football Edit

Ducks make a tough decision; now they have to make it work

Oregon's defense played its best game of the last few years in a 7-6 victory over Michigan State at the RedBox Bowl back in December. Next season, they'll have a new coordinator. (Tom Corno)

The situation facing Mario Cristobal and the Oregon football program had elements of something we see in our workplaces every day.

A management or supervisory position opens up. Two or three staff members covet it, apply for the job believing their skills and experience make them the ideal candidate.

One gets the job, and there's tension. Feelings are hurt. Feathers ruffled. Maybe one guy gets a raise to mollify his resentment. Another becomes disgruntled, maybe commits little acts of passive-aggression or semi-intentional sabotage. At times he resists the authority of the new chief, goes rogue. seems detached or uncooperative. He's still part of the team but not quite all-in, actively shopping his resume on those job search websites, sometimes from his desk at work.

The clash of egos can be monumental and wearing for everyone in the room, especially in a highly competitive field like football coaching, a roomful of driven, competitive men in a very demanding business.

The specifics of the Cristobal-Leavitt-Heyward-Salavea'a tension are something for closed doors. What's been confirmed by the university publicly in a statement released this morning is that Coach Leavitt and the program mutually parted ways, that he'll receive a settlement with a maximum value of $2.5 million, subject to reduction from future employment.

Coaching up a beleaguered defense: Jim Leavitt's body of work at Oregon
Year Points Allowed (rank) Yards Per Play (rank)

2016 (DC Brady Hoke)

41.1 (126th)

6.41 (115th)

2017 (Leavitt year 1)

29.0 (81st)

5.07 (28th)

2018 (Leavitt year 2)

25.4 (48th)

5.24 (42nd)


Leavitt is one of the better defensive coordinators in college football, in a sport where difference-making DCs are rare. He improved the Oregon defense from woeful to average, while earning a salary of $1.7 million a year, a figure that made him the highest-paid assistant coach in the PAC-12.

He did his best work as head coach at USF where he had 95-57 record before leaving in a cloud of controversy, then again at Colorado in 2015 and 2016.

It was in crafting the defensive scheme of the Buffs that Leavitt truly shined. Energized by his desire to become a head coach again he dialed up packages of blitzes and stunts and coverage that transformed a motley assemblage of two and three-star players into a unit finished the 2016 regular season eighth in the nation in yards per play (4.69), 17th in the nation in total defense (328.3 ypg), 13th in passing defense (182.5 ypg) and 18th in scoring defense (20.5 ppg).

CU dumped Oregon 41-38 in Autzen Stadium that year, on their way to a 10-2 regular season and an appearance in the PAC-12 Championship Game.

It was on the strength of that turnaround that Willie Taggart brought Leavitt to Oregon to coach his defense.

The Pepsi-fueled effervescence and Social Media presence won Leavitt an enthusiastic following among Oregon fans, but he wasn't Cristobal's pick at DC. It was something the athletic director's office engineered, throwing a pile of money at the veteran assistant in hopes of preserving momentum and a strong recruiting class after Taggart's hasty departure.

The relationship was contentious and tenuous from the beginning, starting with the fact the two were rivals and adversaries for the same job before becoming boss and employee.

For his part, Leavitt could be accused of divided attention. He actively campaigned for other jobs, interviewing at Kansas State, Texas Tech and Colorado, passed over each time for a younger man with a cleaner resume. The former linebacker coach in the NFL under Jim Harbaugh had the stain of his halftime confrontation with a player in the locker room at USF and the conflicting reports about it, along with the reality of his age, 63. He grew distracted, frustrated by the inability to get a second chance to run his own show.

Unavailable to the media in the lead-up to the RedBox bowl, Leavitt wasn't the principal or secondary recruiter on any of the members of the stellar 2019 recruiting class. When the Ducks hosted a big celebration announcement party on the Nike Campus in Beaverton the afternoon of the February 6th traditional signing day, they sent Leavitt to Medford. He was marginalized in some ways. Heyward and Salavea'a spent the season as co-defensive coordinators, and several accounts credit them for most of the game planning that produced the sterling 7-6 effort in the bowl game.

It isn't unusual for coaches to clash, whether in the heat of the game or after competition for jobs. Here are two examples, one from a famous sideline incident and one from fiction.

Meanwhile in Eugene, a new opportunity failed to arise for Leavitt, and in the football offices the situation grew increasingly dissatisfying and unworkable.

Mario Cristobal demands a lot from his staff, much in the way Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney or Mark Dantonio do. He sleeps four hours a day. He's surrounded himself with relentless recruiters, fully committed to a vision of family and culture. Leavitt never moved his family to Eugene. The disconnect was glaring and awkward on many levels.

In Keith Heyward, the Ducks second-year head coach has a guy more in line with his values and goals. They have better lines of communication and a stronger working relationship.

Still, it's just a few weeks from the start of spring practice, and Duck fans had big hopes for this season, especially after Justin Herbert and Troy Dye decided to return for their senior years, hopes made even higher by closing with the #7 recruiting class in the nation.

On the surface, it's a pretty rash decision to cut loose one of the country's most proven defensive coordinators on the eve of a season where you're projected to compete for conference title and make a run at a possible playoff spot.

Heyward is described by Cristobal and others as a rising star in coaching circles, a dynamic recruiter and a meticulous technician. He's worked his craft while serving as an assistant at Oregon State, Washington, USC and Louisville. At UO over the last two years he's coached safeties, developing Jevon Holland and Ugo Amadi into conference interception leader and Lombardi Award winner respectively.

Yet many Duck fans are drawing a parallel to the hiring of Don Pellum four seasons ago. Dedicated assistant with no experience as a coordinator, never having the responsibility of calling the defensive plays, matching wits with Mike Leach, Chris Petersen and the rest of a very offense-minded conference.

Some foresee disaster and a learning curve a promising roster can't afford. Now the team pairs a second-year head coach (in his second stint as a head coach) with two unproven coordinators in Heyward and Marcus Arroyo. Will either unit, offense or defense, maximize its potential with that kind of leadership? How sharp and cohesive will the coaching be in the pressure of a big game?

In six seasons, Oregon has gone from continuity to chaos, from two national championship appearances to an atmosphere of complete uncertainty about what they have in the coaching booth on game day. Justin Herbert and Troy Dye can make plays, but first the guys wearing the headsets have to send one in.

The Ducks face Auburn in 198 days. The on-the-job-training portion for this staff had best progress at a fiercely organized pace.

Then again, Chip Kelly was never a head coach until the Ducks made him one in 2009. Sometimes talent and drive top experience. Sometimes, but not always.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. We'll see if it works out for them.