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Canzano: Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers fostering a college football renaissance

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 12/7/2019 By John Canzano, oregonlive.com

Mario Cristobal is a raging maniac.

I used to wonder if all the talk about waking at 4 a.m. and staying up all night poring over film was designed to make us all believe he was out-working everyone.

Turns out, he really is.

The University of Oregon clinched a Rose Bowl berth with its win over Utah on Friday night, and by 11 p.m., Cristobal was already on a “home visit” with a recruit at a nearby hotel. Then, on Saturday, the Ducks’ coach had two more visits scheduled, with his day ending in Arizona.

He’d probably tell you, “I really am boring.” Or, “I have nothing else to do.” But I don’t find him boring at all and I’m also well aware that he has plenty to do. He’ll be in Atlanta on Thursday, for instance, with prized left tackle Penei Sewell for the Outland Trophy announcement.

Saturday morning I told Cristobal I hope he took a moment to enjoy what was a special day. You know, two seconds to reflect on a trajectory that has him in a Rose Bowl in his second season on the job.

“Took three seconds,” he said.

Then, he was off.

The early returns are encouraging. But what has been established over the last 24 months is that Oregon’s football program mostly holds up when held to the highest of standards. I didn’t like the late-season no-show against Arizona State. I didn’t love the flat Civil War show. But when the lights came on and the championship trophy was at stake, Oregon showed up.

Jonathan Smith is a lunatic, too.

Oregon State’s football coach narrowly missed a bowl game in his second season. The Beavers (5-7) made November a compelling month, racing toward legitimacy. Then, after the Civil War loss, Smith seized the only advantage he had -- no bowl game to prepare for, no practices -- and he got on a private plane, making home visits in Texas and Washington, D.C.

Mid-week, Smith checked in. He was in Stockton, Calif., where he told me a story about a dinner-time home visit he’d once made. In advance of the scheduled visit, the recruit’s parents apologized that they wouldn’t be able to feed Smith and another assistant with him.

“We’re just getting home from work,” the recruit’s mother said, “and we have other kids with activities.”

Not a problem. So Smith and his travel partner dined before the visit, eating a full dinner while planning their presentation. The Oregon State contingent arrived for the visit, and walked in horrified to learn plans had changed.

“They’d ordered pizza," he said, “and had like six pizzas.”

He called an audible.

Smith said: “I took small bites.”

There have been joyful football seasons before at UO. Chip Kelly took the Ducks to four BCS-era games in four seasons. Rich Brooks delivered a Rose Bowl. Mark Helfrich took Oregon to the College Football Playoff.

Oregon State whipped Notre Dame in a Fiesta Bowl under Dennis Erickson. Mike Riley won 28 games in the three-year span beginning in 2006. Lon Stiner took the Beavers to a Rose Bowl, and Tommy Prothro reached Pasadena twice.

But Cristobal and Smith have something going, don’t they?

They’re an odd couple, stylistically. Cristobal beats everyone to work in the morning. He’s a freight train of energy and enthusiasm. Smith works, too, but insists that his staff find life balance. He keeps a regular schedule and even sends them home early one night a week during the season.

Yet here they are, both candidates for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Think about the absurdity of that given that two years ago their respective universities were facing tricky hires in the wake of embarrassing and unfortunate coaching departures.

Willie Taggart deserted Oregon. Gary Andersen quit midseason on OSU.

This probably couldn’t have gone better for both fan bases.

On Thursday, Sewell will stand among three finalists as the honor of the nation’s best interior lineman is awarded. He’s up against the usual sort of candidates, one from Auburn and another from Wisconsin. And Cristobal, who called Sewell the best he’s ever coached, will be there alongside his pupil.

There’s some talk, too, about Oregon pushing Sewell as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate next season. While the Heisman is named in honor of John Heisman, an interior lineman, no interior lineman on either side of the ball has ever won it.

Could Sewell be the first in 2020?

I’ve stopped doubting that absurd things could happen in Cristobal’s era.

Meanwhile, Smith is expected to land a series of commitments in the coming days, too. His Saturday included campus visits from a line of players he thinks can help Oregon State reach a bowl game next season.

You and I?

We’re witnessing a collective college football renaissance in our state. Early stages, of course. But I can’t think of a time in the last couple of decades that I was more bullish about both programs at the same time.

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©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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