On the anniversary of being hired as Oregon’s head football coach, Mario Cristobal received a big surprise on his phone.
“I can say I had a helluva a one-year treat,” Cristobal said after a recent bowl practice. “A friend of mine put me on FaceTime with The Undertaker. I’m a big wrestling fan, all those guys, and that made my day.
“Hopefully we can get, call him Mr. Undertaker, at some of our practices and be with our guys.”
A suitable professional wrestling-style nickname for Cristobal, at least one relevant to his current position, would be: The Stabilizer.
The Ducks have pulled out of the nose dive from the end of the Mark Helfrich era and recovered from the turbulence Willie Taggart’s abrupt departure created.
During Cristobal’s first regular season running the program, Oregon finished 8-4 with a win over Pac-12 champion Washington.
Last week Cristobal signed the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history.
The Ducks are hoping to continue the momentum through next Monday’s matchup with Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl and into the winter strength and conditioning program.
“What he’s done in the last year has been amazing,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said of Cristobal during a recent interview with The Register-Guard. “Of creating a culture, hiring a staff, building out the support staff and getting everybody on the same page.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in 365 days.”
Oregon finished 4-8 in 2016, which led to the dismissal of Helfrich and his tenured staff less than two years after Marcus Mariota won the Heisman and the team played in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game.
The Ducks were 7-5 under Taggart, who was introduced as Oregon’s coach on Dec. 7, 2016, and signed a six-year, $30 million contract to be Florida State’s coach on Dec. 5, 2017.
The Seminoles finished 5-7 in Taggart’s first season in Tallahassee, ending the nation’s longest bowl streak at 36 consecutive years.
After players signed a petition for Cristobal to be Oregon’s next coach, Mullens pulled the interim label from his title and signed him to a five-year contract with an annual salary of $2.5 million.
Cristobal was able to retain key assistants, including defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, and salvage the 2018 recruiting class.
Without a Las Vegas Bowl to simultaneously cram for this year, Cristobal and his staff were able to secure a top-five class, which included the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
“I love seeing how hard our staff is working, how passionate they are about Oregon football and how excited our fan base is about recruiting,” Mullens said. “All those elements get me excited as well.”
Oregon, which struggled with depth this season due to injuries and the attrition that comes with having three head coaches in as many seasons, expects to have a full roster loaded with more experience and talent in 2019.
If quarterback Justin Herbert decides to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, the Ducks could be the preseason Pac-12 favorites and the conference’s best bet to get back into the College Football Playoff picture after a two-year absence.
“All of the upperclassmen have had full trust and faith and stayed committed to the University of Oregon and Oregon football, which I appreciate so much that they stuck with us,” Mullens said. “You don’t sign up for that, you don’t anticipate that.
“The way that they’ve stayed on board, the way that they came together this past year … that group of juniors and seniors that have stuck it out, they deserve the rewards they are getting.”
Cristobal’s staff has remained intact during the coaching carousel so far. Mullens expects Leavitt, who was passed over for head coaching vacancies at Texas Tech, Colorado and Kansas State, to be returning for his third season running the Ducks’ defense.
Oregon opens the 2019 season against Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The road back to national prominence will includes trips to Stanford, Washington and USC during Pac-12 play.
“I think we laid a great foundation,” Mullens said of the Ducks’ performance during the 2018 season. “We had some really great moments. I think it was a solid foundation, I think the culture is set to really build upon it.”