After just one season in which his team posted an .846 winning percentage, Mark Helfrich is under significant pressure from many fans who doubt his ability to lead the Oregon Ducks to a national title.
Such is the life of a head coach of a perennial top-ranked program.
The intense scrutiny is nothing new for Helfrich, who inherited the impossible task of replacing a coach — Chip Kelly — who led the Ducks to four consecutive BCS appearances and three Pac-12 championships. In his first season in charge of the program, two losses (one of which was to a team that nearly won a second straight Rose Bowl) soured many fans’ opinions of the new head coach.
Many believe that Helfrich doesn’t possess the control over the program Kelly once had. It’s easy to point to things such as his sideline body language or the infamous Rose Bowl comments made by Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas last season to argue that Helfrich doesn’t have a strong grasp on the program.
However, it’s just not that simple.
It’s unfair to expect anyone to match the dominating personality that Kelly had in his four years as the head man. The success of soft-spoken football coaches such as Tony Dungy, proves that it isn’t always necessary to have a demonstrative, boisterous head coach.
Even if Helfrich did have a loud personality, it would have been impossible for him to fully reveal it last season. Sticking with the same theme, remnants of the Kelly era, were still prominent last season. Helfrich was coaching a team of players that he, although playing a key role, did not recruit. Furthermore, it would be a major challenge for anyone to completely reign in the senior leaders on the team, many of whom had been in Eugene for four years and were the last of the group of players who had any real contribution to the national title game appearance.
With these players graduated, Helfrich can have a greater influence on the program. Nonetheless, the coach realizes that he will only have complete control of the program in a couple of years when his own recruits begin sliding into starting positions.
“There is another coach in this conference that told me when I first got hired that you won’t feel comfortable for two and half years, and I was shocked by that,” Helfrich said at the Pac-12 Media Day. “But I kind of understand what he meant.”
Fair or not, the pressure to win this year is exponentially larger than when he first took the reigns. Despite much speculation about their first-round draft potential, players such as Marcus Mariota, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and Hroniss Grasu each returned for a final season with the Ducks.
With these three presumably gone after this season, Oregon’s national title window could close — at least until this year’s freshman talent and incoming recruits develop.
Logic would assume that if the Ducks don’t finally grab a national title this season, it would be wise to wait and enjoy the development of Helfrich’s own recruits for only then can his work be properly assessed.
This isn’t logic, however. It’s college football.
As such, if Helfrich is unable to lead the Oregon Ducks to a National Championship this year, his seat will become progressively hotter with each passing season without a ring.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline