Mike Bellotti's loyalty to Oregon led to Ducks' later successes

Mike Bellotti's loyalty to Oregon led to Ducks' later successes
May 22, 2014, 12:15 pm
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Oregon Duck head coach Mike Bellotti stands on the sidelines during the first quarter of the Ducks' game against the Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium.

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Credit for the Oregon Ducks football program's recent success has fallen largely on the shoulders of Nike founder Phil Knight and former coach Chip Kelly.

But make no mistake, without Mike Bellotti, Oregon's run of four consecutive BCS bowl appearances never would have happened.

Even though he had opportunities to leave, Bellotti remained loyal to Oregon. That led to the adoption of the spread-option offense, which led to Bellotti hiring Kelly as offensive cordinator in 2007.

For these reasons, despite Kelly's dizzying success on the field, in my book Bellotti remains the most important on-field figure in program history.

Bellotti, who spent 14 years as head coach at Oregon (1995-2008) and remains its all-time winningest football coach (116-55), has been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, it was announced today.

His credentials might pale in comparison to legendary coaches who won more conference titles and can boast of national championships. But what Bellotti accomplished at Oregon, which at one point had gone 46 years without a bowl victory, was nothing short of phenomenal.

Oregon's 2001 run to the Fiesta Bowl championship saw Bellotti's work payoff with the greatest season in program history. The Ducks came one upset loss to Stanford - and some funky computer rankings - away from reaching the BCS national title game.

Belloti would once again flirt with a run at a national title in 2007 before quarterback Dennis Dixon, on his way to likely receiving the Heisman Trophy, blew out his knee.

But unlike many coaches who find success, Bellotti didn't elect to leave for greener pastures.

Following the 2001 season, Bellotti's name was as hot as anyone out there. He easily could have sought a job at a much more established program the way Urban Meyer did when he left Utah for Florida following a BCS bowl game win in 2004.

But Bellotti said back then that his goal was to win a national title at Oregon, not anywhere else.

The program dipped a bit following the Fiesta Bowl win over Colorado, but picked up steam again in 2005 after Bellotti adopted the spread-option offense. The team went 10-2 that season before tanking a bit in 2006.

At the time, Bellotti was still tinkering with the fast-paced system, and desired to play faster.

He then made a bold move by hiring Kelly out of FCS New Hampshire.

Many had no clue who Kelly was. Fans grumbled at the selection.

But Bellotti knew what he was doing.

Kelly's imagination and coaching style helped take UO's offense to another level in 2007, and before Dixon's injury, the Ducks were ranked No. 2 in the country.

Bellotti stepped down following the team's Holiday Bowl win in 2008 to become athletic director, a move that kept Kelly from leaving for a head job elsewhere. 

With Kelly at the helm, the Ducks went to four consecutive BCS bowl games, including the national title game following the 2010 season.

But keep in mind, Kelly accomplished all of that with Bellotti's recruits. His 2007 class ranked No. 11 in the nation and featured Mark Asper, Carson York, Drew Davis, David Paulsen, Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe, Jeff Maehl and Terrell Turner. His final class signed in 2008 featured LaMichael James, Dion Jordan, Kenjon Barner, Darron Thomas, Kiko Alonso, John Boyett, Dewitt Stuckey and Josh Kaddu.

Those players laid the foundation for the team's success through 2011 and three-straight Pac-12 titles.

No evidence exists that Bellotti wouldn't have accomplished at least some, if not all of the same feats as head coach.

Oregon has not won a conference title since Bellotti's recruits cleared the program.

Essentially, Bellotti acted as a de-factor NFL general manager for those teams, acquiring talent and putting together the coaching staff.

It's always dicey to start dividing up who gets credit for what in any area, most of all sports. Clearly, Kelly is an innovator who did things offensively that Bellotti was not equipped to do. Kelly's instant success in the NFL is a testament to his offensive prowess.

But therein lies the brilliance of Bellotti. He knew the weaknesses of himself and his staff as they tried to rev up the spread-option attack when all were more well versed in pro-style, West Coast offenses that huddled.

So Bellotti acutely tabbed a budding genius from a small program to take the offense to another level.

It was both genius, and humble of him to do so. As it was for him not to leave Oregon when he had the chance.

The Ducks have been benefiting ever since.