Here’s how it works on most college football teams: the offense has a captain. The defense has a captain. Ditto for special teams. They walk out for the coin toss every Saturday.
Like a lot of what passes for conventional wisdom in the sport, that’s not how it’s done at Oregon. Chip Kelly threw convention out the window somewhere between arriving in Eugene as an unheralded offensive coordinator from New Hampshire and taking the Ducks to consecutive Pac-10 championships.
So the Ducks don’t have three captains. They don’t have 10 captains. Let’s listen to Chip Kelly on leadership:
“We had 16 captains last year, and we’ll have 16 this year,” Kelly said. “We really have one at each position. I believe there is strength in numbers. We’re all allowed at our level to bring 105 players to camp. It’s tough to say just two kids are gonna lead them. We have a leader at each position, voted on by the players.
“Say the D-line kid is the captain of the team. What if there’s an issue in the secondary drills? He’s not even aware of it. We empower our guys. At some positions, where we have more than five or six players, they’ve got two. There’s three O-linemen, two D-linemen, two linebackers, two kids in the secondary. We kind of try to spread it out.”
On why he does it this way: “I don’t know. We just kind of fell into it. I think our guys last year did such a good job. We had gotten to the season, and we usually voted on captains. I said, ‘Why would we vote on captains if these 16 kids have done such a great job?’ Then I put it on them. I said, ‘I want you all to be captains. You can only send out four captains for the coin toss. Figure out which four you want to send out every game.’ They figured it out in three minutes. Now I said, ‘This group really works well together.’ The formula worked for us last year. We’ll continue to do it until we find a better way to do it.”
On his expectations of his leaders: “I meet with those guys, not long, but I meet with them once or twice a week just to get a feel for where everybody is and how this thing is supposed to look. You guys have got to uphold the standard of what we expect our players to do, and be the guys that get that stuff taken care of.
“They’re all willing participants. You just have to teach them. The biggest question you run into is, ‘Well, I’m not a vocal guy.’ You don’t have to be a vocal guy. But you have to do things the right way. You can lead by example.
“At times, [as a coach] you can orchestrate things where you can force those kids to speak. They have to be vocal. … If you’re not going to say it, who is going to say it? Sometimes, that excuse of, ‘Well, I’m not a vocal guy,’ is your excuse of being selfish. To be a leader, you have to serve. You have to be able to get outside your comfort zone. You don’t like getting in front of the group and talking. That’s what this team needs. Are you willing to do that to get us to compete in the vision we have for this football program?’
“The unique thing with it is they’ve all kind of blossomed. You don’t force it on one kid to be that guy every day to carry the flag. It’s really a shared leadership group. I’ve watched them all grow, which is good. How they work together is indicative of how our team works together. They’ve been really, really good. That’s one thing about our team: Our team is really, really close.”