Success on the recruiting trail and a physical identity bode well for the Mario Cristobal era
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Mario Cristobal jokingly chided media while at the podium for his Pac-12 Championship Game press conference, perplexed by the low-key energy compared to the celebration of a Rose Bowl berth going on his the Oregon locker room.
"I don't know why it's so quiet in here. It was pretty happy in that locker room," he said. "Hopefully you are excited about this stuff, too, now."
Oregon football faithful have plenty of reason to be excited about the stuff Cristobal's Ducks are producing. The process of building from a 4-8 finish in 2016 produced an improved record in each of the three subsequent seasons, culminating with 11 wins, and both the first conference championship and Rose Bowl Game berth for Oregon in a half-decade.
Perhaps more reason to be excited is the formula Cristobal and his staff have put in place, which has the Ducks well-positioned to remain long-term contenders both in the Pac-12 and nationally.
The concept of Oregon as a national powerhouse is hardly foreign to those following the game in the 21st century. The 2019 Pac-12 title marks the program's third since it expanded to a 12-team conference in 2011, and sixth in 18 years. Oregon produced three Heisman Trophy finalists, one winner, played in two national championship games and probably should have been in a third over that time.
But it wasn't long ago that Oregon was the poster program for the Pac battling for attention — poster in the most literal sense. A Nike-supported billboard of Joey Harrington in Times Square before his Heisman-finalist 2001 season provided the unofficial introduction of Ducks football to the nation.
But no matter how long it takes for a program to build notoriety, a crash can come dizzyingly fast.
At the same time Oregon began its ascent 18 years ago, Cristobal's alma mater, Miami, was at the apex of the sport. Since losing a heartbreaker BCS Championship Game in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, the Hurricanes have reached just two BCS/New Year's Six bowl games — one in 15 years — won more than nine games just twice, and finished with seven wins or fewer nine times.
And yet, even its furthest from being The U juggernaut of Cristobal's playing days or the early 2000s, Miami never endured 4-8. When players turn over and coaching staff changes occur, a 4-8 can snowball into longer-term failure beyond a single campaign. Cristobal explained how.
"I don't know if anyone here has been through a 4-8 season. I've been through one of those," Cristobal said in reference to 2012, his final season as head coach of FIU before joining Nick Saban's staff as offensive line coach and associate head coach at Alabama. "It's about as horrible and miserable as it gets. It causes some people to break down, some people to quit, some people to leave.
"Then there's a core that just puts their foot in the ground and says, 'We're going to change things,'" he added. "They had to change things in the midst of change; right? There were coaching changes, all kinds of staff turnover."
In Dec. 2017, Cristobal was named Oregon's third different head coach in roughly one year. Mark Helfrich was fired at the conclusion of the 4-8, 2016 campaign; Willie Taggart was introduced as his replacement a few weeks later, bringing a staff that included Cristobal as offensive coordinator; and after just one season, Taggart left for a Florida State job from which he's already been ousted.
The whirlwind year from Helfrich's firing to Cristobal's promotion stands in stark contrast to Oregon's previous four decades when the program followed a direct line of succession. Helfrich was offensive coordinator to Chip Kelly, who was offensive coordinator to Mike Bellotti, who was offensive coordinator Rich Brooks, who started in Eugene in 1977.
Meanwhile, Oregon did not just endure the tumult of two coaching changes in a year's time. Those players recruited by Helfrich's staff took on the responsibility of adopting an entirely new philosophical approach.
The identity of Ducks football at the end of the 2000s and into the 2010s was one of hyper-speed offense and more costume changes than a Vegas show, commensurate with Kelly's hiring in '07. But the big, yellow O was as synonymous with Offense as anything before then, with Akili Smith and Harrington slinging it in Jeff Tedford's system.
Meanwhile, the alternate uniform craze owes a debt of gratitude to the Joey Heisman billboard and those unique black-and-green duds with highlighter accents.
Fashion and finesse: Those were the defining traits of Oregon during its rise. The Ducks still don different uniform combinations — Nightmare Green was on the agenda for the Pac-12 Championship Game — but the last group recruited to run the finesse style embraced the hard-hitting approach of a new era.
And that's exactly what Oregon needed to do to retain its place in the college football landscape. Unique uniforms are the norm now to the point programs without alternates are the outlier. Sped-up offenses producing big points are much more commonplace than even a decade ago.
Announcing your program still belongs in the sport's upper echelon punching a No. 5-ranked opponent known for hard-nosed football is a heckuva way to do it.
"Quite frankly, I think maybe these guys all week long got a little bit tired of hearing we weren't the more physical team," Cristobal said. "It gives you a little bit of an edge."
For those seniors who made the transition, like quarterback Justin Herbert and linebacker Troy Dye, the Rose Bowl is a fitting cap to their dedication through hard times. They went out appropriately in the Pac-12 Championship Game, with Herbert throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass and getting Utah's top-ranked run defense off balance in the first quarter.
Dye, meanwhile, snuffed out any hope of a Utes comeback with an interception of Tyler Huntley in the closing minutes.
Seniors laid the groundwork for what's still building into the future — and it is building.
"We put in the work, so why not bask in the success?" freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux asked rhetorically. "I don't see any decline, I don't see anybody that wants to quit. Everybody wants to live up and fill the shoes."
As Cristobal joked of the lack of enthusiasm in the press conference room at Levi's Stadium, a pair of underclassmen flanked him. To his right sat running back CJ Verdell, whose 208 yards were the most any ball carrier gained on a Utah defense in five years, and four times the Utes season-long yield. He's a sophomore.
"This is a stepping stone in the right direction," Verdell said. "We're going to keep going from here."
Verdell, Herbert and Co. operated behind an offensive line that was one of the best in the country. The Ducks lose veteran presence from that front in the coming offseason, but its most promising NFL prospect, Penei Sewell, came from the same 2018 signing class that produced Verdell.
To Cristobal's left sat Thibodeaux, the 2019 5-star defensive end who worked his way into the starting lineup almost immediately and on Friday, delivered the first punt block in Pac-12 Championship Game history. That was just one facet to his outstanding performance.
Utah simply cannot block Kayvon Thibodeaux. He’s been dominant all night long. pic.twitter.com/R9zxVnHTvF— Rob Paul (@RobPaulNFL) December 7, 2019
The duo was part of the first two recruiting classes of Cristobal's tenure, which ranked No. 13 and 7 in the nation. The incoming 2020 class is trending at No. 11 nationally.
And then there's Cristobal himself. He speaks thoughtfully but with an underlying intensity that one might expect of a former offensive line coach. His emphasis on physicality is old-school in nature, but he has cited advanced statistical analysis when asked about certain decisions, such as when to punt.
He even does a mean Randy Savage impression.
TIL Mario Cristobal is a Randy Savage mark pic.twitter.com/By4FRIL25O— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) November 3, 2019
All that together gives Oregon football plenty of reason for excitement, not just for the Rose Bowl Game but the immediate future of the program.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.