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It's Not About the Plays . . . It's About the Players.by: Ron Bellamy
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
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Twice a year, after the college football season and again after spring drills, University of Oregon coach Mike Bellotti arms himself with a yellow legal pad, and a supply of pens, and spends most of several consecutive days in his office.
He isn't, on those occasions, scribbling Xs and Os.
He isn't tinkering with the sophisticated offense that has placed Oregon in the top 20 in the nation in passing in five of the last six seasons. He isn't refining the strategies that have enabled the Ducks to reach bowl berths in three of the four seasons Bellotti's served as head coach, since being promoted from offensive coordinator after Oregon's Rose Bowl season of 1994.
These sessions aren't about plays. They're about players.
One by one, 95-some Ducks troop in for private, closed-door meetings with their head coach. The meetings are scheduled to run 15 minutes each, but often go longer. Bellotti asks about school, family, roommates, goals, and about every aspect of the athletic department that touches the student-athletes in his charge, including the assistant coaches and the head coach himself.
And then, having posed the questions, Bellotti listens, taking notes, sometimes finding recurring themes he'll share with his assistant coaches or support personnel, ideas for doing things better.
"The meetings were a way to get the kids to talk to me," Bellotti says, noting that he worried about becoming more distant from his athletes when he became head coach. "It's so they know I care, and that I know who they are; that I know more than just their name and their number.
"The most important thing is to not lose touch with your players. Probably the first 10 years that I coached, to me it was all Xs and Os, and I could draw up a better play, or come up with a better scheme. The last 15 to 20 years there has been the realization that it's players, not plays. It's your relationship with people that makes the job what it is."
"The private meetings with players," Bellotti says simply, "are the best thing I do."
Certainly, the meetings are a prime example of Mike Bellotti's coaching philosophy, which values such qualities as chemistry, confidence and unity as well as an approach to the game itself that is both fundamentally sound and creatively exciting.
With Bellotti, 48, and Oregon, you can't separate the physical from the psychological. Have the Ducks gone 30-17 under Bellotti strictly because of schemes (breaking the school record for touchdowns for three straight seasons) and athletic ability (quarterback Akili Smith was the No. 3 selection in the recent NFL draft)?
Or are they 15-5 under Bellotti in games decided by a touchdown or less because of a sense of poise, trust and cohesiveness that Bellotti purposefully seeks to foster?
The twice-yearly meetings aren't Bellotti's only technique for binding his program closer together, and closer to him. Last season, despite a career spent on the offensive side of the ball, Bellotti personally helped coach the defensive linemen in practice drills - getting better defensive line play was a priority. This season, he'll spend time in drills with the defensive backs and tight ends.
"He's a very caring coach," says senior strong safety Michael Fletcher. "His door is always open to any player. If you have anything to say, or just want to chat with him, he's willing to talk about anything. He doesn't shy away from those commitments as a coach. He's always there as someone to talk to, and he listens well. Anything we tell him, he takes into consideration."
In 1997, inspired by a similar approach at Florida State, Bellotti implemented "unity sessions," small-group meetings for coaches and players several times a year. In the unity meetings, the players are sorted in ways that cut across all the constituencies on the team, so that a black defensive back from Long Beach, a white offensive lineman from eastern Oregon, a Samoan defensive end and a big-city quarterback might all be in the same small encounter group, sharing thoughts and experiences that become increasingly more personal. The sessions, Bellotti firmly believes, not only identify players with leadership skills, but break down barriers within a team, providing a foundation that can help a team weather tough times.
That excellent record in close games? "I do think that has to come back to a coaching staff that believes in itself, and a player group that believes in itself, and the unity meetings that create a closer bond between teammates," Bellotti says. "What wins close games, when it comes down to the wire, are kids who rally around each other and trust. I can look back over the seasons, and many years, whether we went 6-5 or 9-3, there aren't big differences. It's four or five or six plays."
