopped some of the naysayers from barking.

Said one mid-level booster: "I'm officially out of the donor program. Mullens should be fired immediately."

Said another: "I'm disgusted by how the firing of Helfrich was handled, but I'm willing to give Taggart a chance."

In the end, that's all Taggart could ask for. How this roll of the dice plays out will be fascinating to watch.

Place your bets!

 

Have Ducks overestimated their appeal with coaching search?

Have Ducks overestimated their appeal with coaching search?

You are probably familiar with the word that pops into my mind when I take another tired look at the football situation at Oregon:

Hubris.

The definition is usually "excessive pride or self-confidence."

This is an athletic department that looks for all the world as if it dismissed a football coach without really understanding how difficult it was going to be to find a suitable replacement. That, I think, came from an overall arrogance in Eugene that believes the football program is one of the nation's elite and would be able to open the job and sit back and have its choice of dozens of quaified, big-name, experienced candidates.

While tossing all sorts of names out there for the local media to feast on, the Ducks' search group, led by AD Rob Mullens, was apparently working behind the scenes to bring in former Temple Coach Matt Rhule as the replacement for Mark Helfrich. CBS Sports reported today that not only was Oregon working hard to get Rhule, who today took the open job at troubled Baylor, but that he'd already had a key interview that most people believe would be the final one:

Before taking the Baylor job, Rhule had met personally with Nike CEO Phil Knight, the source said.

Why would anyone pass up a job at Oregon to take the same one at scandal-heavy Baylor? The CBS Sports piece has its own explanation:

Why would he turn down the riches of Oregon? Baylor may actually be an easier rebuild. Oregon suddenly finds itself in a loaded Pac-12 North with playoff participant Washington Huskies , Stanford Cardinal and a Washington State Cougars that has a chance to win nine two years in a row.

"It doesn't seem right but Oregon's not the job it used to be," said a person intimately involved with the Oregon program. "They have the greatest facilities in the world, but you still have issues there with recruiting and weather that you don't in the state of Texas."

It appears the Ducks let Helfrich go without having any real plan for his replacement -- which is a dangerous thing to do. Unless you're one of those elite schools such as Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, USC, etc., that is many coaches' dream job. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Oregon still does not have a coach and if there was a big-name, blue-chip candidate waiting in the wings to take it, that would have happened by now.

So now you run the risk of having to hire someone you've already dismissed as a candidate. A second choice. There is no way of knowing just how many people have been offered the job but Rhule is the only one who has been reported -- and he turned it down for a trainwreck of a program. I do not think the decision-makers at Oregon expected that to happen.

Hubris.

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." 

 

The Oregon football program has sold its soul

The Oregon football program has sold its soul

The Oregon football program sold its soul on Tuesday. It went from being a program that succeeded with a lineage of coaches stretching back four decades to just another school so desperate to win that it gutted out the very essence that made the program successful to begin with.

No matter where you stand on UO athletic director Rob Mullens’ decision (likely made far before Tuesday) to fire coach Mark Helfrich after a 4-8 season, there is no denying that it was fundamentally messed up the way it all went down.

  • First losing season in 12 years.
  • Two years removed from going to the national title game and producing a Heisman Trophy winner.
  • A team filled with young talent and marred by injuries.

These are not the scenarios that generally lead programs to fire a head coach and likely his entire staff.

But there Mullens sat on Tuesday night at Matthew Knight Arena attempting to justify the move after an ugly season that certainly warranted examination but not wholesale changes. Mullens essentially pushed the panic button.

His move sends the message that the program has outgrown the men who helped make it what it is. Although, he denied that’s the case.

“I’m saying that we’re very grateful for all that‘s been done here,” he said. “We need a change of direction.”

The country is littered with college football programs that hastily changed directions right into the gutter.

As for being “grateful,” let’s examine the little matter of how Mullens went about handling this decision. Some sources say he had made up his mind to fire Helfrich weeks ago. He said he decided on Tuesday. 

