September 22, 2012
Mike Bellotti saw the future of Oregon football almost a decade ago.
The spread-option epiphany did not tap him lightly on the shoulder. "It just hit me right in the face," Bellotti, now an ESPN analyst, said this week.
You can credit Oregon's former coach for making possible Saturday night's anticipated showdown of Arizona at Oregon.
The game features two of the spread's most cutting-edge masterminds, Oregon Coach Chip Kelly and Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
If Rodriguez is the godfather of the offense, Kelly might be the godson. And it was Bellotti who delivered the godsend.
Autzen Stadium will bring together, full circle, a pyrotechnic collision of zone-read dashers and dancers.
Both teams are 3-0, ranked in the national top 25 and are ready to go. Las Vegas has set the over-under — estimated combined number of points — at 77.5. And it might be too low. Oregon averages 54 points and 596 yards per game. Arizona averages 46 points and 605 yards.
Rodriguez is in Eugene because he got fired after three seasons at Michigan, where he proved a bad cultural fit at a place that likes to do things by the blue book. People forget that before Michigan tore his reputation asunder, Rodriguez was the spread's groovy guru. Disciples flocked to West Virginia to watch his offenses. Before that, they flocked to Tulane and Clemson.
In 1999, a young coach from New Hampshire named Chip Kelly visited Rodriguez when he was Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Clemson.
Kelly claims now, "it was just watching practice," but this is game week and you would need truth serum to get real information out of him.
Kelly will be at Autzen, looking to keep his team in the national top five, because of Bellotti.
In 2003, Bellotti got an up-close look at Urban Meyer's spread offense in a loss at Utah.
Oregon was doing fine without the spread. Bellotti led the Ducks to a No. 2 final ranking in 2001. He became convinced, though, that he needed some electricity to add to the school's uniforms.
"I was really captivated by the offense and the stress it puts on the defense," he said.
Bellotti tried to implement the offense himself. He sent his coaches out to learn the nuances, and hired respected Gary Crowton to make some sense of it.
Oregon won 10 games in 2005 but, after going 7-6, Bellotti determined something was missing. So he went straight to a spread source and hired New Hampshire's Kelly.
"What we found was we figured out the answers after the game the first year," Bellotti explained of the spread. "The second year, we were figuring it out at halftime. When Chip got here, we knew the answers before the game."
Bellotti put aside his own ego to the detriment, maybe, of his own career.
In 2007, Oregon took off with Kelly's spread and probably would have won the national title had quarterback Dennis Dixon not been lost to a knee injury.
Bellotti stayed through 2008, slid over to the athletic director's chair, handed the reins to Kelly and ultimately moved to ESPN-ville.
And here we are now.
You wouldn't expect this to be the week Kelly paid homage. He said, "When I look at them on tape, I don't say I'm looking at us to be honest with you."
Rodriguez was more accommodating. He called the two offenses "clouded mirror images" and noted "we're very similar philosophically. You see some of the same plays, some of the same kind of concepts."
Rodriguez sees in Oregon the spread offense operating at its highest level. "They've got a lot of fast guys playing fast," he said.
Bellotti said the misnomer about the spread is that it's a passing offense. "The biggest difference comes in the running game, not the passing game," he said.
Rodriguez got lucky Arizona left behind a fifth-year senior, Matt Scott, who fits perfectly into the scheme.
Kelly has a brilliant young protege, quarterback Marcus Mariota, pulling the spread strings.
Kelly has made his spread different by cranking the pace to breakneck speed, trying to cram as many plays into 60 minutes as possible. He rotates fresh players in and out, on offense and defense, in an attempt to wear down opposing teams.
Arizona's defense, in the understatement of the week, will be severely tested. "We're really short-handed and not deep enough," Rodriguez said. "We're just hanging on. This is going to be a huge challenge, certainly."
Bellotti will be in Eugene as part of ESPN's coverage crew. "It's going to be a ton of fun," he said.
Some Oregon fans might not think they owe Bellotti much.
They do owe him this: "Thank you."
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