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BILL DWYRE

Mike Bellotti walks away but stays at Oregon

He goes from coaching to the athletic director job on his own timetable, after hand-picking his successor to lead the football team. 'There are more headaches but less stress' in new post, he says.

December 29, 2009|Bill Dwyre
  • Mike Bellotti, now the Oregon athletic director, is the winningest coach in Ducks history with a record of 116-55.
Mike Bellotti, now the Oregon athletic director, is the winningest coach… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)

An ongoing side story to Oregon's appearance in Friday's Rose Bowl is watching whether the ultimate Duck sinks or swims.

Mike Bellotti is Oregon football. Has been since 1995. There were 116 wins to his credit as coach and only 55 losses. Nobody in Oregon football history won that much, not even Rich Brooks, the previous ultimate Duck.

Bellotti's Ducks were in 12 bowl games in his 14 seasons and won six, including the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. They were jobbed out of a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game that 2001 season -- golly, does that happen? -- and ended up 11-1 and No. 2 in the rankings.

None of those dozen bowl appearances were in Pasadena, however, which makes for an interesting dynamic when Bellotti walks onto the Rose Bowl turf Friday. This could be all about him, but it is not. The players in green will be his players, all acquired on his watch and by his standards, but they are now on consignment to somebody else.

"I'll go down for a while," Bellotti says, "but then I'll eventually head back upstairs. I'll be on TV [for the Oregon Sports Network]. That's been a salvation for me. That way I don't just sit and stress."

Not that many years ago, Bellotti was the most coveted coach in the nation. At one time or another, he was sought by USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, the San Francisco 49ers and others. Now, he has traded the whistle for the boardroom. He is athletic director at Oregon and Chip Kelly is the coach.

Make that, Chip Kelly is his coach. That fact is central to this story.

Three years ago, Bellotti identified Kelly as a great addition to his coaching staff. Soon, he identified him as the future of Oregon football. A year ago, he made it official, with the school's blessing, announcing that Kelly was the head coach in waiting, and indicating a timetable that would have him handing over the clipboard in a year or two.

Then, a few months later, March 13 to be exact, he called his players and assistants together and told them he was moving out and Kelly was moving in. He would continue to watch, but from a distance.

"About a 9-iron away," he likes to say.

Bellotti's departure and Kelly's ascension is the kind of situation that prompts skepticism and assumptions. Nobody gives up something as plum as the football job at Oregon without at least a nudge or twist of the arm.

None of the above, Bellotti says.

"I was allowed to do this on my own, to walk away on my own," he says. "It was just five or six months of evolution. I kept seeing things in Chip that kept telling me I wanted him to be our next coach."

Nor, Bellotti says, was there pressure to step aside before another school stole Kelly.

"We talked about it," Bellotti says. "It was all on the table. Chip said he'd wait, that he wanted to be the coach at Oregon."

Much quicker than expected, Kelly was.

"There was no trip to a mountaintop, no single moment when it just hit me," Bellotti says. "I just knew."

Now, at age 59, Bellotti will attempt to know more. About himself.

He says the minute he walked away it felt "like a 1,000-pound anvil had been lifted off my shoulders." He also says he expects it to take about two years to "find out if you can live without it."

"I miss it now Friday through Sunday. I don't miss it Monday through Thursday."

Bellotti oversees 19 varsity sports. His life, once piles of helmets and pads, is now piles of paper. The bullhorn has become a memo pad.

"There are more headaches," Bellotti says, "but less stress."

The Ducks' football season started with the ultimate headache. In Kelly's first game, Oregon went to Boise State, played a lousy game against a good team, got beat and suffered the well-documented moment when running back LeGarrette Blount sucker-punched a smack-talking Boise State player after the game.

"My first game as AD, I'm watching from a suite with the new school president," Bellotti says. "I see a disturbance near where Chip was meeting the Boise State coach, but I don't know what it is. Then, they show it on the big screen -- they must have run that clip 20 to 30 times -- and I'm feeling totally helpless. I'm six stories away, and all I want to do is get on the elevator, get down to the field and do what a coach does in those situations. Physically separate people. Restore order."

Over time, Bellotti and Kelly combined to restore order. Blount was suspended and did not play until the regular-season finale against Oregon State. The Ducks got better each week, running Kelly's multiple-threat spread offense.

Now, Oregon is in the Rose Bowl, and Bellotti says he will walk onto the field Friday with no regrets.

"When you walk out there as an AD, it's not as much rush as when you walk out as a coach," Bellotti says, "but knowing that you made the decision yourself means you have no resentment."

Win or lose against Ohio State, he will have presided over a successful first football season as AD. Soon, his life will be filled with basketballs and high jump pits and alums with checkbooks.

During his self-imposed, two-year trial period, he will face many rainy days. The best guess is he will treat them like water off his back.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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