We are two seasons removed from the firing of a legacy staff and save for one strong recruiting class. It's safe to say that the last two years have been rocky off the field more so than on.
The departure of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, first reported by 247 Sports and verified by sources to NBC Sports Northwest, is the latest chapter in a rather dysfunctional tale of a seemingly unstable program.
Maybe now things will settle down without Leavitt, who was ridiculously celebrated as the second coming of Buddy Ryan or when Oregon hired him in 2017, and, according to sources, has never gotten along with coach Mario Cristobal, leading to endless friction since the two joined Oregon's staff under former coach Willie Taggart.
Let's be frank about this. Nothing has ever been copacetic between Cristobal and Leavitt. Anyone out there that believed the new staff sat around the camp fire singing "kumbaya my lord" was living in fantasy land.
Leavitt and Cristobal, according to sources, nearly cam to blows during a practice in 2017. When Taggart left the the program that December for Florida State, Leavitt lobbied hard for the interim and permanent head coaching position leading up to the Las Vegas Bowl, and lost out to Cristobal. An angry Leavitt looked to leave Oregon for a program willing to pay him the $1.15 million per year that the Ducks had coughed up for his services. Reports surfaced that Taggart had offered him $2 million to follow him to Florida State, but those were false.
When Leavitt, who according to sources will be replaced by defensive backs coach Keith Heyward, elected to remain at Oregon, it publicly appeared that he truly wanted to be with the Ducks and most of the public lapped up that storyline, which was being fueled by the 62-year-old coach's always-lively Twitter feed.
But the truth is that Leavitt stayed because Oregon foolishly tossed an additional $600 K his way to raise his salary to $1.7 million in 2018, compared to the $2.5 million that Cristobal received. The raise smacked of desperation for a program that saw the defense take a dive in 2015 and 2016 only to witness Leavitt bring it back to life in 2017, and had just lost Taggart.
The goal was to keep as much of the staff together as possible and that meant raises.
However, Leavitt has never in his life proven himself to be a defensive coordinator worthy of that kind of money. He had only been the lone defensive coordinator at the major college level once before and that was at Colorado, where he helped a young defense in 2015 grow into a great, senior-dominated defense in 2016. That convinced Oregon to throw big money at Leavitt while ignoring the fact that the Ducks that year had put up 508 yards on the Buffaloes in a 40-34 loss at home while without running back Royce Freeman, offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby and wide receiver Devon Allen, and with solid, but not great, Dakota Prukop at quarterback.
Regardless, Leavitt did have a good season with Oregon in 2017 but he also did benefit from taking over a unit that had lost just one impact senior from the previous season. It only stood to reason that the defense would improve, and it did, greatly, jumping from 128th in the nation to 28th.
But in 2018, with most of that defense returning, Oregon regressed to 55th in the nation. That wasn't the type of production that Oregon had paid $1.7 million to receive.
Furthermore, the friction between Cristobal and Leavitt never waned. Leavitt expected and got autonomy on defense and still harbored a grudge for being passed over for the head coaching position. In many ways, Leavitt had a right to be bitter. He had been a wildly successful head coach at South Florida from 1997 through 2009, posting a record of 95-57 while helping the Bulls make the move to the FBS level. There, Leavitt won three bowl games in five seasons while the program was a member of the Big East Conference.
Cristobal had been a head coach once before at Florida International where he had an unimpressive record of 36-52, albeit under very trying circumstances.
What truly gave Cristobal the edge over Leavitt was his amazing recruiting ability, which just helped the Ducks land its highest-rated recruiting class ever at No. 7 on Rivals.com, and that he had never been accused of striking a player, an accusation that Leavitt has denied but ultimately ended his run at South Florida and has haunted his career.
So, with Leavitt's bitterness and the obvious friction between two alpha dog coaches, it only stood to reason that this situation would prove to be untenable and eventually erode. Plus, while Leavitt is a very good defensive coordinator, he is not the mythical figure he has been made out to be since he arrived in Eugene.
For example: According to sources, Heyward and Taggart were the men behind Oregon's defense that shut down Arizona and quarterback Khalil Tate in 2017. Tate had been ripping up the Pac-12 by gaining 1,207 rushing yards over his first six conference starts before the Ducks held him to 32 in a 48-28 UO victory at home.
So, it could very well be that the defense will be in great hands under Heyward, however this will be his first run at being a defensive coordinator. Could there be growing pains? Possibly. And if so, how long of a leach will Heyward be given to work through his inexperience in this role?
Since the firing of Mark Helfrich in 2016, Oregon hasn't experienced much in the way of stability or consistency, and there has been plenty of controversy.
- Assistant coach David Reaves was arrested for DUII and fired in early 2017.
- A second assistant coach, Jimmie Dougherty, who was riding with Reaves also was fired.
- Players were hospitalized following excessive workouts in 2017. Two of the players, Doug Brenner and Sam Poutasi, are suing Taggart, the NCAA and Oregon.
- Taggart left after one season causing Oregon's 2018 recruiting class to fall from No. 1 to No. 18.
- Leavitt leaves team after two seasons.
The good news is that the Ducks won a bowl game last season, did land a very strong recruiting class in 2019 and quarterback Justin Herbert elected to return for his senior season.
And now, Cristobal will have a staff that is made up only of men he hired or wanted to retain. For the first time, it can truly be said that this is Cristobal's program from top to bottom.
But what happens after Herbert is gone after next season? He, like Leavitt, regressed statistically last season, inexplicable for a junior quarterback with first-round NFL talent. That's a bad sign for the future of the offense beyond Herbert and the future of the defense is in flux with a new coordinator.
One thing for sure is the past two years for the Ducks' football program have been anything but dull and the next couple of years promise to be equally as intriguing.