Is Oregon a 'genius' program?

May, 5, 2011
5/05/11
12:36
PM ET
The Wall Street Journal wonders if it's time to induct coach Chip Kelly and his Oregon Ducks into the "Hall of Geniuses."

In a potentially related item: Thousands of heads spontaneously exploded throughout Seattle and Corvallis.

The gist of the story is that, "Every now and then in sports, some team will come up with a better way," and that Oregon's high-tempo, spread-option attack is a "better way" in large part because it doesn't rely on A-list talent.

[+] EnlargeOregon's Chip Kelly
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesChip Kelly has built a reputation for fielding an elite team without having a lot of elite talent.
But before you Duck-haters out there spew all over your computers, consider that the WSJ article doesn't compare Oregon to sports dynasties such as the Celtics, Lakers, Steelers or even Pete Carroll's USC Trojans. Instead:

Think "Total Football"—the free-flowing brand of soccer that the Dutch club team Ajax perfected in the 1970s; or the warp-speed Loyola Marymount basketball program of two decades ago, which still holds the single-season Division I scoring record (122.4 points per game); or the University of Houston football team, whose innovative run 'n' shoot passing attack allowed it to score 95 points in a single game.


Dutch soccer, Loyola Marymount hoops and Houston Cougars football: My guess is Oregon fans aren't popping champagne over those comparisons.

Still, it's an interesting take. After touring the Pac-12 over the past few years, I can say this: Oregon has replaced USC as the most interesting place to observe practice.

During the glory days under Carroll, Trojans practices were like the circus: Famous people -- Snoop Dogg! Will Ferrell! The Terminator II Terminator! -- watching future NFL stars. Practices were boisterous, with lots of hitting and spectacular athleticism.

Now it's Oregon, though for far different reasons. Oregon plays fast in games but they practice faster. Crisp undersells it. It's finely tuned mayhem and it's often fun to watch. Last spring, Kelly made a point in a team meeting that while other coaches across the country were complaining about bad practices, the Ducks never had a bad practice. That runs counter to old-school coaching psychology of mostly withholding praise as a motivational tactic.

From the WSJ article:

This team's recent accomplishments have been well noted. Using a warp-speed offense that operates 34% more quickly than most conventional teams, Oregon averaged 47 points and 531 yards per game last season, both No. 1 nationally, and has won 20 of its past 21 games in the Pac-10 conference. Though Oregon lost to Auburn in the BCS national championship game, it recently received another kind of validation that's typical of genius teams: that it has done what it has without superior talent. During the NFL's recent seven-round draft, only one Oregon player was selected.


Of course, several Ducks who will start next season are NFL prospects, starting with running back LaMichael James and tight end David Paulson. Still, most see Oregon as being a sum of its parts rather than a gathering of individual stars.

The article quotes several coaches who admitted that "solving" Oregon is a high priority.

"We can't just wait until the week of the game to get our defense prepared for that tempo," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. He said the Huskies will do more no-huddle work in practice to learn how to compete when fatigued. He said he'll shuffle the lineup earlier to keep players fresher. "We have to get to that level in order to compete with them," he said.


Still, here's a guess that Kelly isn't interested in being a part of this so-called "Hall of Geniuses." Why?

Historically, the life cycle of "genius" teams is often short. [UCLA coach Rick] Neuheisel points out that previous college-football innovations like the triple option, the run 'n' shoot and the West Coast offense, all have been cracked. The famed "46" defense popularized by the 1985 Chicago Bears, with its emphasis on pressuring quarterbacks, was eventually killed off by the quick, short passing of the West Coast offense.


What's the big takeaway from the story? That Oregon's best bet for retaining its elite position is retaining Kelly, who has made a quick ascent up the ladder of "best coaches in college football."

Whether he's a genius or not.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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