High School Sports

Mario Cristobal signs a top-ranked football recruiting class. How did the Oregon Ducks coach do it?

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal supports his team in the second half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona defeated Oregon 44-15. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal supports his team in the second half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona defeated Oregon 44-15. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) AP

Former Oregon Ducks running back LaMichael James summed up how Mario Cristobal approaches football relationships in a tweet he composed last week.

“I’ve never played a down for (Cristobal) and he still found time in his day to find my (phone number) and text and congratulate me on my business venture,” James wrote.

“It shows he cares about these kids as men first before athletes, those kids are lucky to have you coach.”

What James shared about Cristobal, who recently wrapped up his first full season as Oregon’s head coach, is common among those who have crossed paths with him.

They say Cristobal has a natural ability to connect with players, assistant coaches and former players. They say he’s energized the football community in Eugene.

He gives the same amount of effort to recruits, their high school coaches and their parents, sometimes before they ever step on campus.

“The thing that comes across is he’s very down-to-earth, and very positive,” said Sheldon High School coach Josh Line, an Oregon native who played three seasons as a Ducks fullback from 1999-2001.

“You get the sense that you would love to have your son play for a guy like that.”

This is how Cristobal has rapidly returned Oregon’s program — which briefly slipped back into uncertainty after Willie Taggart’s abrupt departure for Florida State less than two years ago — to national prominence.

The Ducks went 9-4 under Cristobal in 2018, and ended the season with a win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl in December. Quarterback Justin Herbert, who was projected as an early first-round NFL Draft pick, is returning for his senior season.

Later this week, Oregon is expected to wrap up the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation — the first top-10 class the program has produced in modern history, and the highest-ranked class the program has had according to 247Sports.com.

“He’s passionate. He’s energetic. He loves recruiting,” Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor at 247Sports, said of Cristobal.

Oregon’s 2019 class, which also tops the Pac-12 rankings for the first time in decades, includes coveted recruits such as five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — the consensus No. 2 prospect in the class, and top-ranked player in the country by ESPN. He chose the Ducks over Alabama (where Cristobal was formerly an assistant), Florida State (where Taggart coaches now) and Florida.

“The name recognition is still there,” Cristobal told reporters when the Ducks signed their first batch of 2019 recruits in December. “Oregon is strong everywhere in the country.

“We just made it a point to be us. We’re high energy and passionate individuals while we’re coaching and teaching and everything else. It’s got to show in recruiting. Players and families have to see that.”

Thibodeaux is also the highest-rated recruit the Ducks have ever signed, topping notable Oregon alumni like Haloti Ngata (Philadelphia Eagles), Jonathan Stewart (New York Giants) and De’Anthony Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs) in the high school prospect rankings.

The Westlake Village, Calif., native announced his commitment to the Ducks live on ESPN on Dec. 15, and signed with the Ducks four days later.

As Thibodeaux revealed a green visor on national television, he was asked about the role Cristobal played in his decision.

“Mario Cristobal is a great guy,” Thibodeaux responded. “On our home visit he really touched down. My mom loved him. … He can take my game to the next level.”

Thibodeaux is one of 22 recruits the Ducks signed during December’s early period, and one of six who have already enrolled at Oregon.

Three more players in this class have given verbal commitments to the Ducks, and are expected to sign on Wednesday’s traditional National Signing Day.

Of the early signees, The News Tribune considers 12 of them among the top prospects in the West on its annual Western 100 recruiting rankings list.

“The success they’re having is pretty incredible,” said Line, whose four-star tight end Patrick Herbert, Justin’s younger brother, signed with the Ducks in December. “The type of kids they’re getting has been impressive.”

It all seems to be a product of Cristobal’s approach. High school coaches appreciate how genuine he is. Recruits are drawn to the “family” feeling he creates, and the plan he has for them.

“He’s good at making you feel like you’re the guy — you’re the one. It’s a need, not a want,” said freshman Cale Millen, a quarterback out of Snoqualmie, Wash., and the only passer in the class the Ducks have signed.