The belief here is that Mullens was pretty much sure he would fire Helfrich at the very latest on Saturday following the team's 34-24 loss at Oregon State.  Yet on Sunday morning he left for Texas for a couple of days to be a part of the College Football Playoff committee after telling Helfrich and his staff to continue with recruiting plans while not knowing their job status.

Oregon's coaches literally met with players and high school coaches over the next two days while recruiting to Oregon with no idea that they even had jobs. 

Early Tuesday evening, assistants received a call from Helfrich telling them that he had been fired and to come on home.

Shameful. Classless. Disrespectful.

Worse things have happened to coaching staffs? It's a cutthroat field. But Oregon hadn’t fired a head coach in 40 years. Some coaches have been on Oregon’s staff since Mullens was in high school.

To treat them that way after all they had accomplished at Oregon was flat out doggish.

Now, the jaded out there will say this is “show business” and not “show friends.” They do so knowing damn well that if their employers treated them like that they would be livid.

Don’t be a hypocrite. Call this what it was. A panic move handled very poorly.

Mullens laid out his reasons for making the move. He believes the program needs a new direction. He stated that the winning culture had eroded. The team didn’t win enough games, etc.

That’s all fine and good, but there is no guarantee that a new coach is going to fix any of that in greater fashion than the current coaching staff that has already proven it could win big at Oregon.

Mullens is trading the known for the unknown, and doing so following one bad season. The chances of him hiring a coach that has been to a national title game, or won a major conference championship, or produced a Heisman Trophy winner are minimal. 

The Ducks could be good again as early as next season. Any good coach could win at Oregon moving forward with the young talent on this roster. But is there a coach out there willing to come to Oregon that would never have a down season? To separate themselves from this staff, a new coach must be able to consistently land recruiting classes that rank in the top 10. Otherwise, the Ducks will have a hard time contending for national titles given that the overall impact of the no-huddle spread that carried the program for the past decade has waned. 

If Oregon finds that guy, then this move could lead to equaled success. If not, UO is going to have its ups and downs. No way around it. 

The bar has been set. Having one losing season at Oregon, regardless of prior success, and your head could be on the chopping block.

If you cling to the notion that the losing came because of poor recruiting under Helfrich, you simply lack elementary math skills. Problems on defense began with the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes under Kelly (13 of 19 recruits in the 2013 class committed under Kelly before he left for the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 16 with signing day weeks away).

Helfrich failed to fix things with the 2014 class, but the 2015 and 2016 classes have already produced defensive players who have shown great potential, including freshman linebacker Troy Dye.

Also, Helfrich found the answer at quarterback with freshman Justin Herbert, who could very well become the second greatest passer in program history behind 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, also recruited and developed by Helfrich.

The irony in all of this is that if a new coach wins in the next three seasons, he would have done so with the players recruited by the current coaches.  Gone would be the false narrative that these coaches failed in recruiting despite a track record of success in that area. 

Sometimes tough decisions can’t be handled cleanly. There’s no real good way to breakup with someone in any circumstance.

But one of the charms of the Oregon program was that it had such a grand lineage. It's one that former players adored.

Many are not very happy right now. In fact, those I've spoken to are disgusted. Do their opinion’s matter in the long run? Probably not. At least not within the new culture at Oregon that shifted from “family and history” to a belief that the facilities and the money-men behind the grand buildings are more important than the actual people in the building or on the field.

That brings us to a last point: The string of coaches from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich has been broken. 

An athletic director has decided to destroy that 40-year connection, despite a $15 million buyout ($11.6 million just for Helfrich) to do so. Now, the direction of the program is entirely on Mullens and the boosters.

For the first time, they will be solely responsible for what happens on the field. They can no longer blame the coaches because they will be solely responsible for demolishing what existed in order to hire their own guy. 

Mullens had better get this hire correct.  Now, the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations falls squarely on his shoulders. 

The big question now: Is Rob Mullens up to the task of finding a new football coach?

The big question now: Is Rob Mullens up to the task of finding a new football coach?

Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens obviously has some courage. Some guts, you'd say on the football field.

He put himself in what I believe is a very difficult position Tuesday night -- as the person at least publicly responsible for finding a replacement for the man he just fired -- football coach Mark Helfrich.

