On August 6th, ESPN released their college football announcing assignments for the upcoming 2012 football season. Mike Bellotti was nowhere to be found. Two years after getting fired as athletic director at Oregon, and just over three years since getting pushed out as football coach, Mike Bellotti is out of his broadcasting position, and seemingly out of public life. A swift, difficult and sad fall for one of college football’s former leading men.
Mike Bellotti’s began his coaching career in 1973, throwing balls to receivers on the JV2 team at UC Davis. Bellotti bounced around the D2 and D3 ranks for the next ten years, with stops coaching offense at Cal State Hayward, Weber State, and back at Cal State Hayward before being named the head coach of Chico State in 1984. In five years at Chico, Bellotti’s teams were, at best average. Bellotti had 21-25-2 record at Chico in 1988, the kind of uninspiring mark that stalls, and eventually ends, young aspiring football coaches’ careers. It’s probable that Bellotti would have silently been slipped out of the sport shortly thereafter in ’88, but Rich Brooks saved the young coach from football oblivion with his offer to head the offense of the slowly assenting Oregon Ducks.
In the four seasons Bellotti was head coach at Chico St., Rich Brooks’ Ducks were redefining mediocre, posting records of 6-5, 5-6, 5-6, and 6-5 from ’84’-’88. But Bellotti’s offense was a big reason the Ducks had the best season in the Brooks era in 1989. Oregon went 8-4, and made a bowl game for the first time since 1963. The Ducks followed that up with another 8-4 season in 1990, and after three nondescript years, Oregon exploded with a Pac-10 title and a trip to the 1994 Rose Bowl. Brooks, who was never going to get out of Eugene if he didn’t leave after the Rose Bowl year, leapt at the St. Louis Rams offer, and Oregon, not wanting to disturb the positive vibes of the Brooks era, promoted the in-house candidate, Bellotti, to head coach.
Rich Brooks had a losing record at Oregon. 91-109-4. He had seven winning seasons, two 500 seasons, and ten losing seasons. While it’s true that Brooks eventually dragged the Ducks out of the quagmire they had occupied in the years before he took over the program, Brooks didn’t turn the Ducks into a national power or even start that process, as history suggests. When Brooks left, the Ducks weren’t yet even a consistently respectable team. They were just one-time wonders in ’94, who would presumably go back to being at bottom of the Pac-10 soon enough. Mike Bellotti had a lot of work to do.
It was under Bellotti that the Ducks became a leading football program. It was known that Bellotti was a great offensive mind coming into the position, but his calm and consistency in guiding the Ducks on a steady path into the upper echelon of the sport was totally unexpected. In 14 seasons with the Ducks, Bellotti only missed a bowl game once. He had only one losing season – which he followed up with a 10-1 regular season mark the next year.
Oregon was infrequently brilliant under Bellotti as well: Oregon’s stellar 2001 Fiesta Bowl season jumps to mind, but so does the 10-1 2005 season with Kellen Clemens at quarterback, and the 2007 season in which Oregon would probably have played for the national championship had Dennis Dixon not been hurt. In fact, Bellotti’s last year at the helm – 2008, which was supposed to be a rebuilding year, finished with the Ducks at 10-3. Bellotti’s downfall was unearthing an out-of-this-world offensive coordinator from New Hampshire.
Maybe Mike Bellotti saw in Chip Kelly the same story he had when he was hired by Rich Brooks before him – small-time offensive guru itching for a shot to prove himself on the biggest stage. In any case, when Charles Kelly walked through the doors at the Casanova Center, Bellotti’s fate was sealed. Chip’s blazing attack took the Ducks offense to another level, and in 2008 he appeared to be the favorite for the Syracuse head coaching job. The Ducks didn’t want to lose this coaching star, and with Bellotti aging, a succession plan was quickly hashed out.
At the time, there were many succession plans in college football – Mack Brown and Will Muschamp at Texas, Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State to name a few – but in those cases, the head coach lasted until they wanted to retire, or were pushed out. Bowden was pushed out. So was Bellotti. In December the succession plan was announced. In March he was gone. Just at the peak of Syracuse’s interest in Kelly. Bellotti was 57, in good health, and in charge of a program on the rise. With USC going down that year, Oregon was poised to take over the Pac-10. Bellotti knew it, and there was no way he would have stepped aside then. Not three months after saying he would leave in his own good time. After 14 impressive years, Bellotti was moved upstairs to the athletic director position, a spot he knew nothing about, and no way of succeeding.
There have been a few football coaches turned athletic directors that have had success, but not many. Football coaches just aren’t equipped to run major athletic departments. After nine months in Bellotti’s case, that was abundantly clear. He was moved aside, with a nice severance package, to another job he was unequipped for: broadcasting. Bellotti was pretty bad in the booth, doing 9:00AM games on ESPN2, a dead-spot for an announcer. You got the feeling that Bellotti didn’t like the work, and now, he’s done with media as well. No college programs will hire a 61-year-old. And so, Bellotti is done with football, and out of the public eye.
Mike Bellotti, the winningest coach in Oregon football history was fired twice by his school of 20 years. He was bulldozed by the Chip Kelly train – the right decision by the Ducks – and thrown out with the wash after less than a year as an athletic director. Rich Brooks got the field at Autzen Stadium named after him, and there will someday be a statue of Chip Kelly outside that field. For Mike Bellotti? Nothing. Bellotti certainly had flaws as a coach – his teams were inconsistent in-game, and he didn’t have the chops of some in his profession – but he doesn’t deserve the fate he’s been handed.
In Chip Kelly’s first game as Oregon coach, that dreadful night on the Smurf-turf in Boise, Mike Bellotti, the new athletic director, was pacing the sideline, just as a coach would. He had taken off his jacket, he had forgotten his position, and he wasn’t even trying to fight back his urge to coach the team on the field. Bellotti went too soon. Bellotti was one of the first in college football to put in the spread offense that allowed him to tab his eventual successor in Chip Kelly, and he laid the groundwork for Oregon to become a national power. He was a good guy. He served his school well. Now he’s gone. It’s tough to not feel sad about that.