Photo courtesy of Oregon athletics
Ask most Oregon fans and they’ll say “The Pick” is where Oregon started its rise to prominence. It was the one play to spark a drastic shift in a conference.
However, it’s not quite that simple. The Ducks should credit their rise to two things that happened simultaneously. Around the 1996 season, two things happened. Oregon alumni and founders of Nike Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman began heavily donating to the team.
That’s something most every college football fan already knows, but there’s a second piece to the puzzle that’s often forgotten. The hiring of head coach Mike Bellotti.
Mike Belotti and Nike
In 1995 Rich Brooks, Oregon head football coach, left for the NFL. To take his place, Oregon would promote offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti. Before Bellotti, Oregon had only won nine games in three different seasons. Soon after, Bellotti would lead the Ducks to multiple 10-win seasons and their highest finish ever in the major polls.
Bellotti was aided by an Oregon native at quarterback in Joey Harrington. Harrington went on to be a top pick in the NFL Draft. Bellotti and Harrington brought Oregon to an 11-1 season and a No. 2 finish in both the AP and Coaches Polls in 2001. This wouldn’t be the last time Bellotti’s Ducks saw that No. 2 national ranking.
In the hectic 2007 season where it seemed as if that ranking was cursed, Oregon ascended to No. 2 in the polls once more. The Ducks had what seemed to be a Heisman Trophy favorite in Dennis Dixon and were on a roll.
Oregon even went into “The Big House” and steamrolled Michigan with the famous fake statue of liberty. With consecutive wins over top-10 teams in USC and Arizona State, Oregon rose to No. 2 with a record of 8-1. All seemed to be going to plan, except that aforementioned curse on the No. 2 team. The Ducks would go on to lose Dixon to a season-ending injury and drop their final three regular season games.
Although Bellotti and the Ducks didn’t win much — just two conference titles — with USC being at its peak during his tenure, Duck fans everywhere credit him with building Oregon into a national powerhouse. It happened seemingly overnight.
Chip Kelly and The Explosive Offense
Chip Kelly, the legendary offensive-minded coach, took over as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in 2007. It didn’t take long to tell the difference. In just his first year, Oregon averaged nine more points per game than the year before. Then again in his second season, the Ducks averaged more than 42 points a game.
Oregon was becoming that explosive offense that most recognize today. After Kelly’s second season as coordinator, Belotti assumed the role of athletics director and Kelly was promoted to head coach. In Kelly’s first season as head coach, he led the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1994.
Oregon would lose that game, but it built the foundation for Kelly to build on and bring Oregon to the top. Kelly also, contrary to popular belief, drastically improved Oregon’s recruiting prowess. Under his watch, the class never finished below No. 16, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
After reaching the Rose Bowl in 2009, Kelly coached the Ducks to a perfect regular season in 2010 and a berth in the BCS National Championship. Some would argue they should’ve won that game, but a late controversial call involving Auburn running back Michael Dyer allowed the Tigers to move into field-goal range and kick the winning field goal as time expired.
During his tenure, Kelly was the most consistently successful head coach. Under Kelly, Oregon played in a BCS bowl each year. Even Nick Saban, arguably the best coach of all-time, missed a BCS bowl and suffered a 3-loss season during that stretch. Kelly may be tarnishing the shine on his name at UCLA, but when he left, he was seen as revolutionary. Oregon had an offense that could score in under two minutes and likely inspired many of the best offenses today.
Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart
After Coach Kelly departed Oregon for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was promoted to head coach. Some may ask why we lump Helfrich and Willie Taggart together when one made and won a playoff game. Helfrich won a playoff game on the remnants of Kelly with quarterback Marcus Mariota, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
Other than that, these two coaches are eerily similar in their successes and failures. Helfrich was the coach who most fans blame for the swift fall of the program. After a 2014 season that saw Oregon reach the national title game for a second time in five seasons, the Ducks held it together with stellar quarterback play by a graduate transfer in Vernon Adams. Adams arguably would’ve carried Oregon to another playoff appearance if healthy.
Staying healthy however, would not be common for Adams during his time in Eugene. The 2015 Alamo Bowl was the perfect example of that. With Adams at the helm, Oregon raced to a 31-0 lead. Yet, as soon as Adams went down with an injury, Oregon completely collapsed. Oregon fell to TCU in overtime 47-41 before going 4-8 the following season. The 2016 campaign ultimately led to Helfrich’s dismissal
Taggart Era Begins
Helfrich was ultimately replaced by former South Florida head coach Willie Taggart who completely changed Oregon’s staff for the first time in decades. Taggart brought in amazing recruiters and Southeastern minds. Oregon finished just 7-5 in year No. 1 under Taggart, but the future was looking bright.
Yet again, Oregon was in the hunt for a coach after Taggart departed for what he called his dream job at Florida State. His decision left many with sour tastes in their mouths after claiming he was staying just days earlier.
Taggart should get some credit; he did bring a lot of the current staff to Oregon. So without Taggart, the Ducks wouldn’t be where they are today — back among the elite in college football.
Upon Taggarts departure, the players went all in behind co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. This, despite a lot of fans wanting defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to get the job after seeing how drastically the defense had improved.
Eventually, Oregon decided to give the job to Cristobal, which in hindsight, may have been the best thing to happen to the program since the founding of Nike. Cristobal has already, in so few years, brought Oregon from that 4-win team to a top-5 Rose Bowl champion expected to compete for playoff spots.
Not only that, Oregon is recruiting at an all-time high, which bodes well for the Ducks’ future and their playoff hopes. Don’t be surprised if Oregon is competing for that elusive championship their fans so desperately crave in the near future.