From interns to assistants, Oregon Ducks rely on football coaching continuity – OregonLive.com
SAN ANTONIO — Matt Noyer wasn’t the type of college underclassman who drifted through his classes. He knew where he wanted to be early on: a college athletic department.
The only thing standing in his way was that he had no clue about how it would happen.
His only connection to UO’s Casanova Center upon arriving as an Oregon freshman in 2007 was living in the same dormitory as dozens of the school’s freshman athletes. Nor did he have a defined career path in mind. Administration? Coaching? At the time, it didn’t matter. What did was getting as close to the action as possible.
Noyer soon found himself at Autzen Stadium, all right — spending a summer internship pressure washing the concrete and weeding the berm surrounding the home of the Ducks.
“All I needed was a crack just to get my foot in the door,” Noyer said. “And from there, it was up to me to widen that door.”
Eight years later on Saturday afternoon in San Antonio, Noyer will walk through an Alamodome door leading into the Oregon Ducks‘ coaching booth prior to the Alamo Bowl against No. 11 TCU. Joining him will be Shawn Young, a fellow UO football intern whose path to becoming a trusted aide of coach Mark Helfrich and his assistants took an uncommon detour through the school’s equipment room, a place where up-and-coming coaches rarely emerge.
“Sometimes I step back and think, ‘Wow, this is something not many people have done,'” he said.
Interns since 2013, both Noyer and Young downplay their roles with UO’s quarterbacks, and defensive line and special teams, respectively, as mostly unglamorous and unworthy of a spotlight.
Yet their circuitous routes stand as the latest example of Oregon’s penchant to promote from within. And Noyer and Young are not alone. From support staffers to key graduate assistants Joe Bernardi and Nate Costa, Oregon’s football program is filled with familiar faces who have been moved into progressively larger roles.
“This is the best support staff I’ve ever been around,” receivers coach Matt Lubick said. “And I’ve coached at eight different schools.”
But such continuity has been dogged by criticism in recent seasons, with Oregon’s defense under second-year coordinator Don Pellum, a former UO linebacker and longtime assistant promoted after the 2013 season, a particular target. Coaches defend the practice, saying it carries “more value than the public really realizes,” said Tom Osborne, a tight ends and special teams coach whose 15 years at UO make him only the fourth longest-tenured full-time assistant.
Behind such long-standing veterans as Steve Greatwood, John Neal, Gary Campbell and Osborne is the next wave of coaches who took roads less traveled into the heart one of the country’s most high-profile programs.
“I go to these coaching conventions and a lot of people ask me, because I represent Oregon, ‘How did you get there?'” Young said. “I tell them, you’re not going to believe if I tell you.”
• • •
Interns in college football are like those in the private sector: Low-level staffers who do the grunt work assigned by their higher-paid co-workers. Make a good enough impression, and someone might hire you. But unlike a college intern, Noyer and Young’s posts have lasted longer than a summer. Unlike graduate assistants — a post seen as one rung higher than an intern — who can stay for three years, intern tenures aren’t capped.
Yet each time an intern job comes open at Oregon, the Ducks are deluged by hundreds of applicants. Had Young and Noyer not been at Oregon prior to their internship, it’s difficult to imagine their resumes would have stood out, which makes their current appointments — and the trust UO’s veteran coaches have in them — all the more surreal.
“I wouldn’t tell you this is how you’re supposed to do it,” said Young, who works with the defensive line and special teams, and wears two headsets in the coaches’ box during games. “It’s been a journey, man.”
Both Young and Noyer had some football experience prior to joining the program, with Young playing receiver at Fresno State in 1998 and Noyer Beaverton High School as a freshman. And that’s where their credentials diverged from convention.
Young left his scholarship with the Bulldogs to attend a bible college, where he stayed for two years before becoming a missionary in Namibia. A chance invitation early in his stay led him to the Namibian Professional Rugby League, where he played all three years of his mission from 2001-04.
“I’d never played in my life,” said the soft-spoken Young, whose size cuts the profile of a linebacker.
Spiritually fulfilled but lacking direction in a career, Young got by at a financial firm upon his return to the U.S. but wasn’t passionate about the work. More discouragingly, he found himself at a dead end when employers “didn’t take my ministerial degree as a degree.”
At 28, he decided to go back to school, and his brother, Christian, a former UO football player and academic adviser, suggested Oregon. In 2008, he began classes and started his work as a student equipment manager, which provided a scholarship and a chance to rub shoulders with some UO coaches who’d recruited him out of high school. Five years later, he graduated with an economics degree, and a minor in business administration.
“Being around him and talking to him, it was like, ‘This guy is pretty sharp,'” Pellum said. “I tried to get him to get involved with coaching.” It took another intern, Carlos Polk, leaving for the NFL midway into fall camp in 2013 to finally push Young into the profession he never intended, however. Given such short notice to fill the job, Helfrich, then in his first year, asked for recommendations.
“Coach Helfrich asked me one day, ‘Hey, how do you think he would do?'” said football equipment manager Kenny Farr, who started himself as a UO student equipment manager. “I thought he’d be terrific. That’s proved to be true.”
• • •
Lubick, UO’s receivers coach, is an early riser and often is at the football building at 5 a.m. Often, he finds he’s not the first one in the door.
That would be Noyer, who has planted roots in the program by rarely leaving. There seems to be no weeding him out.
“I’m a fly on the wall,” he said.