That belief has an impact on Bellotti's choice of assistant coaches. He delegates much responsibility to his coordinators - Jeff Tedford on offense; Nick Aliotti, recently hired, on defense; Tom Osborne on special teams - so that he can focus on motivation, quality, and the other responsibilities of the job.
"I never really sit down and think about where a guy has coached," Bellotti says. "I think about who the person is. Are they a good teacher, are they a good person, are they a good coach? Because I think the first two will make the last one happen."
From his assistants, Bellotti expects competent coaching, inspired recruiting and informed opinions. As he listens to his players, Bellotti is also respected for listening to his assistant coaches.
"Whenever a person who is in a position of leadership like Mike is willing to listen to other people's ideas, whether players' ideas or coaches' ideas, I think that adds significant ideas to the program," says Neal Zoumboukos, Oregon's assistant head coach and offensive line coach. "No one person has all the answers, though God knows there are probably a lot of head coaches who think they do."
From his assistants, too, Bellotti expects a characteristic that can be challenged in the high-pressure world of Division I-A football : a positive attitude.
"I continually try to stress what I hear from the players, and what they want in a coach, from my meetings," Bellotti says. "And kids want unconditional love. They want to know that the coach believes in them, loves them, whether we win or lose. And hopefully, we've gotten effort, we've gotten kids to do their best, and try their hardest, and that's all we can ask.
"One of the problems at this level of football is that we get down. Kids don't change. Kids don't go from being a good kid to being a bad kid based on one football game. This staff is better than any I've been associated with in terms of sticking with kids, and believing in them."
Those "kids" are becoming, for Bellotti, an increasingly greater part of the reason that he coaches, the reason that he's more than happy to remain a college coach in one of the smaller markets in the Pac-10 rather than pursue jobs in the NFL. At a time of life when some coaches become more cynical, Bellotti finds himself becoming more of an idealist.
"What strikes me most is the unique ability you have in this job to help influence kids' lives," Bellotti says. "And every day I coach, the more that becomes apparent to me. I think in college coaching we're at a great level of life to deal with the transition from boyhood to manhood, where young men are still impressionable, and they're looking for guidance and knowledge. We become surrogate parents.
"Think of the life lessons they learn playing football. You're competing with the threat of physical harm if you don't do things right, or you don't protect your teammate, and you have to help each other, you have to watch each other's back. All those things make you a better person. They better prepare you for life."
Says Zoumboukos, "I think all coaches go through some phases where you get a little cynical about some things. I don't know that Mike ever went through that cynical phase. He's always really maintained a pure caring for the student-athletes and their futures."
Bellotti's approach to coaching has been very much influenced by his past. After growing up in Concord, Calif., he played football - he was a tight end and then wide receiver - through 1972 at the University of California at Davis, a Division II program that didn't give athletic scholarships.
His coach, Jim Sochor, was an offensive innovator who, in laid-back Davis, often rode his bike to work; Bellotti was intrigued by the lifestyle and ultimately ensnared by it. Sochor persuaded him to give up a high school teaching job, math and science, that paid $10,000 per year to coach for $1,000 per year, and has been a mentor in the ensuing years.
Bellotti's early coaching career took him from Davis after four years, to Cal-State Hayward as offensive coordinator for two seasons, to Weber State for a year, and then back to Hayward for four years. In 1984, he became the head coach at Chico State, earning $35,000 per year.
Bellotti thought he'd spend his career at Chico State, but in 1989 had the chance to become offensive coordinator at Oregon. He didn't doubt his ability to move from Division II to the Pac-10; he believes that coaches at smaller schools often must coach more creatively because of the limitations of their athletes. His background would serve him well at Oregon, as the Ducks couldn't out-muscle the powerhouses of the Pac-10, and Oregon's success would be predicated on its ability to get the most out of its talent.
