TEMPE, Ariz. — About a year ago, Oregon faced the possibility of losing coach Mike Bellotti, the man most responsible for the football team's steady rise.
Southern California and Arizona State wanted him to take over their programs, but Bellotti agreed to a two-year contract extension that would keep him in Eugene through the 2007 season.
Then Ohio State called. For the first time since he arrived at Oregon, Bellotti interviewed for another job, but he declined before an offer could even be made. This fall, he twice withdrew his name from consideration at Notre Dame--once before George O'Leary was hired, and then again after O'Leary's resume fiasco.
Memo to big-time colleges, and even the NFL: Bellotti is happy in drizzly Eugene, and if he can keep restocking his staff with talented assistants, Oregon could become a regular on the national-title scene, instead of just a one-time visitor.
"I like where I live, and I like the people I work with," Bellotti said. "I think we're doing things the right way. And we can continue to build this thing and have the opportunity to win a national championship.
"I think there's still some unfinished business."
When he signed his extension, Bellotti appeared to be sacrificing his title dreams for the quiet of Eugene. But the second-ranked Ducks, who play No. 3 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, could earn a share of the national championship if No. 4 Nebraska beats top-ranked Miami in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.
Bellotti was the offensive coordinator under Rich Brooks for six years before Brooks left for the NFL following the Ducks' 1995 Rose Bowl appearance. In his seven years as head coach, Bellotti has a 59-23 record, and his team is the winningest in the Pac-10 over that span. The Ducks are playing in their sixth bowl game in seven years.
"I've said all along that I wanted to see Oregon become a destination and not a stepping stone, in regards to attracting and retaining good, quality coaches," athletic director Bill Moos said. "I think we're fast approaching the day when coaches at Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame ought to aspire to come to Oregon."
After winning a school-record 10 games last year, Oregon went 10-1 this year and won its first outright conference title since 1994. And the Ducks have kept improving despite constantly losing personnel.
Bellotti has had to replace eight assistants, including three following last season. Earlier this month, offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford was hired as Cal's new coach. When Oregon begins the 2002 season, it will have its sixth offensive coordinator in 14 years, counting Bellotti.
"I don't think you ever get used to it or comfortable with it," Bellotti said. "I don't look forward to it every year, but I think when you win consistently, people are going to come after me and/or my coaches, and I can handle that part."
Those who have worked for Bellotti praise his efforts to help them advance in the profession. They also marvel at the trust he shows, especially with the offense, his area of expertise.
"He lets us do our own thing, lets us be creative," Tedford said. "He's an offensive coach, so you would think that he'd want to meddle and call plays, but he doesn't. I know that takes a lot of discipline for him, not to blurt out plays he thinks we should run."
Bellotti, who has a wife and three children--two of whom play sports in high school--cautions his assistants to consider the quality of life issue before making a move. His situation is rare in major college coaching: He can live the way he wants and still run a topflight program.
"Mike really has something great going there," said Dirk Koetter, Bellotti's offensive coordinator in 1996 and 1997 and now coach at Arizona State. "To pick up and move and start all over again? The grass isn't always greener, and Mike knows that."
Bellotti is content, but he seemed to grow impatient with his job at the end of last season.
The Ducks were denied a trip to the Rose Bowl when they were soundly beaten by rival Oregon State, which came out of nowhere to go 11-1, including a Fiesta Bowl victory. And drawing top recruits to Eugene was as difficult as ever.
Then there was the money issue. Bellotti was only the sixth highest-paid coach in the Pac-10, a situation that Moos quickly remedied after USC came calling. Bellotti signed a contract worth nearly $1 million a year, including incentives, and it will be tweaked again after this season, to reflect the increased attendance from an expansion of Autzen Stadium. Next season, Bellotti will make up to $1.2 million, Moos said.
Unlike last winter, Bellotti didn't have a tough choice to make when the next enticing job opened up. After Bob Davie was fired at Notre Dame, people in Eugene weren't that concerned.
"This program is different than a lot around the country," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "Coach has helped build something that's more than just a football team. He's really helped instill a sense of family, and I believe him when he says that we are one of the top programs in the country and that everybody is shooting for us now.