Canzano: Hire comes with ringing endorsements
Former Ducks, Beavers give Keith Heyward a 'thumbs up.'
Keith Heyward was a terrific recruiter as an assistant at the University of Oregon. He played a vital role in helping the Ducks land safety Jevon Holland and sign defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Those guys loved him.
So much so that one of them reached out to me after hearing that Oregon State hired Heyward on Thursday to be Trent Bray’s defensive coordinator. It was the worst-kept secret at OSU for several weeks as the Beavers waited for Heyward’s tenure as a quality-control coach with the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders to wind toward a close.
The announcement could wait no longer, apparently.
Bray is a former Beaver. So is his offensive coordinator, Ryan Gunderson. And now, the first-year coach has handed the keys to his defense to a 43-year old former four-year letterman at OSU.
Scott Barnes, the athletic director in Corvallis told me on Thursday that being an ex-Beaver player should never drive a hiring decision. There are other factors (i.e. pedigree, skill, coaching success, etc.) involved.
“All else being equal,” Barnes said, “we will take an OSU alum every time.”
The AD did just that in late 2017 after a 1-11 regular season crashed to an end. Coach Gary Andersen quit, midseason. Fans were dismayed. The season-ticket base had melted to 17,177 and was headed even lower.
Barnes flew to Seattle after a season-ending 69-10 Civil War loss to Oregon and met with a University of Washington assistant named Jonathan Smith. They sat in a hotel suite and talked about the job that Smith eventually got.
The AD told me a couple of years ago that Smith was prepared, thoughtful and in control during the interview. And Barnes liked that the coach had a plan that wasn’t about “just” being bowl eligible. Smith wanted to win big. And Barnes noted something else.
Said the AD: “He wore his Fiesta Bowl ring to the interview.”
I thought about that scene when I heard about Heyward’s hire. Also, about how overdue the former college cornerback was to become defensive coordinator at a school like OSU. Heyward had served as an assistant at UW, Cal, USC, Oregon and OSU among other places, waiting for a promotion. And so Thursday was a professional breakthrough for Heyward.
It’s why the strong endorsements of those two former Ducks also crossed my mind when I heard Heyward was the DC hire at Oregon State. He got passed over twice at Oregon for the same position. Mario Cristobal chose Andy Avalos the first time around, then after Avalos left, skipped over Heyward again and hired Tim DeRuyter as the defensive coordinator.
Heyward was hurt by that.
No way around it.
He packed up, left Eugene, and took a job as an assistant at Cal.
Holland took to social media that same day, and wrote:
“Coach Heyward the reason I started looking at Oregon. He is not only a football coach but a LIFE coach! You were one of the most influential people at Oregon and my life. From recruiting to mentoring to coaching you've helped all of us become better men. Love you coach! Thank U!”
Thibodeaux came right after, posting:
“I don’t know what to say, this cuts deep. You are one of the reasons I came to Oregon. I knew it couldn’t last forever but didn’t know it was coming this soon. Love you coach… more blessings to come…”
One season later, Heyward left Cal and joined Marcus Arroyo’s staff at UNLV. But that ended with Arroyo’s firing. Heyward stayed in Las Vegas and went to work for the local NFL team.
I reached out to former Beavers’ defensive back Jaydon Grant on Thursday. He’s on the practice squad with the Raiders, worked closely with Heyward this season and understands the current plight of Oregon State. The former OSU team captain called it Bray’s best hire yet.
“He’s coached and helped develop a lot of good players. I think that will help a lot with recruiting,” Grant told me. “As far as scheme, I think he will run Bray’s defense still but implement his own twists. He’s a good dude — really methodical approach to his work. Very detailed. Learned a lot from him this season and got to get close with him. Glad to see he’s back where he belongs.”
The leadership team in the football operations building at OSU doesn’t need a campus map. Bray, Gunderson and Heyward could work the summer orientation circuit, giving tours and offering fun facts about the 520-acre campus.
In the first few days after Bray was hired, Oregon State got more than 100 deposits for new season tickets, I’m told. The sample size is small. Season-ticket renewals at OSU won’t start until early January. Here’s a question while we wait for more data: Is going “local” and having Purdue and the Civil War on a seven-game home schedule enough to retain OSU’s robust season-ticket base?
We’ll soon see.
Mike Riley is back in town, too. The ex-OSU coach told me after Smith left for Michigan State that he’d be happy to help out wherever he’s needed. An offensive consultant to Gunderson this summer? Riley has 379 games of head coaching experience at a variety of levels. Could he mentor Bray, who has 0 games as a head coach? It’s not the worst idea I’ve circulated.
Chris Petersen, the former Washington head coach, told me early in the football season that he was privately offering consultation to a few current college head coaches. He wouldn’t say which ones, but I wondered if Smith, his former pupil, was among them. Smith’s habits sometimes mirrored those of Petersen. Both men kept the laces of their inner-circle pulled extraordinarily tight, for example.
That’s all getting way ahead, though, isn’t it?
The trajectories of Oregon State and Washington State are a fascinating study right now. The Cougars announced 23 high school signees last week as part of the National Signing Day. Coach Jake Dickert’s master plan is evident — sign a bunch of talented high school players while they’re young, develop them, bond with them, and then work hard to retain them.
Oregon State veered in a different philosophical direction under its first-year coach, opting for a boutique-sized class of 10 signees. Some of that probably has to do with the commitments that followed Smith to Michigan State.
Since signing day, Bray has signed JUCO defensive back Amarion York and four-star wide receiver Jordan Anderson. And Missouri’s Gabarri Johnson — a former four-star recruit from Tacoma — announced he’s transferring to OSU.
The pieces are coming together for Oregon State. I can’t tell if that equates to quantifiable success in 2024 or just the foundation for something else. Frankly, the calculus is tricky given that the Beavers aren’t playing a true Pac-12 schedule.
I like the hire of Heyward.
He’s ready for the job. The endorsements of Holland, Thibodeaux and Grant carry a lot of weight. That trio understands the challenges of college football. They’ve all been his pupils. Grant sounded certain it was a home-run hire. And Holland wanted people know just how good he thinks Oregon State’s hire of Heyward is.
Holland is now with the Miami Dolphins, but reached out to me on Thursday via direct message with a follow up thought on Heyward:
“Not only is he going to help develop those young men,” Holland wrote to me, “he’s going to inspire them to create change in their lives. I’m beyond proud and excited to see my coach, friend, and mentor have the success he deserves.”
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