The Ducks aren’t just known for their endless innovative uniform combinations and a Heisman Trophy winner, but for also having the longest tenured coaching staff among the nation’s BCS Bowl Championship Subdivision — with six out of the eleven coaches having served more than ten years. Assistant Coach Gary Campbell is entering his 33nd season; it will be Strength and Conditioning Coach Jim Radcliffe’s 31st year, Assistant Coach Steve Greatwood’s 29th season and it’s been 22-years with the program for Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum.
It makes Oregon an anomaly.
In an era when coaches jump conferences for possibly greener turf every few seasons, when entire staffs are fired and loyalty is written on the walls of the locker room but often not practiced; the Ducks’ staff is devoted and rich in Oregon tradition.
Two recent additions to native Oregonian Mark Helfrich’s coaching staff are no strangers to that tradition. Former players returning as graduate assistants Nate Costa and Kwame Agyeman play vital roles in developing young talent — cleats they once filled just a few short seasons ago. Creating even more coaching continuity that translates from the film room to the locker room to the field contributing to Oregon’s success. Both took different paths to the clipboard but never strayed too far from the game after their last days at Autzen Stadium.
His ill-fated playing career — Quarterback Nate Costa famously endured three brutal knee injuries but finished his senior season in uniform at the 2010 BCS National Championship game and was voted the teams most inspirational player. In the summer of 2011, Costa was sworn in as a police officer for the Springfield Police Department but was forced to resign a few months later because of the health of his knees. He worked two seasons as an analyst for ComcastSportsNet.
Costa joined Helfrich’s staff in 2013 working with quarterbacks and wide receivers and quickly knew coaching was where he was supposed to be, “I didn’t know that I would be so passionate about recruiting. I’m just in love with coaching in general.”
The Hilmar, California native completed his master’s degree in educational leadership and says his biggest challenge is learning how to effectively communicate as a teacher, “Understanding that the person that you are talking to might not have a real grasp of what you are trying to explain so you might have to break it down in a way that they can understand it. I think as a player you take that for granted,” Costa said.
One of the aspects of his new role with the Ducks that he won’t ever take for granted, the reward of watching a competitor put in the work and see the results. Costa recalls last year when then true freshman Charles Nelson entered fall camp and it was obvious the young wide receiver had great athletic ability and a hunger to learn but there were some questions surrounding whether or not he was mentally ready for the complexities of Oregon’s offense.
“He did a lot work during fall camp and the first couple games of the season and got to the point where he wasn’t just learning his position he was learning the whole offense and other positions. Once he got to that point it was kind of like he can pretty much do anything that we are going to throw at him,” said Costa. “That’s very rewarding. And to see that hunger to learn more and be such a competitor. It’s every coach’s dream.”
As a linebacker for the Ducks from 2005 to 2007, Kwame Agyeman was on hand for some of the more memorable games in program history as the Ducks upset Oklahoma in 2006 at Autzen Stadium and overwhelmed Michigan in Ann Arbor a year later. Agyeman led the Ducks in tackles in 2006 and was near the top of the list in 2007 as well, finishing behind Jerome Boyd and Nick Reed. He played three seasons in the Arena Football League and started his coaching career at Thurston High School in Springfield. After two seasons as the recruiting assistant and special teams quality control assistant coach at Northwestern University, the Illinois native returned to Eugene for a spring break visit and reconnected with Coach Pellum and Coach John Neal. He expressed interest in returning as a graduate assistant if the opportunity ever came available.
A year later he got the call.
Agyeman interviewed on a Sunday, was offered the job on a Wednesday and says was back in Eugene by the next Sunday just in time for spring practices. “I packed my bags in a hurry.”
The defensive graduate assistant helps Pellum, the position coach he played under, in the day- to-day details and works with Neal in developing the young defensive backs like redshirt sophomore Ty Griffin, “really trying to help them come along.” Agyeman said.
While Agyeman says having plenty of familiar faces in the building has made the transition easier to dive head first back into it, the defense Oregon is running now is an entirely new playbook for the 29-year-old.
“It’s 90-percent different than when I was here. It’s been great because personally I wanted to learn about the 3-4 defenses, a lot of the things we do now on the backend, it’s really high level stuff. It’s been a whole new learning experience for me as well,” Agyeman said.
Learning in the classroom is also a part of his day-to-day duties. If enduring the grueling hours and demanding schedule of a coaching season isn’t challenging enough try adding course work on top of that as Agyeman works towards his postgraduate degree. His graduate program so far is undeclared.
What is very clear is his decision to pursue coaching. While working at an Oregon youth football summer camp Agyeman’s team won some of the competitions and suddenly he understood why his coaches and teammates had been pushing him to get into coaching all those years. I mean, his teammates even affectionately nicknamed him “Coach Kwame.”
“I got that satisfaction like ‘Wow; this is what I’m supposed to be doing’. It’s kind of been full steam ahead from there and haven’t let anything stop me since then,” said Agyeman.
And like Costa, enjoys the challenge of when an athlete doesn’t “get it” right away and the real work begins.
Said Agyeman: “You work at it and you work at it and then finally the light comes on and now you see that they become a different guy to have that confidence, to me that feeling as a coach is better than any payment.”
Perhaps that kind of payment that you can’t put a monetary value on and the tradition and culture that has been created in the Oregon locker room is one of the same reasons why the core of the Oregon coaching staff have been planting some deep roots in Eugene for so many decades.
~ Nicole Abeyta