The guy says he loves the extra hours. It’s why Mario Cristobal wakes at 4 a.m. Out the door by 4:30 a.m. and at his office inside the University of Oregon’s football mecca 15 minutes later.
“I jump right into recruiting,” Cristobal told me on the telephone Sunday night. “That goes until 6:15 a.m. Then, players are coming in and we’re preparing for meetings. I’m still coaching the offensive line so there’s a 7:30 a.m. player meeting, then it’s offensive and defensive meetings after that, and we do a walk-through at 8:40 a.m., and we’re on the field stretching by 8:50 a.m.”
The Ducks’ first-year football coach went on. And on. And on. Cristobal was in a noisy restaurant and rattled off his itinerary, and told me about the team’s post-practice workouts, and conditioning drills. He listed the variety of staff meetings that happen in the late afternoon and early evening — ranging from health to special developments to third-down and red-zone. He talked about eating dinner, and making sure you get five hours of sleep, and also, scrambling home by 9 p.m. to make sure he’s there to put his kids to bed.
Then, Cristobal stopped cold.
“You hear that?” he asked.
Oregon’s coach continued: “It’s ‘Guns and Roses’ in the background, dude. Any day you have ‘Guns and Roses’ in the background is a good day.”
Well, yes. Then this was a good day. Because Cristobal was wound up. He was with his wife and two sons on their spring break, visiting some friends in San Diego, and riffing on the telephone about why he likes the stillness of the football offices in the wee hours of the morning until the shrill voice of Axl Rose sent him off on another tangent.
“This is spring break now. We’ll go see family here and there. That’s where you find the balance,” he said. “During the week I have a day where all the assistants take their kids to school. I think that’s important, too. But I think I need those extra hours alone in the morning. I need the extra hours away without all the craziness so I can work on football, recruiting, mapping our satellite camp, our team…
“I don’t believe in just rolling out the ball and just practicing.”
How many games is Cristobal going to win next season?
Seven? Eight? Nine? Not sure. The Ducks non-conference schedule is forgiving. It’s home in the opener against Bowling Green (Sept. 1). Then, it’s home against Portland State (Sept. 8) and San Jose State (Sept. 15). After that, the Ducks get their Pac 12 Conference opener at Autzen Stadium against Stanford.
Cristobal has a terrific returning quarterback in Justin Herbert, who most rank behind only Washington’s Jake Browning and Arizona’s Khalil Tate in the conference hierarchy. Oregon will win games with a healthy Herbert, but the season comes with questions. There are holes at receiver and outside of Tony Brooks-James, the backfield is unproven. Will the UO rushing machine continue to churn yards? Also, how good will Jim Leavitt’s defense be? But there’s something that hits you right around the time “Sweet Child o’ Mine” kicks it up in the background and the 47-year old head coach on the telephone sounds like he wants to drop the phone and play the air guitar.
It’s this: Cristobal is going to win a pile of games over time.
“I want kids who can’t live without football,” he said. “Guys who abhor losing more than they like winning… bad-ass sons of guns that want to be at Oregon.”
Ex-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti got a lot out of his players. Chip Kelly was so gifted schematically that he made Dennis Dixon and Darron Thomas look like Joe Montana. Mark Helfrich helped groom Marcus Mariota. Willie Taggart packed recruiting sizzle. But what Cristobal, officially 0-1 as Oregon’s coach, has done in 107 days on the job is demand that the culture of Ducks football to turn away from sizzle and get back to steak.
He wants to build something. And he wants to use substance to do it.
We won’t know if his pitch has been effective until we see Oregon play meaningful games over time. But in Taggart’s first 107 days in Eugene, he had one assistant coach get a DUI and his strength and conditioning coach get slapped with a 30-day suspension after landing three players in the hospital. The sight of that Las Vegas Bowl loss in Cristobal’s first game as coach will take time to forget, and makes some fans nervous, but he knows it can be overcome.
Cristobal is a self-described “nerd.” He says he doesn’t drink or hang out in bars. He loves to talk about family and football. And on Sunday night he also wanted to talk basketball, sort of.
“I was reading about Villanova basketball the other day,” he said. “They won a national championship, then got away from recruiting their kind of guy. They slid off because of that. I won’t do that. I won’t take a low-achieving classroom guy who is a great player. You lose something on your culture when you do that. I want some dudes who want physicality and dudes that if you took football away from them they would die.”
Cristobal said that with Axl Rose crowing in the background: “Oh, where do we go?… Oh, where do we go now?… Oh, where do we go?…”