It’s no secret that Jim Leavitt wanted to be a head coach, and that he wanted to be Oregon’s head coach after Willie Taggart left for Florida State in 2017.
Instead, Oregon’s players rallied their support behind Mario Cristobal. Leavitt swallowed his pride and remained as Oregon’s defensive coordinator, enticed by a new contract that made him the highest-paid assistant coach in the Pac-12 at $1.7 million per year.
The arrangement was awkward from the start. Leavitt’s salary and experience put him on almost equal footing with Cristobal, but Cristobal made it clear he wasn’t interested in having a co-head coach.
“In this business and every industry, there’s one head coach and one CEO,” Cristobal said last spring.
As Cristobal’s first season unfolded, Leavitt was virtually cropped out of the family picture. The Ducks promoted Keith Heyward and Joe Salave’a as co-defensive coordinators, even though they already had one of the highest-paid coordinators in the country.
> Related: Oregon will pay up to $2.5 million to part company with Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt
Leavitt rarely spoke to the media and seldom showed up with the rest of the staff on recruiting visits. Even his quirky Twitter presence seemed oddly muted.
So it wasn’t a surprise when word surfaced Wednesday that Leavitt was moving on as Oregon’s defensive coordinator. My sense is that Cristobal gave Leavitt every opportunity to land a head coaching job and, when that didn’t happen, decided to pull the plug on a strained relationship.
If this was Cristobal’s call, it could end up being one of the most consequential of his tenure at Oregon. Leavitt was eccentric and a bit maniacal, but anyone who watched Oregon’s defense under Don Pellum and Brady Hoke can attest to the improvement that occurred on his watch.
Oregon’s defense wasn’t quite championship-caliber, and you could argue the Ducks underachieved by finishing 55th in total defense this past season. But they ended the year on a high note by holding Michigan State without a touchdown in the Redbox Bowl, and they're set to add some talented pieces for 2019.
I’m not sure it’s a great reflection on either guy that they couldn’t find a way to make things work. Oregon announced a settlement Thursday worth up to $2.5 million, about half of what Leavitt was owed for the remaining three years on his contract. That's a steep price to do something they could have done for free last year by letting Leavitt walk and installing Heyward as their defensive coordinator.
At the time Leavitt signed that contract, Oregon was reeling from Taggart’s departure and trying to salvage momentum in any way possible. On the face of it, promoting Cristobal wasn’t a splashy hire. But coupled with Leavitt’s return, Oregon could sell the package deal as a reason to be confident about the future.
Even if Cristobal had reservations, he wasn’t in a position to argue. Oregon was offering him the opportunity of a lifetime. A year later, after a nine-win season and a top-10 recruiting class, Cristobal has more clout to shape his staff as he sees fit.
This feels like Cristobal’s move all the way. When I spoke to athletic director Rob Mullens several weeks ago, he seemed satisfied with what Oregon was getting from its $1.7 million investment. But he also acknowledged that Cristobal would be the one to decide whether the arrangement was working.
“It’s the head coach’s decision,” Mullens said before the Redbox Bowl. “We’ve seen our defense absolutely contribute to an 8-4 year. Jim’s done a nice job. They’re so focused on recruiting and bowl prep, but yes, I think we’re set with both Mario and Jim.”
I get the sense Cristobal cashed in some capital to make this happen. If he’s right, and Heyward takes Oregon’s defense to another level, no one will hold this against him. But if the Ducks dip even a little bit, people will shake their heads and wonder why two millionaires couldn’t coexist in the same building.
I’m sure Cristobal had his reasons for wanting to go in a different direction. They may be good reasons. Remember Mark Helfrich’s revolving door at defensive coordinator? That shows you how important it is to have the right guy in that job.
So if this change allows the Ducks to move forward in a unified direction, it could be the right one. The fear is that it makes Oregon’s staff a little more insular, a little more resistant to the outside ideas that will help the Ducks ascend to the next level.
Cristobal has obvious strengths as a recruiter and a leader of men. But he strikes me as a coach who needs to surround himself with the right people, assistants who can help him with his blind spots.
Was Leavitt one of those people? Maybe not. Maybe the two were oil and water. Maybe Leavitt’s open desire to be a head coach become a distraction. Maybe Cristobal felt Leavitt’s Pepsi-guzzling persona was overshadowing the team.
All I know is, Oregon promised Leavitt a lot of money to stay as a defensive coordinator, only to cut ties with him a year later. For better or for worse, this is Cristobal's show and the buck stops with him.
There’s only one head coach. It’s never been more apparent than it is today.