[WATCH: Facebook Live Stream from Rob Mullens' Press Conference]

I have always believed in sports that when you fire your manager, your coach, your general manager, you better have somebody either lined up and ready to take the job or a real good line on who you want to hire. You want to make dead sure you can hire somebody better than the person you just booted out the door. But that, at least according to Mullens, is not the case this time.

To hear him tell it, the whole thing is wide open. Maybe it is.

[PODCAST: UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens addresses the firing]

"I think the University of Oregon is a great football program," Mullens said. "It's going to be an attractive job to a lot of candidates. We're going to look far and wide... Our pool will be broad and diverse... We're going to be extremely thorough and we're going to find the right person."

Mullens said that Parker Executive Search, which specializes in corporate and higher education hiring as well as sports, will assist him with the search. But if I had a guess -- and I will stress I have no inside information -- it would be that he'll also rely on a couple of trusted boosters, too. Former athletic director and big donor Pat Kilkenny made the last two major hires in the athletic department -- basketball coach Dana Altman and baseball coach George Horton. He is well-connected and savvy and I assume Mullens will rely on Kilkenny's smarts and private plane in this search. And I believe Phil Knight's contacts and circle of football friends should be a big asset, too.

But, and it's a big BUT -- I'm not so sure this is the kind of coaching job that's going to have experienced, winning head coaches from all over the country lined up at Mullens' door waiting for an interview. It's a tough part of the country for recruiting, many miles away from the talent loads in southern California and in the deep South. And everybody has all the fancy facilities and uniforms that used to make the Ducks special. And of course there is the evidence of impatience in the athletic department, with Helfrich being let go just two years after an appearance in the national championship game.

But Mullens did this to himself. He cited a "shift in culture" as a reason for Helfrich's departure "It's been a winning edge," he said "And we have to get that edge back."

And Tuesday he pulled the plug on his head coach, putting all the pressure of rebuilding a winning program on his own shoulders.

And now we wait to see if he can handle it.

PODCAST

Mullens mulls a complex issue regarding coach Helfrich

Mullens mulls a complex issue regarding coach Helfrich

Message for those fretting over the status of Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich: Chill out!

Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens spent today working with the College Football Playoff selection committee in Texas while in the state of Oregon people who care about Ducks football were flipping out.  

Fans, boosters and media are demanding immediate gratification and answers regarding Helfrich’s job status coming off of a 4-8 season, the program’s first losing record since 2004.

The problem for the impatient is that Mullens isn’t on their timetable. He’s on his.

Mullens is scheduled to return to Eugene on Tuesday. He could meet with Helfrich as soon as then, or later in the week.

Clearly, despite numerous reports and speculation, Mullens has not made a decision regarding Helfrich’s status. If Mullens had already decided to fire Helfrich it would have made much more sense to do so on Sunday following UO’s 34-24 loss at Oregon State in the Civil War, and before the head coach and the rest of the coaching staff had headed out to recruit that same day.

Firing the staff while it is scattered around the country recruiting would be a horrible look for Mullens and Oregon.

It’s difficult to believe Mullens could be that cold to a staff that included coaches who have been at Oregon for up to 33 years.

Even if Mullens were leaning toward firing Helfrich and the staff, but had yet to make a decision, he could have ordered that the group not to head out to recruit.

This week is not paramount to the recruiting cycle. If the team were in the Pac-12 championship game this weekend, the staff wouldn’t be out recruiting. Holding them back for a few days would not have made a bit of difference in recruiting, whereas firing the staff while they are out recruiting could have serious impacts on the current class.

The only logical reason to allow the staff to continue as usual would be if Mullens were leaning toward keeping Helfrich and company.

However, not reassuring Helfrich on Sunday at least means that Mullens has his doubts.

What has to happened during that meeting is Helfrich must convince Mullens that he has a plan to fix the issues that led to such a down turn just two years after the team reached the national championship game.

It’s a very complex decision being made that shouldn’t be rushed.

