By Rob Moseley
Staff continuity at Oregon has rightfully garnered attention as a major key to the Ducks’ rise over the years. The current staff is littered with coaches boasting decades of experience with the program, such as Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood and Don Pellum.
From Jim Radcliffe in the weight room, to Kevin Steil and Kim Terrell in the athletic training suite, several other, less heralded members of the staff also have played a part in that continuity. In that group, count graduate assistant coach Mike Keldorf, who is more than likely entering his final season with the Ducks after methodically working his way up the coaching ladder over more than a dozen years with the program.
Keldorf, a native of Los Angeles, was an undergraduate assistant coach while a student from 2002-06. He then worked as a volunteer assistant and an intern before being named a GA, almost all of those years spent at Pellum’s side.
Now in his third year as a GA, the last allowable, Keldorf will pursue a full-time assistant job following this season. He’ll do so armed with the wealth of knowledge he accumulated as a valued – if under the radar – member of the program.
“I’ve always been happy with the fact I’ve had such a good opportunity to be part of it,” Keldorf said. “Seeing how this program has progressed, it’s definitely been a privilege.”
A former quarterback and linebacker at St. Bernard High in Playa Del Ray, Calif., Keldorf missed his final two high school seasons due to injury. It was then that he was bitten by the coaching bug, while sticking by his team despite the personal setback.
Keldorf’s older brother, Chris, was recruited to California during Pellum’s brief tenure there, and the two stayed in contact. When Mike expressed interest in attending Oregon, his brother – who eventually played at North Carolina – reached out to Pellum, who had by then returned to the Ducks. Mike participated in a summer camp in Eugene in 2002, and eventually Pellum agreed to take him on as an undergraduate assistant.
His initial duties were solely administrative; Keldorf’s first season was spent transferring a hard copy of Oregon’s defensive playbook into electronic form. “I didn’t know what was on the paper,” he said. “I just knew I had to replicate it.”
Over the years, Keldorf’s role expanded. He spent time on the sidelines, helping Pellum identify personnel groupings the offense was fielding. Eventually he worked his way up into the coaches’ box – including a memorable day at Michigan in 2007 – logging the plays called by then-defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
The advancement was incremental, as the staff gained faith in Keldorf’s abilities. “It’s a tight-knit group,” he said. “It’s not a fraternity, but you don’t just break into that role with the lack of experience I had.”
That lack of experience contributed to Keldorf’s sticking around as a volunteer assistant after graduation, and then as part of the fledgling intern program, from 2008-11. But so too did his emerging talents, as Keldorf gained a mastery of Oregon’s defense, and was entrusted to help break down film on opponents.
“There’s a lot of people that would like to be a part of our program,” Pellum said. “We get inquiries all the time. For a person to be here an extended amount of time, they have to be doing a pretty good job. We depend on them so much, we need them to be able to handle the work. He proved early on he could work.”
Keldorf’s role breaking down film began with limited special teams review during his undergraduate years. That progressed during four seasons as an intern – two on offense under Campbell, two back on defense – when he’d be assigned specific jobs such as noting a team’s tendencies in coverages, or its blitz packages.
The job experience was priceless, for someone who hadn’t played in college, and had never been a full-time coach. That more than made up for the limited financial compensation. “It’s minimal,” Keldorf shrugged, “but it’s not that hard to survive in Eugene.”
Since he arrived at Oregon, Keldorf’s goal had been to become a graduate assistant. He was tantalizingly close as an intern, just waiting for his chance. It finally came in 2012, when he formally joined the defensive staff.
As an intern, Keldorf couldn’t actually do any coaching at practices; his work with the scout team was limited to holding up play cards in the huddle before each snap. Now, he and fellow defensive GA Cha’pelle Brown compile scouting reports and run meetings for the scout team, and can provide coaching in position drills.
In his third and final season as a GA, Keldorf can’t deny feeling a bit sentimental. That was the case late last season, too, though he could afford to be picky when looking for a job then because the chance for one more season with the Ducks was available. “I didn’t know if that was going to be my last year,” Keldorf said. “The Oregon State game, when we were singing the fight song, that was a big deal to me.”
The 2014 season will almost certainly be the end of the road for Keldorf at Oregon, however – for now, at least, given the Ducks’ track record of welcoming former assistants back to the staff after a few years apart. He’s soaking up one more season at the side of Pellum, his mentor ever since Keldorf arrived in 2002.
“I don’t know why we mesh so well together, other than that I’ve been a ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy as long as I’ve been around him,” Keldorf said. “I took the job very seriously, and he appreciated that. I’ve worked my butt off for him.”
Senior linebacker Derrick Malone considers Keldorf a mentor, and said the GA “knows the defense as well as anybody.” Malone said Keldorf and Pellum “are like the same person. They’ve been together for so many years, they know how each other think, they know the common goals they want to achieve, and they feed off each other.”
Keldorf also considers Aliotti, Campbell, Greatwood, Scott Frost, John Neal and the last three head coaches – Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich – as instrumental to his tenure and development with the Ducks.
It’s a tenure that’s coming to a close, after more than a dozen years contributing meaningfully and without fanfare to Oregon’s meteoric rise to national prominence. “As we’ve always said, ‘Next man up,’” Keldorf said. “I’ve just been happy to be part of this thing.”