The faces behind Oregon's flashiness

EUGENE, Ore. -- A bevy of orange-clad folks ambled through the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex at Oregon last week. Some gaped; some smirked; and a few let "Are you kidding me?" slip out, revealing a distinctive Tennessee twang. They all seemed duly impressed with Oregon's new football palace, a 145,000-square-foot facility that seems more like something designed for the Four Seasons in Silicon Valley or a luxurious Wynn property on the Las Vegas strip than for a crew of 100 or so sweaty 18- to 23-year-old young men and their coaches.

The visitors saw a lobby with 64 55-inch TVs and a sound system developed in Finland; rugs handwoven in Nepal; a huge weight room with Brazilian ipe wood flooring; a custom-made, 35-foot-long, black walnut table made in Germany in the main coaches meeting room; rooms that grant entry with biometric thumbprint scanners; a players' lounge with motion-activated doors and foosball tables custom made in Spain; a media room that has Nike pigskin leather on its walls; a shower tiled in Italian white marble with black urinals imported from Turkey; and meeting room chairs upholstered with the same leather used by Ferrari.

The building is flashy and excessive, built and paid for at a conservatively estimated cost of $68 million by Ducks booster No. 1, Nike co-founder Phil Knight. It perfectly exemplifies what Oregon football is about.

Then on Saturday, Volunteers fans ambled into Autzen Stadium and watched their team get a whipping that was even worse than projected. The final score of 59-14 could have been much worse if the Ducks' starters had played the fourth quarter.

The victory was flashy and excessive, built and paid for by a collection of speedy, disciplined athletes and smart coaches with sound schemes on both sides of the ball. And it perfectly exemplified what Oregon football is about.

Oregon is a program that, since the early 1990s, has risen from mediocre to good to elite. Tennessee has gone the opposite way. The Vols won the 1998 national championship and were the nation's fifth-winningest program 1993-2002. In that same span, Oregon ranked 15th.

Oregon ranks ninth in winning percentage over the past 10 years and third over the past five.

The Ducks have risen despite a stadium that seats just 54,000. The Vols have fallen with one that seats more than 102,000.

The difference between the schools' current state of affairs can't be attributed to money. The Tennessee football program had $55 million in revenue last year. The Ducks made $52 million. Forbes rated the Vols the nation's ninth-most valuable program. Oregon was 15th.

Facilities aren't the answer, either. Tennessee has great facilities, starting with one of the game's great game-day venues: Neyland Stadium. In fact, Tennessee just opened its own football palace, the Anderson Training Center, which is pretty darn impressive.

So, what is it? What has allowed Oregon to become an elite program despite owning the smallest stadium of any team that has played in the BCS national title game? And what is it doing to maintain its lofty perch?

The easy answer is people. Oregon has picked capable people to administer, coach and play for its football team.

"We have a lot of shiny stuff, but the people inside those buildings are what make it go," new head coach Mark Helfrich said.

Start with coaches. It's the most important characteristic of a program that plays at a consistently high level.

Consider Oregon's past four coaches: Rich Brooks (1977-94), Mike Bellotti (1995-2008), Chip Kelly (2009-12) and Helfrich (present).

Brooks took over a moribund program and struggled for many years but eventually led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl after the 1994 season. He left for the St. Louis Rams, and Bellotti, Brooks' offensive coordinator, took over. He went 116-55 and took his teams to 12 bowl games. He led the Ducks to a 10-3 season in 2008, then handed off to Kelly, his offensive coordinator.

Kelly, of course, won at an unprecedented rate -- 46-7 in four seasons -- and coached in four BCS bowls, including the 2010 national title game. He left for the Philadelphia Eagles, handing off to Helfrich, his offensive coordinator.

Yes, it sounds like a formula.

In each case, the new head coach knew the program well, which eased transitions.

College coaching, of course, is about far more the X's and O's. It's as much or more about the Jimmys and Joes, as defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, one of four assistant coaches with more than 20 years experience coaching for the Ducks often says.

Oregon wanted to find that same edge in recruiting, something that would set it apart from other then-Pac-10 teams, particularly powers USC and Washington, so it embraced the facilities arms race in college football. Starting in 1988, Oregon added a three-story sky-suite complex to Autzen Stadium. Then the Casanova Center, a glass-fronted building that went for a modern look in a sport that nationally trended toward traditional, was constructed in 1991.

In 1998, Oregon opened the Ed Moshofsky Sports Center, the West Coast's first indoor practice facility. In 2002, Autzen Stadium received a $90 million renovation that added 12,000 seats and 32 luxury boxes. In 2010, the John E. Jaqua Academic Center was opened. And, of course, the sparkly Hatfield-Dowlin Complex debuted this year.

Knight, whose estimated net worth of $16.3 billion, which ranks him 56th in the world, has served as the primary sugar daddy on Oregon's athletic projects. He and his wife, Penny, have donated more than $300 million to Oregon over the past two decades. Most of that money has gone toward athletics, although the law school, library and 27 endowed professorships also exist because of his generosity.

