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Duck hunt: Oregon AD Mullens begins 'surprise' search

by: GREG WAHL-STEPHENS - Oregon's task now is to replace Chip Kelly as head football coach, after Kelly walked away from the Ducks on Wednesday to become head coach of the NFL Philadelphia Eages.EUGENE — University of Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens received the news in a phone call at 7:15 a.m.

It was Chip Kelly, saying good-bye.

Ten days after saying no to the NFL and after interviews with three teams, Kelly decided to leave Oregon for the head coaching job with one of them, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Mullens said the wake-up call-hour ring from Kelly was the first he had heard about the Eagles job since Kelly's recent interview with Philadelphia.

“It is what it is," Mullens said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference at Casanova Center, "and we’re moving forward.

"He made a decision that was best for him, and we wish him well. He was great for Oregon football, and we’re moving on. I’ve turned the page.

“I was surprised when I got the call this morning. When he called me the Sunday after the Fiesta Bowl, I thought that was it. He had been very thorough in his exploration. I thought that was the end of it.”

Why did Kelly change his mind about the Eagles and the NFL?

“He relayed to me that he’s thought long and hard about it over the last 10 days," Mullens said, "and that it was a challenge he wanted to take, and he wasn’t sure if the opportunity would present itself again.”

Kelly leaves behind a four-year run that is among the most impressive of any coach in college football history. With an ungodly offense designed by Kelly himself, the Ducks went 46-7 (.868) with him at the helm. Oregon won three conference championships, a Rose Bowl, lost to Auburn in a national championship game and won the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3.

“The results speak for themselves,” Mullens said. “He’s been great for Oregon football. He was handed a great situation, and he took it to a better place."

What will become of the Oregon program? And, who will replace Kelly?

“We’ve restarted our search, and we’re full-speed ahead to find the right fit for Oregon football,” Mullens said.

The in-house favorite would seem to be offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. The Oregon native, who was an All-American quarterback at Southern Oregon, came to the Ducks in 2008 after a stint as offensive coordinator at Colorado.

The thought behind hiring Helfrich is keeping the Ducks' offense intact. Mullens said that is not his only concern, though.

“We want someone who understands the culture," Mullens said. "We want someone who has proven excellence. The expectations for this program have shifted. We want to win Pac-12 championships and be in BCS games.”

The Ducks could consider other internal candidates.

Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has long coveted the opportunity to become a head coach. When former Oregon coach Rich Brooks left Oregon in 1995, Aliotti and then-offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti applied for the head coaching job. The position went to Bellotti, and Aliotti left Oregon to coach in the NFL for the St. Louis Rams and later at UCLA before returning to the Ducks in 1999.

Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, who has been with the Ducks for 21 seasons, also might be interested in the UO vacancy.

“We have a number of internal candidates,” Mullens said. “We have several coaches on our staff who have the experience and background to be head coaches. We’ll have a few who are interested in the position. The ones who express interest, we’ll talk to.”

The process will not be quite as simple for Oregon as just hiring an internal candidate right off the bat. Under the Rooney Rule, Oregon state law will require the Ducks to interview at least one qualified minority candidate before making a hire.

“The policies and procedures are what they are,” Mullens said. “We’re going to follow them. We are where we are, and we understand the path.”

Mullens was clear that he will also look outside of the program for a possible new coach. He has yet to retain a search firm, but did not rule that out.

“We’re going to involve other people,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of calls and talked to a lot of people. At the end of the day, I’ll have a recommendation that I’ll make to the president.”

Meanwhile, the Ducks still are dealing with an NCAA investigation into their recruiting practices under Kelly.

Mullens said he does not believe that anything to do with Kelly leaving Oregon and vehemently said he does not believe the NCAA investigation will be a factor for any of the coaches he interviews.

“I don’t think it will be a significant conversation,” Mullens said. “We do things the right way here. Most people in the industry absolutely understand that.”

One way or another, the Ducks want to keep the process as private as they can.

“We won’t talk specifically about the candidates, and when we have an announcement we’ll present it to you,” Mullens said. “We have already done a lot of ground work. We had already started the process, knowing that Chip was going to talk to (NFL) teams while he was in Phoenix (for the Fiesta Bowl). Obviously, we shut it down, but it’s going to be easy to get it going again.”

Hiring a new head coach quickly will be critical for Oregon, given that letter-of-intent signing day is just three weeks away.

“We’ll move as fast as we can,” Mullens said. “But I’m not going to set some arbitrary date. We’re very aware of where we are in the recruiting process. The timing is less than ideal, no doubt. We’re in a critical period. The recruiting process will continue. That’s why we want to move as quickly as possible. But we’re not going to be driven by timeline. We’re going to be thorough.”

Mullens said the Ducks are lucky to have a strong staff of assistant coaches to help salvage the damage to the upcoming recruiting class that Kelly leaving may have caused.

“We’re fortunate to have a very veteran group of coaches,” Mullens said. “They’re all on the road, and they’ll stay on the road.”

Of course, the Ducks could be further hamstrung if Kelly decides to take any assistant coaches with him to the NFL.

“There’s speculation,” Mullens said, of Kelly taking some of his Ducks staff to Philadelphia. “But I’m not aware of anything like that.”

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, Mullens said Kelly was a positive for the school and its football program.

“If Chip’s heart is in the NFL, that’s where he belongs,” Mullens said. “He’s been great for the University of Oregon. He’s been great for Oregon football.”