- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oregon believes in its culture and it believes in continuity. It's found its last three head coaches by promoting from within instead of conducting a national search for a shiny name fronting another program, as many others do. So why should anyone be surprised that second-year head coach Mark Helfrich opted to promote from within to replace retiring defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti?
Oregon confirmed Tuesday what The Oregonian reported over the weekend: Linebackers coach Don Pellum, 51, an assistant at Oregon for 23 years, would be promoted to replace Aliotti and run the Ducks defense in 2014.
Is it a flashy hire? No. Will it strike fear into Pac-12 offensive coordinators? No. Will some Ducks fans be disappointed? Probably.
But after a season in which some fans believed Oregon seemed to lose its way, to lose its identity, Helfrich seems to be saying with this decision that he plans to stay the course and prioritize continuity and familiarity. It's a tip of the cap to a significant part of what got the program to where it is.
Pellum knows his players. He knows the schemes the Ducks have run under Aliotti. He knows what has worked and what hasn't. He's done a heck of a job coaching the Ducks linebackers.
As noted in the news release on the hiring:
In the past 20 seasons, he has been credited with much of the development of 27 all-conference honorees. In addition, as many as six of his players have either earned their way into NFL camps over the course of the last four years, or can expected to do so when practices begin this summer.
"I have never learned or grown so much under a single coach than I did under Coach Pellum," former Ducks linebacker Michael Clay said in the release. “He immediately commands the respect from his players unlike anyone I have ever come across and gets the max out of everyone he comes into contact with.
"No coach is prepared like DP. Without his knowledge and guidance, I wouldn't have been the player I was. He put me in a position where I could thrive for the University of Oregon. They could not have hired a better person."
When Aliotti announced his intentions to retire, there was some immediate sentiment that Helfrich should promote from within, though the top name there was secondary coach John Neal. Yet new USC coach Steve Sarkisian had just let Clancy Pendergast go, and Pendergast's version of the 3-4 scheme seemed like a nice fit for the Ducks. As the Pac-12 blog noted, Pendergast had done an outstanding job transforming the Trojans defense in 2013.
While Helfrich isn't likely to reveal how many folks he talked to or how far those talks went, there was some mutual interest between Pendergast and Oregon. It was Helfrich's call to go in another direction.
Hiring Pendergast would have been viewed as a strong move. The same could be said for Helfrich landing another big name with a strong track record running a defense. A proven coordinator also likely would get more benefit of the doubt if the Ducks defense takes a step back next fall, which it might do because it's losing five starters.
Helfrich is taking a chance promoting Pellum to his first coordinator job. There is a risk. Helfrich is well -aware there's little margin for error coaching Oregon these days, where an 11-2 finish and No. 9 final ranking is harrumphed by many newly demanding Ducks fans.
But his instinct on this was to go with Pellum, to go with a long-time Duck -- a former Oregon linebacker, in fact -- and that is a decision that reveals a lot about Helfrich.
The issue, of course, becomes simple going forward. If the Ducks continue to rank among the best defenses in the Pac-12, as they have during their rise into the nation's elite, then Pellum's promotion will prove to be an inspired decision. And perhaps a long-term solution.
But if the Ducks defense slips, then Helfrich's decision will become a negative evaluative mark for those still trying to figure out whether he has the stuff to maintain the Ducks' surge to the top of the Pac-12.
13hKevin Gemmell and Erik McKinney