Another Millionaire Coach
Extravagance during an economic crisis
by George Beres
It takes calloused chutzpah to squander $7 million on an unproven head football coach when a national crisis leaves millions jobless. That is what UO Athletics Director Pat Kilkenny — a big business recruit who spends money to make up for the vacuum in his understanding of college athletics — has announced for Ducks football.
His latest extravagance is awarding a $7 million contract, for five years as the next Ducks head football coach, to the newest member of the coaching staff, Chip Kelly. He will become Oregon’s third millionaire coach with Ernie Kent (men’s basketball) and football’s Mike Bellotti. The announcement was coupled with word that Bellotti has agreed to succeed Kilkenny when Bellotti decides to give up coaching in the next year or two.
Bellotti’s imminent departure from coaching is bad news for Oregon football, which has prospered under his guidance. It is compounded by the fact that Oregon varsity athletics may have to suffer under the uncertain guidance of Kilkenny for two or more years yet. One of Bellotti’s skills — shared with Oregon’s greatest coach, the late Len Casanova — is the ability to hire top-flight assistants. That is what he did when he plucked Kelly from his assistant’s post at the anonymous football program of New Hampshire University. The wisdom of the choice was seen when Kelly produced explosive offensive units the past two seasons.
But handling the complex management tasks of a head coach? Hiring a man with limited or no college experience as a head coach is rare, maybe foolhardy. It has happened, as it did with Bellotti when he succeeded Rich Brooks. But that came only after Bellotti’s many years as chief assistant in Oregon’s Division I program.
Hiring Kelly for the top job is but the latest in a series of Kilkenny’s financial boondoggles. Raising big money was his prime mandate when hired, mainly for construction of a new basketball emporium to replace McArthur Court. Its projected cost — $250 million, and growing — would make it the nation’s most costly facility for college basketball.
The UO administration helped him by twisting arms of state legislators to issue state bonds to underwrite costs. That was at the insistence of Oregon’s most generous donor, Phil Knight, whose gift of $100 million was contingent on getting state funding.
Another example of Kilkenny’s ability to find holes in which to throw money is plans for a $15 million baseball stadium next to Autzen Stadium for a sport that has not been played at Oregon since 1981. To reinstate baseball, we were told wrestling had to be dropped “to save money.”
A chief task for an athletics director is to hire and fire. From decades in college athletics, I know every director keeps a list of his top four or five choices to interview if his coach chooses to quit or is fired. Kilkenny’s lack of athletics experience causes him to take this easy way out with Kelly. On the open market, he could choose from major school assistants who are the top 10 prospects nationally — for less than $1 million annually. His actions suggest he does not know who they are nor how to go about approaching them.
Considering Kelly’s lack of college head coaching experience, the gamble of hiring him could have been mitigated with a two-year contract for significantly less money. Then if/when he fails in the big job, there is not a massive payoff required when he departs by request.
An ominous economic future causes Americans to face growing joblessness and bankruptcy. Yet the mindless commitment of university funds for UO coaching millionaires continues.
George Beres is former sports information director at the UO and at his alma mater, Northwestern University. He was national chairman of the Intercollegiate Committee on Gambling Awareness in 1970.