Here is a look at issues in play for Mullens to consider:

  • $15 million price tag:  Firing Helfrich would mean paying him an $11.6 million buyout on his five-year contract signed after the 2014 season. A new coach worth hiring is going to cost at least $15 million over five years. So, UO would essentially be paying about $27 million for a head coach over the next five years. That doesn’t include buying out the assistant coaches for about $3.4 million, paying new assistants and potentially paying the buyout to the school employing Oregon’s future new head coach. The idea that NIKE founder Phil Knight, or other big time boosters, are willing to post so much cash to get rid of Helfrich after one bad season doesn’t seem plausible. We shall see.  
  • Who would Mullens hire to replace Helfrich? It appears that those who want Helfrich gone haven’t thought this part through very clearly. Names have been tossed around with little regard to practicality. The only candidate that might have gotten UO to open up the checkbook and make a move could have been Tom Herman. But he was on the market for only a few hours before Texas hired him away from Houston. Note that he didn’t even give UO a real sniff.  There are no other obvious choices out there that are slam-dunk upgrades over Helfrich, especially when factoring in the money involved. This staff has been to two national title games, won two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl. What head coach and his staff available could boast such a resume? Former LSU coach Les Miles could. Would he go to Oregon? Maybe. Would the Ducks want him? Maybe. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, sources say, is not a viable option. But sources say a Miles-to-Oregon occurrence is not very likely. Beyond him, who else makes sense? Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is a possibility and a hot commodity. But he has been a head coach for just four years and it’s been at Western Michigan of the MAC. There is no guarantee or proven track record to suggest that Fleck would be an obvious upgrade, or ever get Oregon into national title contention. It would be a roll of the dice with, again, a $15 million price tag just to sit at the table. It is possible that in the past few days a search firm has been fleshing out candidates to provide for Mullens as he makes his decision.  
  • Unchartered territory: Oregon hasn’t fired a head football coach in 40 years. It didn’t fire Rich Brooks after he went 3-8 in 1991 following two 8-4 seasons. UO didn’t fire Mike Bellotti after he went 5-6 in 2004 and didn’t win a bowl game from 2002 through 2006. To pull the trigger now after the program’s first losing season in 12 years and two years removed from a trip to the national championship game appears to be a stretch, and something that should give Mullens great pause.
  • What does Oregon want to become? Clearly some fans, boosters and media believe that UO should be a perennial national contender through all eternity since it just had a great six-year run of success.  However, that success was due to a great offense that has since been duplicated to death making it less unique to Oregon. That doesn’t mean UO can’t win big again. It simply means that in a deep Pac-12 loaded with other good coaches, the Ducks are going to have their share of ups and downs based on the level of experienced star talent in place during a given year, and how it matches up against the rest of the conference. It will all be cyclical whether anyone wants to admit that or not. Chasing a delusion by beginning a cycle of hiring and firing coaches if they don’t meet unrealistic expectations would send the program down a rabbit hole after something unattainable.  Does Mullens want to push the panic button after one bad year and essentially tell the next coach that he had better win the national title soon, and never have a bad season or he would be gone next? That’s the message firing Helfrich now would send to a new coach. The leash is short and we have unrealistic expectations.
  • Can Helfrich turn this around? Oregon played this season with a very young but talented team that was hit hard by injuries. There is ample reason to believe that things will turn around in a hurry, especially with freshman quarterback Justin Herbert appearing to be a budding superstar. If Mullens believes this staff, a group he has seen win at a national level, can right the ship then it makes no sense to jettison them. He should take a peak at how TCU has handled Gary Patterson, rumored to have been contacted by Oregon. Patterson took over TCU in 2001 and went from 6-6 to 10-2 and then 11-2 over his first three seasons. Then TCU went 5-6 in 2004. Patterson wasn’t fired. He responded with 10 wins or more in six of the next seven seasons before going 7-6 in 2012 and then 4-8 in 2013. Again, TCU didn’t’ fire him. Patterson rewarded the loyalty by going 12-1 and then 11-2. This year TCU went 6-5.  That’s three times Patterson has had a dip at TCU and three times he has rebounded. All three times TCU didn’t panic and fire him. Oregon should take note.
  • People matter: This isn’t simply about Helfrich. A new coach would likely want to bring in his own staff. How does Mullens easily pull the trigger on essentially also terminating Steve Greatwood, John Neal, Don Pellum, Gary Campbell, Tom Osborne and Jimmy Radcliffe, coaches who have been at UO from between 14 to 33 years? This staff as a whole has more than earned the chance to fix this mess. Most have done it before. Why can’t they do it again?
  • Will season tickets really be impacted by keeping Helfrich: One thing Mullens can’t do is allow the irrational feelings of some fans impact his decision. There aren’t many more irrational groups in our society than fans. Think about it: What compels anyone to allow the performance of people they do not know impact their emotions or trigger anger to the levels of venom and hate being hurled at an Oregon native like Helfrich who two years ago guided the Ducks to their greatest season ever, and recruited, developed and coached the greatest player in program history, Marcus Mariota?  Some fans are threatening to not renew season tickets. Yeah, right! After all of the winning they’ve witnessed at Autzen are they really going to jump off the bandwagon after one losing season if Helfrich returns? I’m calling B.S.  They will pout for a few weeks then get over the irrational pain they feel, realize that the team could be very good next year and then renew their tickets. If not, someone else will scoop them up.  
  • Does Helfrich have a solid plan? This should be an easy sell for Helfrich considering how young and banged up this team was, and that the roster holds a glut of elite-level talent that simply needs time to develop. Helfrich also must sell Mullens on how he is going to raise the level of discipline within the team. Things have become a bit too lackadaisical in some areas, sources say, leading to an erosion of discipline. That must change. Mullens might have some demands that include staff changes. If so, Helfrich must be willing to meet those demands.

