Generally, in preparations for a conference championship game, a head coach isn’t thinking about the team’s videographers filming practice from above or the nutritionists who are keeping players hydrated at all times.
For Mario Cristobal, however, it’s the roles often deemed insignificant by other head coaches that are a major reason the Ducks will be competing for their first Pac-12 Championship since 2014 on Friday.
“It’s a collective effort,” Cristobal said. “I’m talking about a very family-driven organization. I’m excited for everybody.”
In his second year as the head coach of Oregon football, Cristobal has taken a team that was an unranked loser of the Las Vegas Bowl that finished fourth in the Pac-12 North and transformed it into a two-loss team that contended for the College Football Playoff for most of the year.
But this isn’t how Cristobal sees it.
“When we got here, there were some things to fix, but Oregon’s been great for a long, long time,” he said. “We feel very obligated to uphold that legacy.”
Cristobal is quick to deflect praise. If the team is doing well, it’s always because everyone in the program is pulling their weight. On the contrary, if the team is underperforming, it’s because everyone needs to do better, including himself.
He also carries great humility with respect to his fellow coaches. Obviously he takes pride in Oregon’s football program, but at the end of the day, he supports the interests of the people around him.
“Opportunities are going to come up for coaches,” Cristobal said. “I’m always in favor of helping guys if they have an opportunity to better their careers as it relates to their goals.”
This humble attitude isn’t new. All season, Cristobal has been modest in his coaching strategy. For Cristobal, Oregon’s success on the field has never been about his own success. Above all, he is proud of his team and sees this Friday’s championship game as an incredible opportunity for them. He doesn’t get overly excited in front of the media, and even in the spotlight in the buildup to the Pac-12 Championship Game, he holds a calm yet determined demeanor.
This week, the humility of Cristobal and his team was put to the test. After Utah’s 45-15 dismantling of Colorado on Saturday, true freshman Brant Kuithe — who scored three touchdowns in the victory — was anything but humble.
“We’re going to go win that shit,” Kuithe told the Salt Lake Tribune regarding the upcoming conference championship game.
Cristobal leads by example; when he stays humble, his players follow suit.
“We don’t get into that. If you ask our leaders, they will tell you they don’t want to hear it,” Cristobal said. “We respect everybody, we are all about our business and that’s all that matters to us.”
Cristobal recognizes that the Ducks have a big enough challenge in front of them this week without external distractions. The sputtering Oregon offense needs to find its groove against a defense that ranks near the top of the country in almost every defensive category. The Utes have rattled off eight straight victories and destroyed Colorado on senior day last Saturday. With a short week this week, there’s an extra sense of urgency at practice.
“You have to stay physical at practice, but you can’t overdo it,” Cristobal said. “At this point in the year, if you have some guys banged up, 24 hours could be the difference between being on the field and not being on the field.”
Fortunately for the Ducks, center Jake Hanson practiced Monday and is fully expected to be playing on Friday. Hanson missed the last game and a half with an undisclosed injury, and his absence was a potential culprit for Oregon’s recent offensive woes.
Linebacker Dru Mathis is also cleared to play Friday, but cornerback Daewood Davis is questionable this week and only participated in half of Monday’s practice. Other than these few injuries, the health of the Ducks is looking up.
As the Ducks prepare for the Pac-12 Championship Game, their humble attitude — cultivated by Cristobal — gives them an intangible weapon. It allows them to stay focused on the task at hand and recognize the caliber of the opponent they will be facing.
Perhaps most importantly, however, it allows them to recognize that everyone in the program contributes to winning, no matter what their role is.