Mike Bellotti hangs up his headset
Mike Bellotti has been synonymous with University of Oregon football for well over a decade. If current Duck fans think of any plays that have defined the Ducks, he’s been a part of them.
Bellotti was on the sideline as offensive coordinator for Kenny Wheaton’s pick in 1994, was there as head coach in the 2000 Holiday Bowl when Joey Harrington caught a touchdown pass from Keenan Howry, and was there the next year when the Ducks finished second in the nation with a victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
A coach at Oregon since 1989, his record of 116-55 is third all-time for most wins in Pacific-10 Conference and best in Oregon history – but Bellotti is ready for a new challenge.
On July 1 he will take over the duties of Oregon athletic director and begin to captain an even bigger ship than the football team. He’s already been on the job since March to learn the ropes of the business, and the 58-year-old coach is finding out the Casanova Center is a little bit different than the confines of Autzen Stadium.
“Certainly I am more relaxed because I am between jobs. Right now I am more of a consultant,” Bellotti said. “Pat (Kilkenny) and I talk daily regarding the athletic department, but there’s a different stress level and set of problems that go with being the athletic director … I’ve been coaching for 36 years so I’ve been involved with the structure of athletics for a long time. It’s more learning the ins and outs of learning what we do from a business perspective here at Oregon. I’m actually fairly busy.”
Kilkenny said Bellotti has stayed busy in between.
“We’ve been doing a lot of ad hoc discussions depending on what the flavor of the week is,” current athletic director Pat Kilkenny said. “Then we’ve talked about things like people and personalities. And he’s a sponge. He’s a great listener. That’s one of his exceptional skills.”
This changing of the guard from Kilkenny to Bellotti will be a lot different than the one that happened three years ago when Kilkenny replaced then-AD Bill Moos. Three years ago Kilkenny was brought in to get Oregon set financially and push through some projects by attracting donors. Looking back, he’s helped make the department self-sufficient, brought back baseball and broken ground on the long-proposed and embattled Matthew Knight Arena.
But Kilkenny’s clock was always pre-set; there was an expiration date on when he would leave. With Bellotti coming in, the athletic department has its figurehead and respected member of the community who is here for the long haul.
“Mike is going to do a great job,” said Dan Williams, special assistant to the president and to the athletic director. Williams is the man who hired Bellotti as the head coach back in 1995 after Rich Brooks, then-head football coach and athletic director, left the University to coach the National Football League’s St. Louis Rams.
Williams served for 11 months as the interim athletic director and stayed on past his retirement a few years ago to be a special assistant.
“It’s a very good choice by the department,” he said. “He’s been here an extremely long time and he knows the workings of the athletic department and of the University.”
Co-workers and players alike cite Bellotti’s ability to get along with everybody as one of the reasons he will succeed in the pressure-packed position of athletic director. But Williams also says that the position Bellotti is leaving is more like his next position than most people realize.
“He will assume responsibility quite easily,” Williams said. “Football has the greatest demand for administration details. Also, there are similar qualities that are shared between coaches and athletic directors, such as leadership, integrity and a good knowledge of academics. Mike has all of this.”
Bellotti’s former players agree that he is a character guy. Quarterback Nate Costa recalls when the coach visited him and his family in Turlock, Calif., during recruitment.
“It was good for him to come down and talk to my parents and talk to them and answer their questions,” Costa said. “It meant a lot to me that he came down and visited my high school. He seemed like the prototypical old ball coach. He’s not that old, but he was that gray-haired dude that’s got that smooth demeanor. Calm, cool and collected and knows how to get things done.”
Costa says that “smooth demeanor” will help Bellotti deal with business, coaches and teams.
“He did a good job dispersing his time,” Costa said. “He had to be multi-faceted and he was experienced. I think he was so good at his job that he made it look easy. People would look at him and think he wasn’t doing anything, but he was so efficient that in reality he was.”
Not to say that there aren’t hurdles in his path. The University is in the middle of two construction projects, the basketball arena and finishing phase two of PK Park, and with the economy continuing to be a problem, staying out of debt is a constant task.
There’s also the issue of his pay. His salary of $650,000 is the highest among public universities in the Pac-10. The amount is still more than $1 million less than what he made as football coach, and Kilkenny says that for his expertise he should be paid on the higher end of what athletic directors make. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is the highest-paid AD in his field, making $965,000 each year of his 11-year contract.
All things considered, there are a lot of politics that come along with the job.
“The job is bigger than it was last year,” Williams said. “It’s a complicated job. There are a lot of commercialized challenges. Mike is going to be working in a very complicated environment. There are a lot of important additions that will need to be dealt with, and the cost of intercollegiate athletics is growing exponentially.”
Kilkenny suggests Bellotti start small and works his way up to the bigger issues.
“Mike has a great staff,” he said. “He just has to rely on his staff early on like I did. He will just have to get his toes in the water and pick his spots. But he’s done a great job relying on his staff as a head football coach, so this isn’t new territory in terms of leadership.”
Bellotti knew this coming into the job. He knew there are unique challenges to running a department that brings in about $56 million before expenses every year. That challenge has motivated him to draw up a few goals for the future of the program.
“The first and foremost is that we be self-sufficient and self-sustaining,” he said. “The second thing would be for all of our athletic scholarships to be endowed so we have a viable means of putting money towards reserve funds and capital building projects when we need it.”
He also says he wants people to realize that the athletic department shouldn’t be viewed as set apart from the general University, but instead collaboratively fill its role within the University.
“We’re not separate from the overall University but in fact an integral part of the college experience for student-athletes, the faculty, the community and the students. It’s important to me that we can work together like we have in the past.”
Working together is tangible and something that is key to any coach’s philosophy. The University is receiving unusually high national recognition because of the visibility of its top programs, but the questions remain whether Bellotti can continue to build on that success and work with everyone to build an even greater legacy.
But as Williams so succinctly put it, “he’s up for the job.”