Not just about the shiny stuff

Oregon's new football-operations building has Brazilian wood floors, German-built lockers and Ferrari-grade leather.

So this is how you get to be No. 2 in the country, making a stiff challenge for a national championship. You get Phil Knight backing your team, and off into the diamond lane you go.

That's the popular narrative that surrounds the Ducks, and if you're a Washington die-hard who shudders every time you go south of the state line, that's the convenient one for you: Oregon got good, it's pounded Washington nine straight times, because of Phil Knight.

It's not that easy.

Today, Oregon is a curious combination of the billionaire Knight's largesse, and a mom-and-pop ethic of loyalty, continuity and efficiency beneath all that glitz.

When Knight wanted rugs for the new building, he turned to Nepal. When he wants coaches, he looks to Eugene.

Six Oregon assistant football coaches have done a combined 129 years on the staff. Nick Aliotti, 59, the defensive coordinator, is secure enough in his place that he told me the other day:

"We're 100 percent grateful for everything Phil Knight has done. But we went to the Rose Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, and then Phil Knight jumped in.

"We brought this to where it is from nothing. The chicken or the egg: Which came first? We won first. In this case, the chicken came first."

No doubt Knight's impact on Oregon has been thunderous. But if all it took was money, Texas, with the biggest collegiate budget, wouldn't be trying to figure out what to do with Mack Brown in another struggling season.

"We have a lot of shiny stuff," says first-year coach Mark Helfrich, the third straight head man hired out of the Oregon staff, "but the people inside those buildings are what make it go."

Yeah, Oregon got involved with the wrong guy in Texas scout Willie Lyles, and the Ducks deserved more than they got from the NCAA. But in the big picture, you don't see Oregon making Alabama-style, five-star recruiting hauls every year.

Page through the last six annual recruiting rankings on, and you won't find Oregon in any top 10. In fact, Washington outranked the Ducks in half those years.

Marcus Mariota, the quarterback who might win the Heisman in two months, was a three-star recruit from Hawaii. A dozen guys, 12 of them, outranked him in his 2011 class at Oregon.

Somebody's doing some solid work, and it's gotten noticed. David Shaw, the Stanford coach, recently called Aliotti "the most underrated guy in the last four years in our conference."

If the Ducks were living off etched glass and gold inlays, they'd be pouring players into the NFL every season. That number has improved the last couple of years, but guess how many players Oregon had chosen in the first NFL draft after it lost to Auburn and Cam Newton in the BCS championship three years ago? One, in the fourth round.

All those bells and whistles, the Ann Sacks tiles in the restrooms of the football-ops building, have created an ironic recruiting challenge.

"Why are they coming here?" asks Steve Greatwood, the offensive line coach. "That's the hardest thing to pick out. If they're coming because of the uniforms or the beautiful facilities, that's not the kid we want. In the long run, when things get hard, he's going to bail on you."

The guys who have worked at Oregon the longest describe a cohesive culture with a lot of trust. Here's that concept in action: When Chip Kelly left to go to the NFL, Helfrich didn't really invite the veteran assistants to stay. It was just sort of understood.

"Maybe I was being naive," said Greatwood, "but I didn't even question whether I had a job or not. I just assumed."

The Oregon assistants want it to be their last job, so there isn't a lot of time spent on the phone networking. Aliotti talks weekly to only about four guys, two of them ex-Oregon head coaches Mike Bellotti and Rich Brooks. Another is Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who played there ("We'll probably talk," Aliotti said before this week, "we just won't talk about the game.")

Greatwood insists the staff collegiality finds its way to the players.

"You don't see fights, you don't see cheap shots," he says. "Our players respect each other and take care of each other. They understand the value of the guy next to him."

Running backs coach Gary Campbell is the longest-tenured coach in the country at one school — 31 years. Greatwood, who played at Oregon, and Aliotti have done parts of five different decades at the place.

Greatwood has worked in L.A., at USC, and he's worked near the Beltway at Maryland. Now he lives nine-tenths of a mile from his office; he bought Brooks' home in 2000. It takes him six minutes to drive to work, eight on his bike.

Anyway, it all works, the shoe baron and the staff loyalists. Among all those gleaming gifts from Phil Knight, maybe his sense for people has been the most underrated.

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