Mario Cristobal’s day went something like this.
He spent Saturday morning on the practice field as Oregon prepared to face Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl. Around noon, he got a commitment from a recruit who would be the highest-rated prospect ever to sign with the Ducks. Just before 6 p.m., he made the walk from courtside at Matthew Knight Arena to his seat in Section 219, stopping to shake hands with every fan, student and usher who approached him.
Is that what you call winning the day?
You got the sense Cristobal could have levitated from the arena floor up to the nosebleed section, where the Oregon staff was entertaining a crowd of recruits before the early signing period starts Wednesday.
With the addition of defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruit by ESPN, Oregon is in line to sign a top-five class, which would be its highest ever. The Ducks still need to get his signature on a letter of intent, but Thibodeaux’s televised announcement made Cristobal bowl season’s biggest winner so far.
The lead story on ESPN.com was about Thibodeaux’s commitment. It quoted him saying: ““Mario Cristobal is a great guy. On my home visit, he really touched down. My mom loved him.”
That’s the kind of publicity money can’t buy. If Cristobal can’t take down Nick Saban on the field, beating his old boss for a five-star recruit is the next best thing.
If Thibodeaux follows through on his verbal pledge, he’ll become Oregon’s most significant recruit since the one who spent Saturday evening on the bench with a protective boot on his left foot. The Ducks basketball team beat Boise State 66-54, but it did so without the services of Bol Bol, who injured his foot in practice and will be out indefinitely.
"It's a lower leg injury," coach Dana Altman said. "We'll play it day by day."
Watching that game, I wondered what Altman could tell Cristobal about coaching a high-powered recruiting class. I suspect he’d say that no matter how much talent you have, coaching never gets easy.
After signing the highest-rated recruiting class in school history, Altman’s team is 7-3 with a loss to Texas Southern on its résumé. Oregon’s top two recruits, Bol and Louis King, have been on the floor together for a total of 17 minutes.
King missed the first seven games while recovering from a knee injury. Bol seems likely to miss at least a few more with an injured foot. Unless both are healthy, it’s hard to see the Ducks becoming the team everyone saw in the preseason, when they were picked to win the Pac-12.
“I think you guys can see the talent level of those two guys is special,” Altman said.
Oregon has had quite a bit of special talent passing through the concourses of Matthew Knight Arena lately. Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 4 women’s basketball recruit in the class of 2016 according to ESPN, was in the house Saturday night, waving a sign to fire up fans for Tuesday’s game against No. 5 Mississippi State.
All Ionescu has done at Oregon is win a Pac-12 title and help the Ducks make back-to-back Elite Eights. She’s hardly Oregon’s only threat, but if you want to see the impact one recruit can make, that’s a good place to start.
If you want to see what can go wrong, look at the Oregon men. I’m not writing them off, partly because of the league they play in. They’re going to win some games in the Pac-12, but making the NCAA Tournament will be an uphill climb if Bol misses significant time.
Watching Bol is worth the price of admission. He’s possibly the most unique talent to wear an Oregon basketball uniform. But while he was averaging 21 points and almost 10 rebounds, the Ducks were middling along without much direction.
I guess that goes to show that adding a great player doesn’t always transform a program. That’s especially true in football, where a top defensive player might impact, what, 20 plays per game?
When you look at players ranked No. 1 by one of the major recruiting services, you come across a lot of familiar names. Myles Garrett was a No. 1 recruit. So were Jadeveon Clowney, Adrian Peterson and Leonard Fournette.
So at the top end of the scale, Oregon could be getting a top-five NFL draft pick, maybe a future hall of famer. At minimum, Thibodeaux should be a guy who competes for a starting job right away, a talent unlike any the Ducks have had in recent years.
Seeing Cristobal in the stands with a top-10 recruiting class makes you think big things are coming for Oregon football. Then you look at Altman’s top-10 class on the floor and remember that nothing is guaranteed.
I’ll tell you, coaching never gets easy.