 

 

 

In an ideal world this entire situation would be resolved by now. But the complexities that lead to such a decision even being made at this time are certainly going to impact the final decision and must be weighed carefully.

 

So, be patient. It will all be over soon.

 

 

 

Some thoughts about Day One of the Mark Helfrich hostage crisis

Some thoughts about Day One of the Mark Helfrich hostage crisis

Some random thoughts on the first day of the Mark Helfrich hostage crisis:

  • I swear, it's still difficult for me to get past the fact that to let their football coach go, the Ducks must pay him $11 million to leave. For a man who has won a total of 37 games as head coach in his career? This is college football today, folks: Out. Of. Control.
  • Whatever UO Athletic Director Rob Mullens is doing right now in regard to Coach Mark Helfrich, he probably should have done weeks ago. Trying to gauge interest some other coach might have in choosing Oregon? Negotiating a contract with another coach? Doing a background check on a coach? ALL of that could have been done earlier. Coaches have agents and agents are middlemen. You can connect with them on background and still have the ability to deny talking to the actual coaches. Don't you think Texas had a lot of work done in advance when it hired Tom Herman the day after the season ended?
  • Is Mullens still trying to make up his mind about this? I would find that impossible, either way. A man in his position has to be more decisive than that.
  • Speaking of hiring a new coach, I'm not a fan of search firms. A good athletic director at that level should know full well who he wants to hire. That's part of the job. Search firms tend to be riddled with conflicts of interest that don't necessarily serve the client well.
  • It's hard to believe that Mullens holds Helfrich in high regard if he's OK with allowing him (and his staff) to twist in the wind like this in front of fans, boosters and media. And it's hard to believe he'd have a very good working relationship with him if he brings him back next season.
  • Hiring a new football coach is likely to be the biggest move Mullens will ever make at Oregon and he'll be staking his own job on his selection. So that might be bringing a little stage fright.
  • The state of Oregon has a Rooney Rule, you know. At least one minority must be interviewed before the job is filled. Theoretically, at least.
  • I'm not one to believe the entire pack of Oregon assistant coaches has to be let go if Helfrich is fired. If they're so good, a new coach would certainly want to keep some of them. Usually there are coaches retained on both sides of the ball as a bridge to a new coach and his system.
  • If the head coach and all his assistants are suddenly gone, I hope our state doesn't go bankrupt -- at some point it's going to be a pretty big hit on PERS.