Rob Mullens isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Oregon’s athletic director was appointed as the chairman of the College Football Playoff last week after serving on the 13-member selection committee the past two years.
Mullens is comfortable with the process and accepting of the responsibility that comes with the high-profile position.
Being cross-examined live on ESPN after the committee’s rankings are released each Tuesday during the second half of the 2018 season is something Mullens will have to prepare himself for.
“No, I’m not ready for that part,” Mullens said with a smile. “There will be some work there. And that is obviously a big shift from being a committee member to being in the chair is that public facing piece, the Tuesday night rapid fire questions, and then all the other media obligations.”
Rationalizing the subtle differences between the No. 4 and 5 teams in the country shouldn’t be too difficult compared to the substantial challenges Mullens has faced at Oregon over the past 14 months.
During a recent interview with The Register-Guard, Mullens reflected on the eventful period, which included firing a head football coach, conducting two subsequent coaching searches in a calendar year, facing NCAA infractions in four athletic department programs and addressing the issue of rising coaching salaries and costs amid the widening revenue distribution gap between the Pac-12 and the SEC and Big Ten.
“Whirlwind is a good word. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Mullens said. “Yeah, it’s been very busy. There haven’t been very many nights or weekends off. So it’s been intense, it has been a whirlwind, but fortunately we have a lot of great people, incredible fan support, incredible donor support, incredible administrative support on campus.
“It’s tough, but I’m excited about where we are today.”
A dizzying ride on the coaching carousel
Mullens made the difficult decision to part company with Coos Bay native Mark Helfrich and his tenured staff after the Ducks finished the 2016 football season with a 4-8 record.
Oregon, led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, had won the Pac-12, defeated defending national champion Florida State in a national semifinal at the Rose Bowl and appeared in the inaugural College Football Playoff title game during the 2014 season, which earned Helfrich a contract extension.
Mullens’ hiring of energetic young head coach Willie Taggart, coupled with the addition of several highly regarded veteran assistants, gave the program a boost in recruiting and on the scoreboard. The Ducks finished the 2017 regular season 7-5, including a 6-1 record when Justin Herbert started at quarterback.
But a year after Taggart swag-surfed his way into Eugene from South Florida, the first outside head coaching hire for Oregon’s football program in 40 years was packing his bags again for Florida State.
Mario Cristobal was promoted from co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach to head coach by Mullens two days after Taggart’s “clumsy” exit for another dream job.
After two strikes, Mullens needs this to be a home-run hire.
“It is stressful, highly stressful,” Mullens said. “We made a lot of progress in a year in changing the culture, in generating buzz and interest. We had a great start and a strong finish in the last two games. It was disappointing.
“But you play the cards you’re dealt, and when those dominoes did fall and the decisions were made, we were prepared to move forward to make sure we were doing what was right for the University of Oregon.”
Oregon settled Helfrich’s $11.6 million buyout with an $8.1 million lump-sum payment last spring. He was hired as the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator earlier this month after spending last season working as an analyst for Fox Sports 1.
Florida State, which gave Taggart a six-year deal with a $5 million annual base salary, will pay Oregon the $3 million buyout the coach owes for leaving before January, plus nearly $1.4 million of his South Florida buyout.
Cristobal agreed to a five-year contract that pays him $2.5 million annually and includes a buyout of $10 million if he leaves before January 2019.
The savings helped Oregon retain defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and other key assistants with lucrative extensions.
“Obviously we’ve had to pull from a lot of different areas to make that happen, but we think about that before we make those decisions,” Mullens said of the financial costs of firing Helfrich, hiring Taggart and increasing the salary pool for assistants. “So that was part of the decision-making process. We did have the means to do it and we felt it was going to be more costly for us not to do it.
“It’s not money you like to spend that way, but at the end of the day you feel like it’s necessary and you make that decision.”
Players lobbied for Cristobal to get the job during an emotional 48 hours inside the Hatfield-Dowling Complex. Mullens took the sentiment into consideration but said it was not the main factor in deciding to elevate the respected former Alabama assistant head coach to replace Taggart.
In Cristobal’s debut on Dec. 16 at the Las Vegas Bowl, Oregon was outplayed by Boise State during a 38-28 loss, but the program’s momentum on the recruiting trail has been restored and the Ducks should take another significant step forward next season with Herbert leading the offense and Leavitt building a strong defense.
Other Taggart assistants sticking around are defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, safeties coach Keith Heyward and wide receivers coach Michael Johnson.
Cristobal has hired running backs coach Jim Mastro from Washington State and outside linebackers coach Donte Williams from Nebraska, as well as strength coach Aaron Feld from Georgia. There are still three more full-time assistants positions to fill.
“Obviously it was incredibly important for us to keep coach Leavitt, coach Salave’a, coach Heyward, coach Arroyo, coach Johnson,” Mullens said. “Those were all critical pieces to the success during the year. We’re fortunate to still have those pieces.