The Oregon offense is still the Bellotti offense, developing through three offensive coordinators in his four seasons: first Alan Borges, now offensive coordinator at UCLA; then Dirk Koetter, now head coach at Boise State; and now Tedford, given much credit for Akili Smith's breakthrough senior season.
"We try to do things that give us an inherent advantage," Bellotti says. "We're not going to beat our heads against a wall. We always give our opponents the utmost credit for being intelligent, for being great athletes, and we try to find weaknesses that we can exploit. We do a lot of stuff with formation and motion and with studying a defense that allows us to get an advantage.
"The other thing we try to do is attack the parts of the defense that have dual responsibilities, those people who are part of the front seven and front eight in run support, but also part of the back seven in pass drops.
"We're going to try to put those people - the flanking outside linebacker - in a bind, with the run and play-action, to the point where they can't be right. If they're going to do one thing well, then they can't do the other well.
"Obviously, we believe in throwing the football, making the opponent cover the entire field, and I guess that's my West Coast upbringing, and the fact that I played receiver and tight end and quarterback. I think we challenge our players mentally because our system is always evolving."
The roots of the offense reach to Bellotti's playing days at UC-Davis. "We were not going to physically run the ball 50 times and knock you off the ball," he recalls. "But you've got to have the total package. I've tried to develop a blood-and-guts package, because if we can pound some people, we're going to pound them. You have to have elements of that so your players feel good about themselves, particularly the offensive line, so that when it's third-and-one, and we're going to run the football, and everybody knows we're going to run the football, that we're going to get that done."
Bellotti's six seasons as Oregon's offensive coordinator culminated in the 1994 Rose Bowl berth (in the loss to No. 1 Penn State, Oregon quarterback Danny O'Neil broke the Rose Bowl passing records). When head coach Rich Brooks moved to the NFL (St. Louis Rams), Bellotti was his recommended successor. In his first season, Bellotti led the Ducks to a 9-3 mark, including a berth in the Cotton Bowl; the Ducks won the Las Vegas Bowl in 1997, and had a near-miracle comeback fall short in a 51-43 loss to Colorado in the Aloha Bowl last season.
With his success and principles, Bellotti is highly valued by Oregon. His salary package, which pays as much as $468,000 per year, puts him in the middle of the Pac-10, and a long way from his Chico State salary. The change in financial status does not seem to have changed Bellotti and his wife, Colleen, and they are determined that it will not affect the values of their children: Luke, 14; Keri, 12; and Sean, 5.
"I think it's important that they understand the value of hard work, and that we're fortunate to be where we are, and that it shouldn't change their values about work, and going to school, and getting a good education," Bellotti says.
That Eugene offers a family-friendly environment is perhaps the biggest reason that Bellotti is still coaching at Oregon. His house is three miles from Autzen Stadium; it's not unusual to see Bellotti's children, or those of his assistants, visiting on the field after practices. Even during the season, Bellotti can sometimes slip away from work to watch Luke play soccer, or Keri play basketball.
"My family was learning to grow up without me, Bellotti said. And it wasn't what they were losing, it was what I was losing. I was not a part of a lot of things they did.
"About five years ago, Colleen pointed out that half our life with our (oldest) son is over. And I said, 'What do you mean, he's only nine years old.' And she said, 'that's what I mean; when he's 18, he'll go away to college.' I thought of how much I'd been part of his life to that point, and I'd spent more time with Danny O'Neil than I had with my own son."
Bellotti resolved to change that, just as he's worked to change the image of Oregon football. The Ducks, who completed a $14.6 million indoor practice facility last year, and are now pondering the expansion of Autzen Stadium, no longer merely talk about trying to survive in the Pac-10. The pressure to win at Oregon is not insignificant; football is the prime revenue-generator for the athletic department, and Bellotti must spend more time fund-raising than many head coaches.
But after years of struggle, this is a program that wants to win a national championship one year. Bellotti truly believes that it can happen, and that it won't be because of plays, but because of players.
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