“It’s a special feeling he gives you, and when you’re getting recruited by him, you really feel like someone believes in you, and feels that together you can create something special.”

Much of Cristobal’s recruiting reputation stems from his stints as Florida International’s head coach (2007-12) and as an assistant at Alabama (2013-16).

Cristobal, who was an offensive tackle for two of Miami’s AP national championship teams in 1989 and 1991, was dubbed the national recruiter of the year by 247Sports in 2015 — when he helped the Crimson Tide ink seven five-star recruits ranked in the nation’s top 50. Alabama finished as the nation’s top program in the recruiting rankings each of his four seasons there.

“He was essentially (Nick) Saban’s chief recruiter,” Huffman said. “He just pursued offensive lineman. That’s where he made his bread, was recruiting offensive lineman at Alabama. He had certain parts of the country, like South Florida where he’s from, where he just had great connections.

“He brought that same energy and attention from his time at Alabama. The core you see at Alabama right now is a lot of his handiwork.”

Cristobal joined Taggart at Oregon in January 2017, and despite enduring an exodus of 10 commits in the weeks following Taggart’s departure that December, still managed to sign 12 four-star recruits to the Ducks’ 2018 class.

“A lot of the guys they had commitments from early on in the 2018 class, and many of those guys they were able to keep in that 2018 class was probably a result of (Cristobal getting the job),” Huffman said.

“He just laid that groundwork for a lot of those guys as their national recruiter, and then as the head coach kind of kept up on them.”

The Ducks finished with the second-highest rated batch of recruits in the Pac-12, second only to USC — which has led the conference in recruiting rankings for much of the past two decades according to 247Sports — before leapfrogging the Trojans in 2019.

USC (which has 11 recruits listed on TNT’s Western 100 list) dropped to third in the conference in this year’s rankings, and Washington (16) is rated second barring any late changes Wednesday.

“It validates the fact that Oregon is an unbelievable place, awesome place, and … one of the more premier places around the country,” Cristobal said at his December press conference. “It validates that … if you work hard, you’re genuine and you’re honest and have a passion for the people you work with and work for, it’s going to show.

“And, it’s going to attract the right type of student-athletes and families to want to be a part of that.”

Charlie Kinnune, Millen’s coach at Mount Si High School, said the emphasis Cristobal and his staff — many of whom Cristobal retained following Taggart’s short stint — put on recruiting is a big part of Oregon’s appeal.

“The coaching staff captivated (Millen), obviously like it did many other good football players,” Kinnune said. “They’re an attractive staff coupled with second-to-none facilities. … I think that coaching staff was put together with recruiting in mind first. I think that a large part of every coach’s day is spent on connecting with future kids.”

Millen, who signed during the early period and enrolled in January, said Oregon’s consistent effort to stay in contact during his final year of high school was pivotal.

He had offers from Arizona State and UCLA, and interest from others, and spent nearly five months verbally committed to Northwestern before ultimately choosing the Ducks last spring.

“I felt like, at other schools, they needed to fill a position at quarterback,” Millen said. “At Oregon, it felt like more than that. It felt like — this is a guy we need, not only to have a quarterback for the class, but a guy we want to have, and know we can mature him and grow him for the future, and hopefully he can be a key player with us.”

Millen praised Cristobal’s involvement throughout the recruiting process, and how his positive energy has stayed on the same level when Millen has seen him on campus.

For Millen, and many others, Cristobal has been a consistent presence from the beginning of the recruiting trail to the end.

“When you talk to kids who have taken an unofficial visit, they’ll tell you about getting off of the elevator, and there’s coaches and staffers waiting for you cheering,” Huffman said. “And he’s right there in front of it.

“A lot of the time assistant coaches and admin guys do unofficial (visits). He relishes the unofficials. I think part of that is because of his assistant coaching background.”

Cristobal recruits early, he recruits often and, as James pointed out, he even recruits players long after they’ve left Eugene. As for the tweet James sent out last week, Cristobal replied with a fitting message.

“Once a Duck always a Duck,” he wrote.

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.