“But it’s year one of coach Cristobal’s leadership.”
Oregon is still in the process of responding to the notice of allegations from the NCAA the university received in December relating to self-reported infractions that took place in the football, track and field, and men’s and women’s basketball programs.
The university has taken responsibility for the actions involving staff members but disagrees with the NCAA’s assessment that the violations represent a “significant breach of conduct.”
Oregon plans to defend Dana Altman, who led the Ducks to the men’s Final Four for the first time in 78 years, and Kelly Graves, who led the women to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight for the first time.
The NCAA deemed that both coaches did not foster an atmosphere of compliance by allowing other staff members to participate in on-court activities, which caused Oregon to exceed the limit for coaches.
“You never want to be in this situation, first and foremost,” Mullens said. “We value the integrity of the program. The fact that we discovered the infractions, we reported them and followed all protocol, and really were able to get to an agreement on the facts. The disagreement came on the penalties that were leveled.
“That’s why we’re going to go through the process and we’re going to respond, then we’ll go appear before the (NCAA) committee (on infractions).”
Compared to the FBI’s investigation into collegiate coaches paying players, which included the indictment of assistants at Arizona and USC on bribery and other charges, Oregon’s missteps seem trivial. The athletic department is still facing Level II violations, the second-most severe on the NCAA’s scale of justice.
“The NCAA enforcement staff has a difficult job,” Mullens said. “Every case is unique. I understand. As frustrated as we might be, we know they have a difficult job.
“We’re following the process. The process does allow us this opportunity to make our case, and we’re going to go make it.”
If Cristobal gets the Ducks back in contention for a Pac-12 championship, the Mullens-led committee will have to hear the case for Oregon being included in the playoff.
Mullens knows the 2018 nonconference schedule — which includes Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose — could be a sticking point. Those teams were a combined 4-32 last season.
Oregon was supposed to play Texas A&M next season, but the Aggies backed out of a home-and-home series. Mullens typically schedules one FCS, Group of Five and Power Five team on the nonconference slate.
“So that deviates from the formula that we’ve had,” Mullens said. “We would loved to have had Texas A&M on the schedule. At that late date, we had one option and that option was San Jose State for this year. Fortunately, for 2019 we were able to get Auburn in Dallas, which will be a big help to the strength of schedule.
“All we can do is win every game that’s in front of us and let the chips fall where they may.”
Typically, playing nine conference games at the Power Five level adds a lot of muscle to a schedule, even after devouring three September cupcakes.
But the Pac-12 set a postseason record for futility, finishing 1-8 in bowl games last season. The conference was also excluded from the playoff for the second time in three years.
“The Pac-12, we had a strong rise through the TV deal,” Mullens said. “There was a significant investment in coaches, a significant investment in facilities. And why it wasn’t the bowl season we wanted in the Pac-12, I think the foundation is there.”
Four other programs will also recalibrate with Arizona (Kevin Sumlin), Arizona State (Herm Edwards), Oregon State (Jonathan Smith) and UCLA (Chip Kelly) all hiring new coaches.
Kelly compiled a 46-7 record (33-3 in conference) during four seasons at Oregon before leaving for the NFL. The Bruins visit Autzen Stadium on Nov. 3.
“Chip’s an outstanding football coach, no question, and we appreciate everything he did at the University of Oregon in elevating our program,” Mullens said. “It’s great to have him in the Pac-12. Look forward to competing against him because he’s a great football coach.”
After the realignment frenzy in 2011, which led to the Pac-10 adding Colorado and Utah, the conference did benefit financially from a new media rights deal. However, the SEC and Big Ten negotiated even better television contracts and are distributing significantly more money to member schools than the other conferences, including the Pac-12 and its struggling in-house network.
Two SEC teams, Alabama and Georgia, played for the national championship this month. The Big Ten finished 7-1 in bowl games, including a 4-0 record against the Pac-12.
“For us at Oregon, resources are a part of the game. We understand where we are,” Mullens said. “Would we like to have additional resources? Yes. So would every program. But we’ve shown that we can allocate our resources, we can create the structure and the systems that allow us to be efficient with our resources. And we’ve been able to compete, box above our weight class if you will, with what we have.
“We’ll continue to do everything we can to generate the resources that will allow us to meet the lofty expectations that we have.”
The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act by Congress could further complicate the issue. The bill includes bringing an end to tax deductions on charitable donations related to tickets.
“There’s a lot of conversation in our industry about the impact that it’s going to have, and it’s to be determined,” Mullens said. “We’ve done a lot of communication with our donor base. It’s probably too early to measure the impact, but we do expect that it will have some impact.”
Mullens, whose contract at Oregon runs through 2024, will continue to make behind-the-scenes decisions that impact the athletic department for the foreseeable future. Starting in October he will also be in the glare of the spotlight as the new face of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“Big shoes to fill, but quite an honor and a real privilege,” Mullens said. “It’s a once in a lifetime career opportunity.”