Sports

Why Oregon’s coaching search turned into a battle for the program’s identity

When Mario Cristobal left Oregon for Miami on Dec. 6, a familiar feeling swept through the community of former Ducks players: Here we go again.

Cristobal’s departure marked the second time in four years that a coach without strong ties to the school departed for another college program. Former star quarterback Joey Harrington discussed the development with other football alums and felt the urge to act. He wrote a letter to Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens that would be signed by 13 other former players, including Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and fellow quarterbacks Justin Herbert and Akili Smith.

The former players outlined their concern that the program had steered from its roots.

“After two attempts to find a coach outside the ‘Oregon Box,’ we believe it may be time again to look within the Oregon family,” read the letter, later published by the Oregonian. “Returning to the successful foundation upon which the program was built, or chasing a national championship don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

The letter added: “Our success was built on the continuity and hard work of the players and coaches in the 30 years prior to 2016 and we, as players, feel we are dangerously close to losing our identity.”

Before Cristobal and Willie Taggart, who preceded him, Oregon football had survived and thrived under the direction of Oregon guys. From 1977 to 2016, Oregon employed only four head coaches — Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich — and all four had previous connections to the school and/or state. Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich were Oregon offensive coordinators before being promoted to head coach.

Coming from the outside, Taggart and Cristobal dramatically elevated Oregon’s recruiting, and Cristobal won Pac-12 championships in 2019 and 2020. But the two coaches before Taggart (Kelly and Helfrich) led Oregon to the national title game.

Oregon’s search to replace Cristobal became as much about picking a program philosophy as selecting the next coach. An existential discussion about the program played out largely in a public forum — namely, Twitter Spaces discussions, which included former players, the brother of the eventual coach hired and even Mullens himself.

Mullens and other Oregon stakeholders ultimately faced a dilemma: Should they hire another outsider with a pedal-down recruiting philosophy, such as Cristobal, or double back to the program’s roots with a homegrown coach and an approach that leans more heavily on schematic advantages?

“[Cristobal] built a recruiting infrastructure that borrowed from his time at Alabama,” Mullens told ESPN late last month. “There was a shift in how we structure the org chart for football recruiting and the approach in recruiting. Seeing that progress and that level of success, that certainly informed us as we went into the next search.”

In hiring Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, Oregon seemingly prioritized the path Cristobal had forged before leaving for Miami. A rapidly ascending 35-year-old who had never led a program, Lanning had built a reputation as a dynamic and effective recruiter and game tactician. He had no ties to Oregon, but had succeeded in different areas of the country.

While Lanning might not have been the obvious name on Oregon’s wish list, he checked the boxes that mattered most to Mullens: “CEO for football,” culture builder and elite recruiter.

“We are getting a leader who can continue and build upon the success that we’ve had,” Mullens said. “There may be [different opinions] of who the best person to do that is, but I can tell you our base has absolutely embraced Dan. They’re excited about where this is going.”

Oregon’s former players and alumni will be watching to see how Lanning maintains and elevates Oregon’s recruiting and on-field performance, but also whether he reflects the traits that the program used to overcome some historical and geographic limitations and rise to national prominence.

In the two-plus months since he was hired, Lanning has received public support from some who preferred a different path, even if their concerns remain. They will monitor whether Lanning has a wandering eye, or if he can become the outsider coach who sees Oregon as his long-term destination.


BELLOTTI’S OFFICIAL AFFILIATION with Oregon ended in 2010, when he stepped down from a brief stint as athletic director after two decades as a Ducks assistant and head coach. But he attends games and practices, and remains plugged into the program.

The former coach understands why Oregon operated the way it did for so long, but also why the program has pivoted in recent years.

“When you’re winning and when you’re successful, and you move on because of that, it’s pretty easy to bring somebody in from the inside,” Bellotti said. “When you fire somebody, it’s a whole different deal. It’s easier to change things when you come from the outside.”

