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Canzano: Oregon Ducks AD Rob Mullens doubles down with Mario Cristobal – OregonLive

The trustees at the University of Oregon are expected to rubber-stamp a contract extension for football coach Mario Cristobal sometime today. The new deal gives the coach six years at an average of $4.55 million a pop. Also, there are guaranteed retention bonuses Cristobal would collect each January totaling more than $2 million over the life of the contract.

Also, the deal raises his buyout.

It’s a strong move by Oregon, but not reckless or desperately so. Cristobal, who was 11th in the conference in salary, would now fall only behind Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Stanford’s David Shaw. I couldn’t help but think that UO athletic director Rob Mullens has learned some things. Also, that Mullens knows his sitting football coach is his most valuable ally in the department.

Let’s examine some history:

♦ In 2015, Mullens awarded then-head coach Mark Helfrich a five-year, $17.5 million contract after the Ducks appeared in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game. Helfrich had 24-4 record at the time. Also, he was no threat to leave Eugene. Helfrich was a native Oregonian, building his dream home at the foot of a local golf course while making $1.8 million a year in base salary.

Helfrich quote that captures it best: “I keep pinching myself.”

Still, Mullens gave Helfrich a 75 percent raise in the first year of that lucrative extension. It was a move that came back to haunt the AD when Helfrich subsequently went 13-12, got fired, and ultimately forced Mullens to have to call boosters to help raise funds for a lump-sum buyout of more than $12 million.

♦ In 2017, Mullens hired Willie Taggart and gave him a five-year, $16 million contract. Taggart made $2.9 million in base salary in his first (and only) season. The misfire on Mullens part was not including a large enough buyout. There was no competition for Taggart at the time of the hire. The Ducks hired Taggart from South Florida and UO should have leveraged that into substantial protection. Instead, Taggart’s buyout was only $4.36 million and worse yet the contract allowed it to be pro-rated over 48 months at $62,500 a month.

Taggart quote that captures it best: “I’m excited about the Vegas bowl.”

One he never coached.

Taggart’s agent played Oregon. Just 11 months into that UO contract, Taggart left for Florida State. Mullens told me in the wake, “I was disappointed. We sat down a year ago and we made a commitment to him, he made a commitment to us. We did everything to support our commitment and I’m disappointed.”

♦ In 2018, Mullens hired Cristobal. He offered $2.5 million in base salary. Also, the AD built in a steep buyout that started at $10 million in the first year. It was evident to anyone paying attention that Mullens knew he held all the leverage with Cristobal. The AD had already struck out twice and needed to protect himself against a third whiff.

Quote that captures it best?

One prominent Oregon booster closely tracking the Cristobal hire told me at the time, “A less than favorable outcome could be problematic for Rob.”

The Ducks are now 24-9 under Cristobal. He won a Pac-12 championship, a Rose Bowl title, and has his team playing in Friday’s conference title game against USC. Ironically, Helfrich will be the analyst working the broadcast for FOX. The only thing more poetic from an Oregon standpoint would have been playing UCLA and Chip Kelly for the title instead of the Trojans.

What I’m saying is, the story matters when you frame what you’re now seeing in Eugene. Cristobal’s ride at Oregon hasn’t been without some turbulence, but it has encouraging trajectory and solid proof of performance. Mullens has to feel good about what he sees and knows that he can’t afford a near-term disruption.

The particulars of the proposed contract extension — six years and $27.3 million — suggest Mullens really likes his football coach. Also, that the AD has learned some things in the last five years. Oregon protected itself while making about as strong a commitment as a Pac-12 university could make in these economic times.

Cristobal gets a windfall, job security, and a substantial raise. The pre-emptive extension is a respect move by the athletic department, particularly in these COVID-19 times. In return, the Ducks strengthened their short-term buyout protection. The annual retention bonuses for Cristobal are a creative new twist, too. They’re borrowed from Mullens’ own contract which includes annual six figure retention-bonus payouts every summer for the AD.

Will Auburn flinch at the figures?

Probably not.

Their giggles underscore the financial disadvantage the Pac-12 finds itself operating in vs. Power Five peers. The SEC universities don’t just order the checks blank, they hand them over to job candidates that way. The conference members can afford it. In the last decade, the SEC athletic departments have EACH collected $100 million+ more in media rights fees vs. Pac-12 members.

In 2020, the Ducks face a $65 million net deficit in the athletic department. Staff has been furloughed and laid off. Jobs that weren’t filled were frozen months ago. Mullens and Cristobal both took pay cuts. When I asked Oregon president Michael Schill this week how involved he might be in negotiating the extension for Cristobal, Schill said Mullens would be the point person.

“(He) keeps me well-informed though.”

Schill also said, “He understands that whatever agreement we reach must be funded from the athletic department’s revenues which might include ticket sales, media contracts, and donations.”

No university subsidy, folks. That ship sailed more than a decade ago at Oregon when the directive came for athletic department self sufficiency. It’s why the Pac-12′s leadership woes matter. Also, why having boosters such as Phil and Penny Knight make Oregon a strong outlier in a struggling conference.

Cristobal likes to build things. He’s a laborer at heart. It’s why you’ll see him jump into the pre-game warmups, whistle in his mouth, ball cap on backward, while the opposing head coach is often standing alone at midfield, arms folded. I don’t think he’d leave any job unfinished. Also, I think Cristobal’s one prior head coaching stint (fired at Florida International) gave him some healthy career perspective.

Mullens works closer with Cristobal than most ADs. In fact, the two live in such close proximity that they’ve often bumped into each other on morning runs and walks. Mullens is out, getting fresh air. Cristobal is on the phone, recruiting. They stop and talk on the street corner so long sometimes that when Mullens returns home 45 minutes late his wife sometimes asks, “Great run today?”

The reply comes, “No — just ran into Mario.”

That folksy approach has to be part of Oregon’s appeal to Cristobal. The kiss of death for any head football coach is when he looks around at a staff meeting and finds that nobody who hired him is in the room anymore. But in the case of of UO, Mullens isn’t just in the room, he’s still in lockstep with Cristobal.

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