The notable serendipity for the Ducks is not just that Knight, who ran track at Oregon, is the 24th-richest person in the U.S and likes giving money to his alma mater. It's how he made his money: sports apparel.

"We are the University of Nike," Jeff Hawkins, the senior associate athletic director of football operations, told The New York Times. "We embrace it. We tell that to our recruits."

Knight's money and the athletic department's close relationship with Nike have allowed Oregon to evolve into a national brand unlike any other in college sports. Other colleges that register as national brands are rooted in their longstanding football traditions -- Penn State's simple uniforms, Traveler at USC, etc. -- but the Ducks are all about being cutting edge, whether that's facilities or uniforms or style of play. Oregon's football tradition is not what was but "what's next?"

Often lost in the perception of weirdness and ostentation, though, is the functionality. Sure, the Ducks' uniforms offer strange color combinations, but there's a lot of science in their construction, which is intended to maximize performance.

Same can be said of the new football complex. Although the finishes and materials are opulent, the design goal was pretty straightforward: Let's design the best possible football building, one in which every detail is intended to streamline efficiency.

An example: The defensive offices are located on the fifth floor. The offensive offices are on the fourth floor. The main team meeting room is designed to allow each group to enter from its own floor, thereby saving perhaps one or two minutes of players crowding through a single door.

"It fits with our brand and who we are," athletic director Rob Mullens said. "We are forward-thinking and innovative and everything about that building talks about innovation. Much is made about the finishes, which are very nice, but the functional technology is also a big 'wow' factor in helping people to learn and do their job and function at their highest level."

Although great football facilities officially function to create and maintain a great team, most will tell you the egg comes before the chicken in this case. Facilities are about recruiting. During Oregon's rise, the Ducks' coaching staffs have consistently recruited and developed talent that fits what they are trying to do. Yet although the Ducks' recruiting classes consistently have been ranked in the nation's top 25 in the past decade, they've not cracked the top 10.

That's the next step, one Oregon wants to take without getting into trouble with the NCAA. That brings us to crisis management, which has been another Oregon strength the past 20 years.

The most obvious recent example was the recruiting imbroglio with street agent Willie Lyles. Many thought Kelly and the Ducks were busted, paying Lyles for his influence with recruits. But Mullens & Co. reacted quickly, hiring law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King and attorney Michael Glazier to represent the school's interests. They mounted a spirited defense, and the eventual penalties amounted to a wrist slap.

That's perhaps tops among many potential crises that have been averted or overcome. As notable over the long term, however, is that there have been three coaching transitions that worked out well. That's not easy to do; just ask Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, USC and Michigan, to name a few traditional powers.

In 2007, highly respected athletic director Bill Moos stepped down, and it was a poorly kept secret he was at loggerheads on a variety of issues with Knight. After the 2008 season, Bellotti surprised many when he abruptly resigned as coach and agreed to become athletic director -- an ill-fated move -- clearing the way for Kelly to be promoted.

The general feeling was Knight and others around the program recognized Kelly's talents and didn't want to risk losing him to another school, particularly when Bellotti had already broached the subject of his retirement. It's fair to say a tough decision was made.

"It was clear to Mike and it was clear to me that Chip was a really special person and we wanted him to stay at Oregon," said Oregon booster and former athletic director Pat Kilkenny, who replaced Moos and was followed by Bellotti.

"Chip wanted to be a head coach, and, from a timing perspective, we felt we had to go pretty quickly. It seemed like all the parties were satisfied at the end of the day."

Things worked out well for the Ducks under Kelly. It's not unreasonable to look at the awkward transition from Bellotti, undoubtedly a good coach, to Kelly as an example of athletic department management showing a willingness to make a tough but strategic decision.

Next came the hiring of Helfrich. Who was the originating force behind that?

"First and foremost, Chip Kelly," Kilkenny said. "He said Helfrich was ready to go. He had great conviction about Mark being able to take the job."

So what's next? A national championship would be nice, the final hurdle for the program. But in terms of administrative issues, the potential expansion of Autzen Stadium is going to be on the table. The teams at the top of college football, the elite programs in terms of revenue and resources, average about 85,000 seats in their stadiums. "Do the math," Mullens said. "That's 31,000 seats times seven Saturdays times ticket price times donation."

There will be no rushing in, however. Kilkenny, for one, is skeptical. The school is proud of being a "hard" ticket (See: 91 consecutive sellouts). Before any expansion takes place, there will be feasibility studies to see how many seats should be added and what the mix of premium and non-premium seats should be to best generate future revenue.

Mullens said Oregon is "not there yet" with expansion plans.

But don't go to sleep on Oregon. With all the fancy-pants buildings, outrageous uniforms, aggressive branding and, yes, wins on the football field, a few things seem certain: Change will come, it will be loud and it will come quickly.