In November 2016, Helfrich became the first Oregon coach to be fired in four decades as the team skidded to a 4-8 record. Just two years before, Helfrich guided the Ducks to the College Football Playoff championship game, but the program then regressed, largely because of a relaxed effort on the recruiting trail. The average age on Helfrich’s last staff was close to 54 years old, and while the bulk of the staff had made significant contributions during their several combined decades in Eugene, there was a belief among those around the program that the necessary energy and ability to relate to kids during recruiting wasn’t there at the end.

Oregon replaced Helfrich with Taggart, who had no ties to the school. Though his tenure at Oregon lasted just one season before he departed for Florida State, Taggart opened the eyes of former players about what was possible at Oregon in terms of recruiting.

“Taggart came in and showed that [recruiting at a high level nationally] could be done,” said George Wrighster, one of the former players who signed the letter to Mullens. “It was definitely like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re getting guys. We can be excited on signing day. We can be excited on the recruiting trail.'”

Cristobal, whom Taggart had initially hired from Alabama as an assistant, took it to another level once he took over as head coach. Although Oregon had recruited decently under Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich, the program’s limitations — being located in a state and region not flush with Power 5 talent — showed up at times. Though ESPN began its recruiting class rankings in 2006, Oregon didn’t post its first top-15 class until 2011, following a national runner-up appearance.

Despite a 46-7 record and three Pac-12 titles under Kelly, and a national runner-up appearance under Helfrich in 2014, Oregon recorded only one other top-15 class until Cristobal took over. Oregon signed the Pac-12’s top-rated recruiting class from 2019 until 2021 (and the No. 6 class overall in 2019 and No. 8 in 2021), a span that included two Pac-12 titles and a Rose Bowl victory.

“Mario truly was the person who said, ‘We’re going to do this 365 days a year. Here’s how we’re going to do it. And these are the important pieces in building the infrastructure to allow us to attack in that way,'” Mullens said. “We made a significant shift when he was named head coach, and then we built on that each and every year to put in the structure that would allow us to create top-10, top-five recruiting classes.”

That realization changed the perception of what kind of formula was needed to win big at Oregon. While Cristobal never won at the level Kelly did, his way of doing things was more sustainable.

“[Kelly] created something that nobody had ever seen before. That gave Oregon an advantage,” Wrighster said. “Now you need less strategic advantages to win. You can line up and just grind people over. Once you get a taste of that, you can’t go back.”


SMITH AND WRIGHSTER were heated.

On Dec. 12, the day after Oregon announced Lanning as its head coach, the two former Ducks logged into an Oregon Twitter Space.

Wrighster, a former All-Pac-10 tight end, argued it shouldn’t necessarily matter if Oregon’s head coach has strong ties to the school. Smith, who earned Pac-10 co-offensive player of the year honors in 1998, expressed frustration that Taggart and Cristobal used the job as a stepping stone to leave for other college jobs within a four-year span.

Smith made it clear he would support Lanning, but that he thought Lanning could bail in a few years after having success. After a passionate exchange, where neither former NFL player conceded the points the other tried to make, Smith had enough and logged off.

“This is nothing new. This is what it sounds like at halftime when guys are pissed that we’re losing,” Smith told ESPN. “Somebody feels we should do it this way. Somebody else feels we should do it that way. That’s all it was. [The public] had an opportunity to see how intense some of those conversations are in the locker room. As former players, we argue about this stuff all the time.”

Oregon’s Twitter Spaces drew thousands of listeners and notable participants — including Lanning’s brother, Jordan, and Mullens — and it provided a real-time glimpse into varying perspectives about the best direction for the program, even after the recruiting success under the previous two outsider coaches.

The search initially steered toward Cal‘s Justin Wilcox, with the hope that he could blend the old ways and the new.

Wilcox is a former Ducks player from one of the program’s most celebrated families. He’s the son of former Ducks linebacker Dave Wilcox, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who made seven Pro Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, and his uncle and older brother also played for Oregon before pro careers.

A well-regarded defensive mind, Wilcox’s mediocre win-loss record at Cal (26-28) could be defended by the challenges of winning in Berkeley. Plus, he had extensive knowledge of the program and the Pac-12. There was a feeling inside the Oregon athletic department, multiple sources told ESPN, that if Wilcox was paired with an innovative offensive coordinator and a staff of talented recruiters, it would be close to an ideal succession from Cristobal.

