To turn around defense, Oregon Ducks entrust Brady Hoke to use experience … – OregonLive.com
To understand why Oregon coach Mark Helfrich hired former Michigan coach Brady Hoke as his defensive coordinator is, in part, to travel back 26 years to the campus of the Ducks’ biggest rival, Oregon State.
In December 1990, new Beavers football boss Jerry Pettibone had just begun getting situated in Corvallis when he surveyed the staffers left behind from predecessor Dave Kragthorpe’s six years. Plenty of candidates could have replaced every single one of them. Only three were retained.
Of them, one was a young, former Ball State linebacker with a deep knowledge of the defensive line and whose enthusiasm and sincerity — at one point he admitted that he treasured Oregon State but his dream job was Michigan — won over Pettibone and suggested it might just win over a few recruits, too.
That was Brady Hoke during his career’s ascent, a path that eventually led to spending 12 years as a head coach at Ball State, San Diego State and Michigan.
“He did a great job for us,” Pettibone said Saturday, the same day Oregon announced the hiring of Hoke to replace Don Pellum as defensive coordinator. “Not only did Brady coach the defensive line and do a great job, he was one of the best recruiters that we had. People can sense his character level and his sincerity.”
As Oregon’s 12-day search for a coordinator came to an end similar conversations between Helfrich and Hoke, 57, sealed his hiring as a chance to wipe the slate clean for both a coach coming off a yearlong “sabbatical” following his firing in Ann Arbor and a defense licking its wounds after allowing a school-record 37.5 points per game.
“First of all (he) is our type of person,” Helfrich said. “Family guy; he’s a great guy, he’s fun to be around, guys love to play for him, which again plays into the recruiting part of it. Passionate about great defense, about details about communication. … Some guys talk about details but they can’t define details.”
Details for Oregon moving forward include that Ron Aiken will continue to coach the defensive line, Pellum the linebackers and John Neal the secondary in the spring as Hoke installs his defense. Though Helfrich said Oregon’s defensive miscues in 2015 required “a wholesale type change” in scheme and communication, the plan is for Hoke to work with existing position coaches; however, Helfrich left open the possibility that changes in responsibilities could be juggled later.
Hoke is expected to be cleared by the end of the holiday weekend to hit the recruiting trail, less than three weeks before national signing day on Feb. 3. On the road he’ll join fellow UO newcomer David Yost, who will coach quarterbacks. Helfrich called Yost and Hoke “unbelievable recruiters,” whose track record includes, for Hoke, signing two Rivals-rated top-seven classes at Michigan and, for Yost, landing former national No. 1 recruit Dorial Green-Beckham while at Missouri.
But what also factored heavily into their hirings was their experience above their current pay grades. Though each expressed a desire to “come to a place where they were kind of right in their groove” with streamlined roles — for Yost, it’s developing quarterbacks; for Hoke, it’s drilling into a brand-new 4-3 defense — each new hire has experience that Helfrich termed “invaluable.”
Prior to coaching inside receivers at Washington State the past three seasons, Yost was a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Missouri. At Oregon, he’ll assist with newly promoted offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, who had never called plays before the Alamo Bowl. Hoke’s head coaching experience was especially attractive for Helfrich as he navigates the exit of a 9-4 season, his third in charge at UO.
“I’m lucky,” Helfrich said. “Coach (Mike) Bellotti has been awesome to me, Rich Brooks has been awesome to me, Chip (Kelly) has been great to me. I think I have a few friends of that ilk who have been here (as a head coach) but to have that guy there on a daily basis will be big.”
By adding coaches who have little overlap with his current staffers, Helfrich bucked the trend of promoting from within — an Oregon point of pride — to bring in outside voices to the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. Prior to the search process, Helfrich knew of Hoke and Yost only in passing.
“Mark can lean on (Hoke),” Pettibone said, “and he’ll be a good counselor whenever he’s asked his opinion.”
Hoke was not the first candidate atop Helfrich’s wish list. Like Pettibone before him, Helfrich sought options, which reportedly included pursuing Clancy Pendergast (now with USC), Pete Kwiatkowski (still with Washington) and Mike Nolan (an Oregon grad who resigned this week with the San Diego Chargers) before tapping Hoke to succeed Pellum, who remains on staff as linebackers coach after two inconsistent years calling the defensive shots.
A former Ducks linebacker and UO assistant for 23 years, Pellum was demoted Jan. 4, two days after Oregon’s 47-41 Alamo Bowl loss to TCU, though Helfrich acknowledged he was considering reassigning Pellum before the bowl devolved from a 31-0 halftime lead into a microcosm of the fall as minor miscues beget big plays.
“We’re in the get-better business,” Helfrich said. “We just felt as a program and I just felt as the leader of that program that was the direction we needed to go as far as a different voice, a different command over that unit. DP has handled this incredibly well and is a guy, as I said before, is part of the solution.”
Oregon finished 115th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision defenses in points allowed, and the challenge of engineering a turnaround of that scale should feel familiar for Hoke. Though he hasn’t held the title of coordinator since 1982, when he ran the defense at an Indiana high school, Hoke has never given up a strong role with defenses. In 2011, his first of four seasons as Michigan head coach, the Wolverines improved from 107th in scoring defense to sixth and won 11 games, which earned Hoke national coach of the year honors from the Maxwell Club. The next three seasons saw Michigan rank 19th, 66th and 27th in that category, before he was fired in December 2014 after a 31-20 record.
“He was intimately involved in every defense when he was the head coach including being the de facto defensive coordinator many years,” Helfrich said. “We’re going to install the defense in a way that we want Brady to be able to move around and make sure it’s exactly how we want it. And secondly, be able to evaluate the talent on our roster and what our needs are going forward.”
Pettibone saw Hoke do that type of evaluation firsthand while at Oregon State as the holdovers on the defensive staff shifted on the fly from a 4-3 into a shape-shifting philosophy that was “unconventional” in its variety of looks.
“When you’re a defensive coach you understand different styles of defense that fit the personnel you have,” Pettibone said. “Whatever he does at Oregon, it’ll fit the talent of the players.”
The former OSU coach never regretted keeping Hoke. In fact, he believed Hoke deserved a chance to move on to bigger and better things and in 1995, helped Hoke land an assistant coaching spot at his dream school, Michigan. After asking Pettibone permission to speak with Hoke, then-Wolverines coach Gary Moeller followed up.
Is he a good football coach?
“I said, ‘No, Gary.’ He said, ‘What?'” Pettibone said. “”He’s not a good football coach. He’s a great football coach.'”
And now the Ducks find out whether he can mold a great defense.
— Andrew Greif