In just the handful of years that I’ve been covering Oregon Football, the words “brotherhood” and “family” have surfaced many times. Players have repeatedly said that more than anything, it was the family-like atmosphere that brought them to Oregon. It was the coaches caring about them as young men and helping them build character in the process.
In fact, when the team’s 2013 season took a turn for the worst on an ugly night in Tucson, former Oregon quarterback, Marcus Mariota, was asked how the team would bounce back. In typical Mariota fashion, he simply replied, “The brother to your left and the brother to your right.”
He wasn’t wrong.
The following year, the team rallied and the brotherhood that formed helped lead the team to its second National Championship game. Sure, there’s more to winning games than a close-knit team, but surely, it takes a close team to rally in the midst of adversity- something Oregon Football has had its share of in the post-Mariota era.
Unfortunately, that brotherhood seemed to missing the past couple of seasons.
There were occasional glimmers of hope for the program, an improving defense and strong quarterback, for example, but on the whole, team chemistry struggled. Certainly having three new head coaches in three years didn’t help the situation. Ironically, the departure of coach number two, may have.
When Willie Taggart left Oregon for Florida State this past December, it left many players wondering about their next steps, both individually and as a team. For most, this would be the second transition since their arrival to Eugene. Faced with yet another dose of adversity, the team had two choices, as junior wide receiver, Brenden Schooler said on Sunday, they could fall apart or they could ban together.
Fortunately, they chose the latter.
“I feel like we’ve all just come together,” Schooler said.
In the days following Taggart’s departure, players rallied behind then Interim Head Coach, Mario Cristobol, and the rest is history.
With Cristobal now at the helm, the Ducks appear poised to make big strides this season. Not just because of the continuity of the coaching staff, excellent recruiting and a strong emphasis on off-season strength training program, but mostly because Cristobal is working hard to make sure a family-like atmosphere is woven into the team’s DNA, starting from the top down. In short, Cristobal is walking the walk.
Since taking over as head coach, Cristobal has made a point to support as many Oregon sports as possible. He often attends games and promotes other coaches and teams on social media.
“As an athletic department and university community, we’re very family oriented,” Cristobal told reporters at last Thursday’s press conference.
Supporting all sports within the athletic department helps us become tighter as “the Oregon family.” Cristobal later said.
Listening to and watching Cristobal, both on and off the field, it’s easy to see the little ways he is working to create an all-inclusive culture which seems to be making the team closer. No one is more important than anyone else. From the media to walk-ons and equipment staff to star players, Cristobal has a way of making everyone knows they have important role to play. So far, his approach seems to be working.
For the first time in a couple of years, players are starting to genuinely talk about their teammates as “family,” and, it’s not just lip service. In fact, several players talked this week about how cohesive their units were and how even the bigger name players, like Tony-Brooks James, were open to accepting feedback just as much as they were giving it, even if it’s coming from an underclassman.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the guy. I’m just a guy, Brooks-James told gridirongirl on Sunday. “I’m trying to learn just as much as them.”
One of those guys learning from Brooks-James is redshirt sophomore running back, Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who has noticed a shift this year as well.
“We all have a say with each other and we take criticism from each other,” Habibi said at this year’s Media Day.
With opening kick-off now on the horizon, most fans and media are in a watch and see mode and despite signs the program is moving in a good direction, expectations aren’t necessarily high.
The Ducks may just surprise everyone though. After all, football isn’t always just about the X’s and O’s and rankings. Championship teams overcome adversity by playing for each other. It seems the Ducks might finally be ready to do that.
“We’re gonna be closer as a family,” sophomore defensive tackle, Jordon Scott, said on Sunday. “Whenever you feel like you’re playing for something deeper than yourself, it’s always a good thing.”
Follow Nichole Brown on Twitter @UOgridirongirl