The Story Behind Oregon's High-Powered Offense – Bleacher Report
In 1988, the University of New Hampshire held a football clinic, and 35 high school coaches showed up. Thirty-four went to a session on the designs of Jack Bicknell Jr., the Wildcats defensive line coach. He was well known in New England as a player at Boston College and was the son of BC’s iconic head coach, Jack Bicknell Sr.
That left one man, a 25-year-old high school coach, attending the session on offense. He stood at a blackboard for several hours with New Hampshire offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, 31, and discussed the concoctions of Crowton’s spread offense passing game. It was just the two of them, Crowton said.
That was the day Crowton became friends with that revved-up young coach, Chip Kelly.
“I remember the first time I met Chip at that clinic in New Hampshire, and we talked and talked, and I was thinking, ‘Man, this guy is a really good coach,'” Crowton said.
If you want to find the headwaters of the exhilarating Oregon offense you will see Monday night in the national championship game, that clinic for high school football coaches in Durham, New Hampshire, 27 years ago is a good place to start.
Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti, the winningest coach in school history, decided in 2005 to install the spread offense, but Crowton’s and Kelly’s hands are all over the 2014 “Blur”…
…along with the hands of, among others, Bellotti, Rich Rodriguez, Randy Walker, Urban Meyer, Dennis Dixon, Alex Smith, John Hevesy, Steve Greatwood and, of course, current Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Blur started with Crowton’s spread passing game 10 years ago and evolved into a scheme with a quarterback as a dual threat. And it got faster and faster and faster.
“Oh, yeah, sure I will,” Crowton said when asked if he will recognize some of the plays Oregon will use against Ohio State. “We put them in 10 years ago. They have done a lot with it since then, but sure, I’ll see some of the same stuff from 2005.”
After Crowton left New Hampshire in 1990, he became the quarterbacks coach at Boston College. Then he was off to be co-offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. He and Kelly, who had joined the Wildcats staff, stayed in touch talking offensive theory.
When Crowton became the offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 1995, he got liberal with formations: three wide receivers to one side or two wideouts to each side, an assortment of screens and other formations and line splits that spread out the defense. Crowton had “10 thoughts” on running the spread, which ranged from a quick game to beat leverage, to curls across the board, to motion and meshes to beat man coverage.
In 1998, when Crowton was head coach, Louisiana Tech put 569 yards on defending national champion Nebraska, and Crowton flew up the charts as “the hot” coach in the game. The Chicago Bears hired him in 1999 to be their offensive coordinator.
The spread passing game was showing up in the late 1980s in NAIA small college football thanks to coach Hal Mumme, who took it to the University of Kentucky in 1996, but it was still considered too unorthodox to sink deep into NCAA play. Mumme and Crowton, among others, changed that.
Kelly and Crowton kept up their relationship, but Kelly also started visiting with Walker, the head coach at Northwestern, and Rodriguez, the offensive coordinator at Clemson. Crowton was a wizard with the pass, and Kelly was building a knowledge base on the run game, specifically using the quarterback as a dual threat with the zone-read option.
After two seasons in the NFL, Crowton became the head coach in 2001 at BYU in his native Utah. In his first season, the Cougars were 12-2 and had the most points per game (46) and yards per game (542) in Division I.
It went downhill from there. Crowton had three losing seasons and was fired in 2004.
Bellotti, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, felt the West Coast offense had gone stale, and he wanted to catch the wave of the next explosive offense. Think in more recent terms: Nick Saban hiring Lane Kiffin at Alabama. Bellotti saw Crowton’s work at BYU and hired him. The two of them installed Crowton’s spread passing game.
It was January 2005. The spread had touched down in Oregon.
Bellotti sent his coaches to study Walker and Northwestern’s run game. Walker had picked up parts of the scheme from Rodriguez.
Crowton and Greatwood went to see Meyer, who was at Florida, and Meyer’s offensive line coach, Hevesy. While head coach at Utah, Meyer and quarterback Smith drubbed Crowton in his last game as BYU coach.
The spread passing game and zone-read option were married for the 2005 season with help from Walker, Rich Rod, Meyer and Hevesy. Oregon went 10-2. The only regular-season loss was to powerhouse Southern California, which was ranked No. 1. The Ducks averaged 34 points a game, up from 25 in 2004.
It is true that when Kelly arrived at Oregon in 2007, he slicked up the spread and it became “The Blur” offense. But before it was called the Blur, it was called “Fuji” in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Bellotti said Fuji was an acronym—he wouldn’t say for what—but it basically meant, “Spot the ball, and get out of the way.”
“We would run Fuji three days a week, and we would get 14 to 16 plays every five minutes,” Bellotti said. “My defensive coaches kept saying, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not fair’. I told them ‘It may not be fair, but I think we can do it.'”
Crowton coached quarterback Dixon as a sophomore and junior, but it was in 2007, as a senior under Bellotti and Kelly, that Dixon bloomed in the spread, as the Ducks beat Michigan and zoomed as high as No. 2 in the polls. He was named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.
Oregon had become a national power.
LSU pirated Crowton away with a $400,000 offer to be offensive coordinator for the 2007 season. Crowton said Bellotti tried to keep him, but the allure of the SEC and the money was too much. The Tigers won the national title in 2007 with Crowton as OC and set numerous school records for offense. He was nicknamed “The Wizard.”
The door was opened at Oregon for another wizard, Kelly. Still an assistant coach at New Hampshire, he had come to Eugene in the spring of 2006 to scope out the offense and met with Crowton and offensive line coach Greatwood. When Crowton left, he and Greatwood recommended Kelly as a replacement OC.
After the 2008 season, Bellotti retired, and Kelly became Oregon’s head coach. In 2010, Kelly had the Ducks in the national championship game, where they lost to Auburn. Now, here the Ducks are on the doorstep again.
Crowton, 57, who is originally from Orem, Utah, is now the offensive coordinator at Southern Utah. Bellotti is a television analyst. Kelly is the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Crowton and Bellotti will watch Oregon vs. Ohio State in the national championship game and see some of their handiwork in the first College Football Playoff title game. Head coach Mark Helfrich might put the finishing touches on a masterpiece, but Bellotti, Crowton and Kelly applied the first strokes.
Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.