EUGENE — The process: The all-encompassing term made famous by Nick Saban and his growing list of coaching disciples by doing your job on a play-by-play basis and allowing for that level of peak execution to deliver wins.
Mario Cristobal knows all about the process. He was schooled in it while working for Saban at Alabama from 2013-16, during which the Crimson Tide won a national championship, played for another and made three appearances in the College Football Playoff. Cristobal was recognized as one of the best recruiters in college football during that span and Alabama’s offensive line won the inaugural Joe Moore Award during his tenure before he embarked for Oregon.
The process isn’t just for the players, it applies to every facet of a program. The coaches are held to high standards in recruiting and development. Support staff hires are treated with increasingly high value. No detail is overlooked on or off the field.
Success is made more gratifying because it comes with the knowledge that work and preparation led to it. Failure is more disappointing because at the very core is the assumption that more could have been done ahead of time to prevent it.
Thing is, even with buy-in, which Cristobal got from Oregon’s players while he was the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 2017 to the point that it led to his hiring as head coach, it takes time for results to follow. Instant gratification is a fallacy.
“When people work together, you can achieve incredible things,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “Mario is fantastic at understanding how to put together an organization and then setting a standard. It is a process. It’s about working together, seeing things the same way and building block on top of block.”
Cristobal and his staff inherited a roster well below the scholarship limit (85) entering 2018 and still managed to go 9-4 that season.
Justin Herbert, Troy Dye, an offensive line with four future NFL players and a secondary featuring several future pros fueled a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl win in 2019. Even with nearly all of those players gone, the Ducks still won the conference in 2020 amid a Pac-12 season with little to no integrity of record and zero national relevance.
On-field success coupled with a series of top-15 recruiting classes each of the last four years is the football equivalent of the process’ roots expanding beneath the surface while the program grows in size and strength.
In Year 4 of the Cristobal era, Oregon’s roster features seasoned players at running back, receiver, on the offensive line and at quarterback but is still overwhelmingly a younger core — 60 of 88 scholarship players are in their first, second or third season. They weren’t around when the Ducks were unable to win a conference road game in 2017 and struggled away from home in 2018.
On the biggest and loudest stage — Ohio Stadium with 100,482 in attendance, where Ohio State hadn’t lost in 23 games since Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma won in 2017 — No. 12 Oregon beat the No. 3 Buckeyes 35-28 for the first time in 10 meetings. The Ducks did it by being the more physical, run-heavy team despite being without two premier defenders in Kayvon Thibodeaux and Justin Flowe and enduring a bevy of in-game injuries.
“This is one of the toughest places to play in college football; let’s not sugar coat it, for us to come in here and do that,” fifth-year junior center Alex Forsyth said. “But at the end of the day it’s won and lost during the Tuesday and Wednesday practices that we have, the physical practices. I’m really grateful that coach Cristobal and all the coaches really emphasize those practices like they’re real games because you see it show up.
“We always have a saying that practice performance becomes game reality. We did just that. I wasn’t shocked by the result (Saturday), but I sure as heck was excited with the result.”
CJ Verdell racked up 161 of Oregon’s 269 rushing yards and two of its three scores on the ground and added another touchdown that was technically ruled a pass. It was the most rushing yards allowed by Ohio State since Maryland’s 339 yards and 5 touchdowns on Nov. 17, 2018, and the most by a nonconference foe since Navy’s triple-option reeled off 370 in the 2014 season opener.
The offensive line paved the way, holding Ohio State to just one tackle for loss and no sacks. Verdell and Travis Dye had holes to run through and angles to exploit.
Anthony Brown Jr. (17 of 35 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, 10 carries for 65 yards) had ample time to throw and room to run.
“Every single person on this team didn’t think one second that we couldn’t win this game and every single person prepared their butts off every single day to win this game,” said Dye, who had eight carries for 43 yards and a touchdown. “Shout out goes to the whole team, the whole squad, the whole entire staff. We all did it. It was a wonderful win.”
Oregon out-played, out-coached and out-schemed Ohio State on Saturday.
It was a signature win for a head coach who accomplished a lot already but still faced questions and doubts about his in-game strategy and prowess compared to his recruiting trail accomplishments.
Asked when he’ll take the time to reflect on the biggest regular season win of his head coaching career, Cristobal said the day after National Signing Day in February. If you think he’s kidding, you clearly don’t know the man.
Yes, he was as jacked up as his players were after the win on Saturday. But even amid jubilation, he’s got the presence of mind to maintain the culture he’s instilled and discipline that fosters it.
“More than anything I think it’s a testament to process,” Cristobal said, “because all we kept talking about and preaching was the stuff you guys kill me for because it’s boring, but the practice preparation eventually becoming the game reality. …
“The magnitude of it, I know it’s large. I let that part take care of itself. For me, I’ve worked under some really good people and I feel like that approach really works: going forward, looking ahead, always pushing. I’ll stay along those lines.”
Oregon has 10 more games in the regular season to reveal what the next step in its process will be.