Last month, the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation released a preseason Watch List of 17 candidates for its 2021 award. It included the obvious big names such as Alabama’s Nick Saban, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, but also Penn State’s James Franklin, whose team went 4-5 last season, and Washington’s Jimmy Lake, who’s coached just four games to date.
Not among those 17 names was a guy who’s won the past two Pac-12 championships, coached a top-five team and Rose Bowl champion two years ago, produced last year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert, and has signed his program’s three highest-ranked recruiting classes in history over the last three years.
But the Dodd Trophy folks are hardly the only skeptics of Oregon’s fourth-year head coach Mario Cristobal. He has plenty of critics among the Ducks’ own fan base as well.
“It is now that thousands of fans are ‘checking out until next fall’ and losing confidence in Coach Mario Cristobal,” Charles Fischer, aka Mr. FishDuck, wrote on his popular fan site last December after back-to-back losses to Oregon State and Cal. “Unless things dramatically change, I do not believe Cristobal can take us to the promised land.”
Perhaps he’ll be proven right or wrong this fall.
Cristobal signed a six-year, $27.3 million contract just days after Fischer’s screed. This season, he will lead a team comprised almost entirely of his own recruits, led by star defensive end and projected top-three draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebacker Noah Sewell (the 2020 Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Pac-12), veteran running back tandem Travis Dye and CJ Verdell and standout defensive backs Mykael Wright and Verone McKinley III. The longtime offensive line coach’s impact is evident in a likely starting five where the “smallest” guy is 6 feet 4, 305 — which is bigger than all but one starting O-lineman from the Ducks’ 2014 team that reached the national title game.
“What you put on the film, that’s who you are,” said Oregon offensive line coach Alex Mirabal, a friend of Cristobal’s since they were freshman teammates at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School. “We’re a physical, passionate, relentless program, and I think you could also describe Coach Cristobal as a physical, passionate, relentless human being.”
Cristobal’s work ethic does not go unnoticed by his team. “He shows up at 4:30 (a.m.). He leaves at like 8 o’clock (p.m.) every day,” Thibodeaux said. “He barely has time for his own family because he does so much for the Oregon family. I feel like that’s exemplified in the team.”
Oregon has transformed from a program that reached two national championship games with largely under-the-radar recruits to one that now ranks 12th in the country in Bud Elliott’s Blue Chip Ratio, a testament to Cristobal’s ability as a recruiter. His 2022 class, currently ranked 12th in the 247Sports Composite, includes a five-star tackle from Texas (Kelvin Banks) and four-stars from Alabama (quarterback Tanner Bailey and linebacker TJ Dudley) and Arkansas (wide receiver Isaiah Sategna).
All of which feeds a common perception that Cristobal is a better recruiter than he is a head coach.
“I don’t get the whole, ‘Is Cristobal a good coach?’ thing,” said former Oregon and NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, now an analyst for FOX Sports and Sirius XM. “He takes over a (7-6) team and goes 9-4, then in Year 2, he wins the Rose Bowl. Last year was a weird COVID season — four of his best players opted out before the season — so excuse me if I’m not holding that against his record. He’s going to end up signing four straight (top-12) classes.
“And you’re telling me he’s not a good coach?”
Some remain hung up on questionable in-game decisions in the Ducks’ only two losses in 2019, against Auburn (by six) and Arizona State (by three). Others wonder why he did not have an heir apparent at quarterback to succeed Herbert, forcing the Ducks to rely this season on an oft-injured sixth-year grad transfer, Anthony Brown.
But at least part of Cristobal’s mixed reputation is likely a product of his unusual career trajectory.