As an undergraduate summer intern, Noyer constantly dropped by the office of former equipment manager Pat Conrad to learn and build rapport. That led to his hiring as a student manager, where he set up the practice field and made sure drills ran smoothly, a role he held for three years before graduating in 2012 with a degree in general social science. Then-coach Chip Kelly didn’t have a coaching job available at the time, so Noyer worked with the nutrition and recruiting staff for a year before being hired as a football intern.
But every big break takes a bit of luck, and Noyer’s came in the form of his freshman-year housing assignment, which placed him a few doors down in Barnhart Hall from former receiver Jeff Maehl, who was close with then-receivers coach Scott Frost. Maehl put in a good word with Frost, and Noyer, sensing a crack in the proverbial door, kept widening it by being an affable pest who never seemed to go away or stop asking for extra work on the weekends. And so started a close relationship between the former national-title winning quarterback from Nebraska and the novice who was “more of a baseball, basketball guy” in high school.
“Frost took me under his wing,” Noyer said.
Because he lacked much training in the game’s nuances, Noyer knew he had a big blind spot. He asked everyone for help. From Matt Harper, a former graduate assistant and UO safety, Noyer taught himself video editing software needed to make “cut-ups” of game and practice tape. From Lubick, he learned to identify coverages. From a term paper he chose to write on Helfrich, he learned efficiency, after peppering the then-offensive coordinator with questions about juggling time for friends and family with the demands of a high-stress job.
The work ethic, attention to detail and accountability ultimately were more important to Oregon’s staff than Noyer and Young’s nontraditional football pedigree. Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood calls them “football junkies.”
If coaches credit Noyer and Young’s promotions to their drive, the interns suggest it’s more a reflection of Oregon’s “culture” that dates to Mike Bellotti‘s promotion from play caller to head coach in 1995. The two head coaches who have followed Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich, also were in-house promotions. And it goes deeper: Farr, the football equipment manager, and Kyle Wiest, a director of football operations, are among the several who worked their way up the ladder.
“The biggest testament to all this stuff, I don’t care if it’s me, there are plenty of other people who could have this story written about them,” Noyer said. “The one thing that’s cool about this place is the opportunity is there for you, as far as it’s what you seize in the moment and seizing the opportunity.”
• • •
The theme of continuity looms over the Alamo Bowl with Helfrich facing questions regarding both coordinator positions.
Oregon’s defense will set a school record for points allowed per game, breaking a record set in 1977, the product of ranking lower than 100th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in six statistical categories. Those results have engendered persistent criticism during a 9-3 season.
“I understand it,” Pellum said, adding he doesn’t focus on it.
At several points this season, Helfrich has dismissed calls to shake up his staff, saying the responsibility starts with him.
But it’s an undoubtedly important moment for the third-year head coach who is still putting his stamp on the highly successful program he inherited.
“When you have consistency in coaching staffs, programs have a chance to get over those hurdles and those bumps in the road and try to sustain it,” Osborne said. “You’re not going to be perfect all the time, you’re going to have some rough years. But you’re going to be able in the long term to have some consistency.”
Coaches understand why the defense’s performance, in particular, has produced such strong feelings, even as they say they have learned to block outside noise, critical or otherwise.
But they also point toward the results for reasons why continuity has worked: UO has seven consecutive 10-win seasons and with a win, will match Alabama as the only team with eight since 2008. In that span, the Ducks played for two national championships.
“When a kid gets recruited here, he knows he’ll play for the same coach for five years,” Osborne said. “Because of that, when you have one guy playing for the same guy each time, that allows you to develop guys over time.”
Meanwhile, Oregon’s offensive coordinator job is vacant, and a quarterbacks coach position could be, too. Two of the most warmly regarded candidates for each job already are on staff in receivers coach Matt Lubick and Costa, a former UO quarterback who’s in the final weeks of his three-year stay as an offensive graduate assistant.
Costa, then, has seen both sides of the continuity debate. He grew up within a long-tenured coaching staff, but has been the beneficiary of those who’ve been hired from the outside in the past decade in Kelly, Helfrich, Frost and Lubick.
“We’re only going to do the things that benefit us, we’re not just going to do it because that’s the way it was,” he said. “I think if you get too much continuity, you do things because that’s the way it was.”
More important to Oregon than where a candidate hails, however, is whether he meshes with the staff already in place. Trust doesn’t require owning an undergraduate degree from Oregon, but has been carefully nurtured since the early 1980s, when Campbell — the longest-tenured assistant in the country — joined Rich Brooks’ staff. When UO coaches want to know how often an opponent uses a certain formation or coverage, they ask staffers such as Noyer and Young, who do what Helfrich called the “dirty work” of analyzing reams of video to identify tendencies.
“I know to a man the guys I go to work with every day, there’s nobody slacking,” Greatwood said. “Secondly, when we do have someone leave, like Scott (Frost) leaving to take the Central Florida job, there’s no panic. It’s like, OK, we’ve all done this, we’re all comfortable with each other, no one’s fighting over a difference in philosophy.”
Noyer and Young are the latest to fit right in by earning such trust, even if their roles would have been unexpected only a few years ago.
When watching old film, Ducks coaches can still spot Noyer working as a ballboy on the sideline and rib him accordingly.
He can laugh with them, because now he and Young share a seat at the same table.
“I used to go get the whistle,” Young said. “Now, I’m the one that has one.”
— Andrew Greif