“I will always side with a former player potentially leading the program. That’s where my loyalty lies,” Smith told ESPN. “Justin Wilcox’s name came up. Me and Justin Wilcox walked out of the locker room together to go to war together. From that standpoint alone, why wouldn’t you want your brother to have an opportunity to lead the team?”

A move to Oregon made sense for Wilcox, and from the outside, it appeared to be a dream job for the 45-year-old.

Until it wasn’t.

Sources close to Wilcox said the Oregon job initially came with some conditions related to the recruiting philosophy and possibly assistants to retain or hire. Those “spooked” the coach, one person said. Even when Oregon relaxed on some of those items, Wilcox didn’t feel he could run the program like he wanted. He turned down Oregon’s offer to become coach, sources said.

“It seemed like they wanted him to work in the gray area, and that’s really not him,” said a source close to Wilcox. “Justin is the kind of guy who likes to recruit kids that aren’t interested in the Recaro leather seats. After he made up his mind, he just stuck with it.”

When talks broke down between Oregon and Wilcox, it showed that finding someone who could connect the program’s past with its new formula for success would be difficult.

“If you want to have an open and inclusive process, if you start with a connection to the institution, you narrow the field quickly,” Mullens said. “It could be an additive at the end of a process, but it’s difficult to start there.”

There was some consideration given to trying to bring back Kelly, the UCLA coach, to Eugene, but Oregon soon pivoted to Lanning, whose stock had surged as Georgia closed in on its first national championship since 1980 behind a historically great defense. Lanning had been groomed under Georgia coach Kirby Smart and spent the 2015 season with Smart and Nick Saban at Alabama, which won a national title that year.

“Given his success and his background, he worked in a similar structure to the one that we had put in place here on the recruiting side,” Mullens said. “With his set of experiences, his passion, his energy and his achievements, he was the right person for this role.”


NEITHER LANNING NOR any of his assistants previously coached at Oregon. For decades, Oregon not only was led by men who had come through the program, but featured notable assistants who had played for Oregon or spent many years there, such as Gary Campbell, Don Pellum, Steve Greatwood and Nick Aliotti.

“There were a series of succession plans here at the University of Oregon that contributed to a number of longtime assistants working at Oregon. … At the time, that was what worked and that was the right fit,” Mullens said. “In the last two times around, it just fit that Mario and Dan were the right people to carry on from the foundation that we had, and take us to the next level.”

Lanning spent two seasons at Arizona State early in his career. Several of his assistants either made stops at Pac-12 schools or have roots with those schools and in the league’s footprint. Cristobal had not coached west of Alabama before coming to Oregon.

Two traits stand out on Lanning’s staff. The first is youth. Offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham is 31, one of four new coaches 35 and younger. The average age of Oregon’s 11 new on-field assistants is 40.5, and not one is older than 48.

The group is also known for its recruiting prowess. Lanning, who held recruiting coordinator roles at Arizona State, Sam Houston State and Memphis, targeted assistants who could maintain and enhance Oregon’s presence on the trail.

“He did not get anybody who was not known as a top-notch recruiter,” Wrighster said. “The combination of on-field coaching, but also being able to recruit and connect with players, was at a premium. Youth was also at a premium.

“There’s a clear youth movement.”

Two of Lanning’s assistants, defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, are highly-regarded West Coast recruiters but have had some controversy. While at UCLA, Klemm received a two-year show-cause order from the NCAA for paying for two recruits to receive housing and private training. When Lupoi coached at Washington, the NCAA investigated allegations that he paid for a recruit’s online classes and tutoring. The NCAA ultimately did not impose any penalties, but Steve Sarkisian, for whom Lupoi worked at Washington, said the investigation contributed to him not hiring the ace recruiter at Southern California.

Although those past issues put Lupoi and Klemm under the microscope, both are expected to bolster Oregon’s recruiting efforts as they return to college football from the NFL ranks. Lupoi was named Rivals.com’s 2010 recruiter of the year (while at Cal), and SEC recruiter of the year by 247 Sports in 2017 (while at Alabama). Despite spending the past three years coaching in the NFL, he was a priority target for Lanning to hire.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep [Lupoi] for at least the next four or five years,” said Smith, who worked on Cal’s staff with Lupoi in 2010. “Make sure he is paid well and keep him in the program, because Tosh is a big fish.”

