Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oregonian: Vindication is the goal for Bellotti

(Thanks to Joseph for sending the link)

The unofficial policy inside the athletic department at the University of Oregon used to discourage any display of affection for former assistant Jeff Tedford.  There were to be no Tedford bobblehead dolls allowed on desks. No Tedford photographs on the walls. No Tedford-coached team magnet schedules.  If you wanted to talk about Tedford's coaching genius?  Best to whisper.  The minds and desks of support staff in Eugene were to be kept Tedford-free. Which is why one staffer was scolded by a cruising athletic-department enforcer a couple of years ago after she cut out a small newspaper piece about Tedford and taped it in an inconspicuous place on her cubicle wall.  The clipping came down.  I only bring this up because Oregon and California will meet Saturday in what is the most significant college football matchup in the country. And we all know the since-relaxed unofficial department policy failed to do the one thing that it was designed to do years ago -- make you stop talking and thinking about Tedford.  What?

You thought Cal-Oregon was just a football game?  Consider that Tedford, and not Mike Bellotti, received much of the credit for Oregon's national breakthrough in the Holiday Bowl and Fiesta Bowl victories. And that Tedford, then Bellotti's assistant, was given all the acclaim as the offensive brainchild who won big with Joey Harrington under center and whisked away to Berkeley, where he's built his own empire.  Also, consider that while Tedford has won loads of games, Oregon has struggled with inconsistency and had an embarrassing recruiting scandal in which it was penalized by the NCAA for breaking the rules while trying to steal a Cal recruit.   (Ducks insiders insist that Tedford turned in Oregon on that infraction, by the way.)  So, what do you suppose Saturday is really about to Bellotti?   Quieting the whispers among his own fan base. Proving to the country that he deserved all the accolades that went Tedford's way. Plain and simple, hanging on to his legacy. It's not that often that a person gets an opportunity to prove himself with so many watching, and Bellotti understands the stakes.  These guys are friends, sure. They like and respect each other. But insiders tell you there's some certifiable one-way jealousy here. Bellotti, who hasn't won a bowl game since Tedford left, finds himself getting too little of the credit for the success he had with Tedford on staff in Eugene. The envy was woefully transparent when Bellotti scrapped Tedford's offense, and took up the spread. By doing so, Bellotti is not-so-subtly suggesting that he's not only the man in charge in Eugene, but that he, not Tedford, is the real offensive genius.  He aims to prove it Saturday.

A game?  Sure. There's going to be a ball, goal posts, and 22 players on the field at Autzen Stadium. But what we're really seeing is Bellotti wrestling with his legacy. He's desperately attempting to protect that which he's lost the victories that defined his best seasons. To do so, Bellotti must understand that he has to beat Tedford with both programs highly ranked, both teams with capable playmakers, and the entire country watching.  Bellotti doesn't just want a victory Saturday.

He needs one.  Plenty will be made of the serial defections of current Ducks associate athletic director Jim Bartko from Eugene to Berkeley and back to Eugene. Tedford probably feels understandably jilted by Bartko. Maybe enough for this one to be termed by some, "The Backbiting Bowl." Even with Bartko back in Eugene, there's a cadre of support staff in Berkeley who bolted Oregon to follow Tedford. Things are so co-mingled here, that you should know, the enforcer who took down the newspaper clipping in Eugene now works for Tedford at Cal.  This game isn't about protecting turf, it's about preserving ego.  It's not enough that Bellotti has the longest tenure of any conference coach. Because Tedford is there, coaching Cal into the Top 10, reminding everyone that he's the real miracle worker. And that's the poetry in this meeting -- the teams are so capable, that for the first time it feels like we're going to find out which of these two coaches is better.

Anyone who has spent any time around Bellotti understands how important it is to him that he receive proper credit for success. The offensive coordinators who followed Tedford -- Andy Ludwig and Gary Crowton -- weren't allowed autonomy to do their jobs well. Bellotti began to act so insecurely that he didn't even allow the coordinators to consistently sit in the coaching sky box when they called the plays. He wanted them on the sideline, where he could meddle. And whenever you ask Bellotti who called which plays, his current and former assistants will tell you, Bellotti likes to take credit for the plays that work, while dishing the blame for the ones that don't.  Some of that is human nature, I suppose. In case you've ever sat watching an Oregon football game where the Ducks were winning, and everything was working, and suddenly, Bellotti inserted himself into the game by calling a trick play, or onside kicking, or changing quarterbacks, or doing something so strikingly absurd that you couldn't help notice him, well, maybe you understand now what that's all about.  It's not enough to win. Bellotti needs you to know that he's there, pulling the levers.  That is, if they win.


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