EUGENE, Ore. -- The Oregon coaches' offices on the fourth floor of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, the House that Nike Built, are laid out in the typical fashion of the football Taj Mahals. When you walk into the lobby, you go down one hallway for the offensive coaches' offices. You go down another hallway to find the defensive coaches.
Head coach Mark Helfrich is in an expansive, light-filled office at the end of the offensive hallway. Brady Hoke, the new defensive coordinator, is in the second office off the lobby on the opposite side. He is not in the big office at the end of his hallway. That remains occupied by his predecessor, Don Pellum, because Pellum is still on the Oregon staff.
What makes the arrival of Hoke at the corner of Duck and Swoosh so compelling is not the 4-3 scheme he will coach on the field. It's who he will coach with.
Last season, Pellum's second as defensive coordinator, the Ducks finished in 115th or worse in the FBS in six defensive categories. Hoke is charged with fixing a defense that allowed more than 40 points six times last season and never gave up fewer than 20. Even an offense as prolific as Oregon's could not make up for that deficiency. The Ducks finished 9-4, their worst record in nine years. They finished the season by blowing a 31-0 halftime lead against TCU in the Valero Alamo Bowl and losing 47-41 in three overtimes.
Three days later, Helfrich announced that Pellum no longer would be defensive coordinator. But he didn't fire him.
As spring practice began Monday, Pellum embarked on his 24th season as a Ducks assistant, and his 33rd year in the program as a player, administrator, or coach. In an era when schools give head coaches three years to be good or be gone; in an era when coaching loyalty extends as far as a paycheck, Oregon and Pellum executed a change without checking their values at the door.
Helfrich retained a friend and colleague even as he took away his executive responsibility. Pellum swallowed his ego and, as all good defenders do, left the last play behind.
"You could look at it two ways," Pellum said. "You can say the mission is about me, have it be all about the self. Or the mission is what we preach every day to the kids. What is the mission? The mission is Oregon football. That's the mission. From that perspective, I'm not a big ego buff. I think, 'How do we continue to evolve Oregon football?'"
Helfrich wanted a cohesive defensive philosophy instead of what he described as a "hodgepodge of systems" that had been used of late. The Ducks have been in a 3-4 pretty much since the advent of the uptempo spread at the end of the past decade. But Helfrich didn't want to make the statement of sending away Pellum, one of three Oregon assistants who have been on the staff at least 20 seasons. In Pellum's time at Oregon, the program has evolved from Pac-10 backwater to Pac-12, and national, power.
"I thought, 'He's part of the solution,'" Helfrich said. "He's part of what built this place, and he's part of the solution."
Helfrich thought that, but he didn't know how Pellum would react to the news. As Helfrich approached the meeting, butterflies began flapping around his gut.
"It's just an odd situation," Helfrich said. "You go through all those emotions, you know. You're going into a game, you're thinking about two hundred different scenarios, a thousand different scenarios that might happen. Going into these situations, it's probably similar."
Pellum has a big personality. He is known for dressing off the field with every bit of the flash that his players wear on the field. He long has been considered a good recruiter. On a recent day in his office, none of that flash is evident. His quiet tone doesn't reflect the optimism of his words. He is being asked questions about not succeeding.
"The word gets thrown around: 'demoted,'" Pellum said, "and 'demoted' has kind of a negative connotation to some people. But the reality is a reassignment. Reassignment is not a setback. It's a setup to do something great. People lose sight of that but that's what it is."
We live in a world of me, of self-aggrandizement, of peacocking. We flex our biceps after moving the chains, we make a three-pointer and zing an invisible arrow into the opponent's breast, puncturing old-world rules of engagement.
Pellum, feet planted in the old world, absorbed the blow and kept going.
"We talk to those kids that dark days are coming," Pellum said. "It's not always going to go your way. You've got to be prepared. It's not a storm. It's just a little rain. Things are going to be fine. You have to get going. That's where we are. We're full speed ahead, man. Full speed ahead."
"The word gets thrown around: 'demoted,' and 'demoted' has kind of a negative connotation to some people. But the reality is a reassignment. Reassignment is not a setback. It's a setup to do something great. People lose sight of that but that's what it is."Oregon coach Don Pellum
Helfrich, the relief evident in his voice, described it emerging from "the other end of the rapids, together, in the same raft." But he still had to hire a defensive coordinator. Helfrich got significant help in reeling in Hoke from the guy whom Hoke would replace.
Don't forget, Helfrich tried to recruit a defensive coordinator during the homestretch of recruiting season. He and Pellum went out on the road for a three-day road trip to see recruits that took them from California to Texas to Arizona to Alabama to Ohio, all the while talking to and about Hoke.
"That could have been the worst 48 to 72 hours ever," Helfrich said, laughing. "And it was awesome. I'm on the phone talking to somebody. He's on the phone talking to a coach or a prospect about how great Brady Hoke is with total passion, total conviction. ... We're flying together, driving together, we were together for three or four days straight."
If you think about it, Pellum had to be part of the recruitment of Hoke. What coach in his right mind is going to join a staff where his predecessor, an institution at the school, is going to be working for him after getting a demotion? Who needs that?
It turns out Hoke and Pellum have a relationship that dates back 25 years, when Hoke coached at Oregon State and Pellum at Oregon. The campuses are separated by 48 miles and generations of disdain. But coaches are coaches, hired guns and not fans, and young coaches find each other. Sometimes it was for lunch or a beer. Sometimes it was in the bar of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott during recruiting season. Always it was to talk shop and let off steam.
When Pellum phoned Hoke in January, they spoke for 45 minutes.
"When he called," Hoke said, "I had an inkling his mind was settled, he was in a good place with it. ... It speaks volumes of who he is."
Hoke lost 40 pounds in his year of coaching exile. He is also shorn of the burden that weighed him down as the walls in Michigan closed around him. Helfrich met him recruiting the West Coast years ago. Last season, he appeared on Hoke's Sirius/XM radio show every week.
"I thought he was really hungry to get back in college football, maybe not necessarily as a head coach," Helfrich said. "I've heard so many stories about these guys, whether it was Gene Chizik (former Auburn head coach, now defensive coordinator at North Carolina) or some of these other guys that have gotten back in. You don't have to worry about this other stuff. They're just -- " he paused, looking for the right word before he settled on the one right in front of him -- "coachin'."
To hear Hoke describe it, the defensive philosophy that Helfrich chose will feel familiar to him.
"Our goal is to be explosive," Hoke said. "Everybody talks about the explosiveness of the Oregon offense. There's no reason we can't do the same from the defense. We want to put pressure on the guys who handle the ball. Two guys handle the ball every snap -- the center, and the quarterback."
Hoke will spend the spring working a little with each position group, and then he will decide which one he wants to coach in the fall. When the Ducks open against UC-Davis on Sept. 3, the defense will have a new look, a new coordinator -- and a very familiar face. Don Pellum will be back for another season.