Lanning’s arrival and his aggressive recruiting strategy coincides with a dramatic shift in the recruiting landscape, especially because players can earn money off of their names, images and likenesses. Oregon seems well-positioned to be among the benefactors thanks to its relationship with Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Knight’s millions of dollars in donations transformed the athletic department over the past two decades, and at 83 years old, he remains invested — both with his time and resources — in helping the Ducks succeed. He is known to stay updated on football players Oregon is recruiting, and he fully understands the correlation between recruiting and winning.

“He wants to see the University of Oregon succeed in every way, academically and athletically,” Mullens said. “Obviously, he understands the importance of recruiting in the formula of success.”

“It’s literally legal to pay you a million dollars to come to a school and play ball,” added a source close to Oregon. “He would want to be a part of that, absolutely, and I would think he would want to do it legally. There has to be something to Phil getting older and willing to take a few more risks.”

One example came last week when Division Street — a venture to elevate NIL opportunities for Oregon athletes, started by a group of donors that includes Knight — announced it will launch a Tinker Hatfield-created NFT collection. The collection, which will be called “Flying Formations,” will consist of 120 unique digital art pieces created by Hatfield, the celebrated shoe designer, that will be auctioned off and accompanied with a special edition Nike Air Max 1. Nearly 70% of the proceeds from the auctions will be sent to Oregon football players.

“I wouldn’t have come to Oregon if there wasn’t a really clear vision of how they are attacking the name, image, likeness territory,” Lanning said. “Our affiliation with some big brands, we’re not looking to be your mom-and-pop shop from a name, image, likeness standpoint. When you think about Oregon, you think innovative, you think different, and we’re looking to create those same opportunities.”


ON JAN. 31, LANNING held a Zoom call with some former Oregon players. National signing day loomed on Feb. 2, and Lanning updated the ex-Ducks about some of the program’s recruiting targets.

“You’re talking about how we like our steak cooked and when the alumni golf event is, what recruits we’re looking at,” Lanning said. “It was a little bit more personal, and that was fun for me. I told those guys on the Zoom, ‘If this is the only time we’re able to connect, then this is a lot of white noise. This is hopefully something we can continue to build on.'”

The introduction was well-received, and Lanning’s message resonated with those who initially preferred a former Duck to take over.

“He just spoke about the direction of the program and some of the stuff he wanted to get done,” Smith said. “He talked about having former players being around the program and what that’s going to look like.”

Lanning, who called Oregon onboarding “an adventure,” is still getting to know the key stakeholders around the program. As an outsider, he respected Oregon’s program and success, and thinks the view of the program can be miscast sometimes.

“There’s a false perception that it’s flash and not substance,” Lanning said. “We’ve got the best of the best. We have all the bells and whistles, beautiful facilities, great uniforms, phenomenal gear. But beyond that, there’s a strong foundation and people that love Oregon — passionate fans, some of the most passionate fans I’ve ever been around.”

Oregon has always been adaptable, not letting patterns or even traditions hold it back from what’s next. The past three coaching hires show that continuity and Oregon connections are no longer defining traits of the program, which makes some uneasy after the recent coaching turnover.

“We don’t necessarily think the best fit for a coach is somebody to come in as a hired gun,” Harrington told host John Canzano on KXTG-AM radio in Portland. “Somebody who comes in with an ego, somebody who has a brand of their own, or is here to use it as, ‘A notch in my belt, I’m going to go to Oregon, and I’m going to make myself better.'”

Others say it’s time to accept the new approach.

“I’m OK going after the guy that’s ambitious,” former Oregon receiver Keenan Howry said. “Is Oregon going to be a stepping stone? Maybe, but he’s going to get his best every year. He’s going to put the best staff he can together because he wants to get to the pinnacle.

“For me as an alum, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what gets us the best product on the field.’ If that’s what gets us a Pac-12 championship, a chance to be in a CFP, a chance in the national title, why wouldn’t you want that?”

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