The ink was barely dry on Rob Mullens' new contract to become Oregon's athletic director when he faced what perhaps will be considered the most important task of his tenure, even a decade down the road: Make football coach Chip Kelly happy.
It was the summer of 2010, and there was a general feeling among the pooh-bahs of Oregon sports -- most notably Nike founder Phil Knight and millionaire former AD Pat Kilkenny -- that Kelly sticking around for the long term in Eugene was the best chance for the football program to experience long-term success, a condition that keeps a department with an $80 million budget afloat.
So within 48 hours of his hiring, Mullens -- who was hired away from Kentucky in large part because of his skills with dollars and sense (no cents involved here) -- was on the phone with Kelly's agent working on a new contract.
The endgame was a six-year deal worth $20.5 million. Kelly made $2.4 million last year. He's making $2.8 million this year and will make $3.5 million the next. In 2014 and 2015, he'll pocket $4 million, which is roughly what the nation's highest-paid coaches made this year.
"People can look at the numbers and say it's high, but it fits within the marketplace," Mullens said. "It fits with the results. We have the person we want at the helm of our football program."
No other team in the nation is riding a streak of three consecutive BCS bowl games. That's a big reason Oregon merchandising sales went up from $1.5 million in 2007 -- the year Kelly left New Hampshire to become the Ducks' offensive coordinator -- to $2.25 million in 2010.
While it's difficult to quantify the entire picture financially, Mullens points out that the unprecedented success Kelly has produced over the past three years has more than paid for his big-dollar contract, mostly notably in exposure and increased donations. That revenue flow has been particularly important in a tough economy that has many athletic programs struggling, including many in the Pac-12.
Or at least it did. When the conference signed a $3 billion, 12-year TV contract with ESPN and Fox, athletic directors across the Pac-12 leaped into the air and clicked their heels. They also started to spend that money. Some on new coaches.
Sure, Kelly will make $3.5 million next year. But new UCLA coach Jim Mora, with no college coaching experience, will pocket $2.4 million. Washington State will pay Mike Leach $2.25 million.
In a lot of ways, Kelly's compensation pencils out pretty well for Oregon on the cash-for-accomplishment curve.
"It pays [for Oregon] because, one, he's a great coach," Mullens said. "Two, he's a perfect fit. That combination, you can never guarantee that. He has delivered the results."
In addition, Oregon is paying extra for stability. When the school committed to Kelly with SEC-like money, Kelly also committed to Oregon. His buyout dropped from $4 million last year to $3.75 million this year, but that number is almost prohibitive for even the richest athletic departments. In 2015-16, it will be $2 million, which is still pretty large by industry standards.
What does that buyout mean? Well, it means Kelly doesn't have wandering eyeballs. Further, it mutes all but the most uninformed rumor mills: Despite chatter to the contrary, Mullens said he has not been contacted this year by any college or NFL team that wanted to talk to Kelly about a job.
Further -- as Ken Goe of The Oregonian pointed out when there were rumors in December 2010 that Florida might come after Kelly after Urban Meyer resigned -- Kelly's contract has clauses that will make it a pain in the rear for a team to pursue him.
And a clause in the contract stipulates that Kelly must give Oregon 15 days' written notice before leaving, and further stipulates that he cannot leave during the regular season or before a postseason bowl game in which Oregon is a participant.
The sum total of all this suggests that Kelly wants to remain in Eugene, and Oregon wants him to stick around. There are no guarantees, of course, but the feeling at the administrative level -- and among key boosters -- is that Kelly is the right guy at the nexus of an athletic department that has ambitious, expansionist visions for itself.
No FBS athletic program thrives without football success, and Kelly's presence provides a sense of security for Oregon's cash cow. And as of today, it appears the marriage remains strong.