Standing on the sidelines, drenched with Gatorade, 41 year old University of Oregon head coach, Mark Helfrich, grinned from ear to ear as his QB prodigy ran away from him with an empty bucket. With Oregon’s first PAC-12 Title since 2011, and in only his second year as Duck head coach (which also happens to be his first head coaching position), 2014 was a proving year for Coach Helfrich to many, one where he had the opportunity to step out from the coattails of Chip Kelly, and put his stamp on a program that is now his. Oregon’s culture of promoting from within was tested during 2014 season, and without a doubt, it passed with flying colors.
It was only a year ago that many Oregon fans and pundits thought Helfrich wasn’t going to last. An 11-2 season was viewed as a failure, and a trip to the Alamo Bowl was a step down from the BCS era post-season success the Ducks’ fan base expected. For many, the annual Civil War was the breaking point; Duck fans and alumni viewed a last minute victory over rival Oregon State more as a loss than a win, and to some should have cost Helfrich his position . The cries of “In Chip We Trust” only grew louder, and many questioned whether Helfrich was the right man for the job. The cloud only grew larger when UW coach Steve Sarkisian left for USC, and Chris Peterson, a former Oregon assistant coach, was hired away from Boise St., leaving many wondering if Oregon could have gotten Peterson instead.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost was recently in Little Rock Arkansas as a nominee for the Broyles Award, which is named after the great coaching legend Frank Broyles and is presented to college football’s top assistant coach each year. He, along with first year defensive coordinator Don Pellum, are both testaments to Oregon’s “promote from within” culture and the belief that this team has in their head coach and the staff. Frost also raved about the Oregon head coach in an article from Yahoo saying, ”People were going to be quick to judge Mark no matter what happened because of the success Chip had. Maybe people will finally realize what a great coach they do have coaching here at Oregon.”
If anyone had doubts about Helfrich’s ability to continue the success of the Kelly era, they only need look at the decision that was made by three All PAC-12 First Team members in QB Marcus Mariota, C Hroniss Grasu, and DB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. All three were considered first or second round draft picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, with Mariota predicted as a possible Top 5 pick. All three chose to return for one more year to help continue to build what Helfrich had started in 2013. Some would say that Helfrich benefited from having all three return, and what coach wouldn’t, but it’s more likely that they came back knowing that Helfrich was the right man to take Oregon to the next level, and they wanted to be a part of it.
When Selection Sunday came, and the announcement was made regarding the four teams that would participate in the first College Football Playoff, there was one head coach unavailable for comment. While Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, and Nick Saban were all on live television, providing their thoughts and gratitude for the CFP Committee selecting their team, Helfrich was in Hawaii; not on vacation – recruiting. This is just one more reason why Helfrich is an Oregon man – accolades are secondary next to the needs of the team and the University. As he so aptly put it, when told that the celebratory spirit after the PAC-12 Title Game victory was for him, he simply stated “…that’s humbling.”
If there is one person outside of the coaches and players whose opinion does matter, it would be that of Nike founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight who said of Helfrich,”He’s proven himself as a head coach…Not just as a coach, but a great head coach. He’s a very, very bright man. He learned a lot from Chip Kelly, but he was also a part of the Chip Kelly era. He contributed his fair share.” That fair share, as a reminder to the East Coast sports pundits and analysts, would be the fact that it was Helfrich, not Kelly that recruited Marcus Mariota. The “Flyin’ Hawaiian” is a Helfrich guy through and through, and you can see the strides Mariota has made playing under Helfrich the last two years.
Without question, Kelly casts a large shadow, and rightfully so. His success at Oregon, and ultimately at Philadelphia, has silenced the critics of his unique offensive strategies and to many is responsible for a complete philosophical and ideological change in how the game of football is played. From sports science to nutrition, playbooks and speed, Kelly has changed America’s game and those can be difficult shoes to fill, even for a veteran head coach.
But even a coach like Kelly isn’t infallible, as Oregon’s past struggles with teams like Stanford, Auburn, and LSU have shown. Helfrich has shown that he’s willing to change and the 2014 Ducks are more physical, and while they may not move at quite the same speed Kelly had them, these Ducks are more precise – even with a duct-taped offensive line and more freshman than the Philosophy 101 course. In every area Oregon came up short against top competition in years past, Helfrich has found a way to correct the problem. And with his players buying in, his coaches sticking around (see Scott Frost not going to Nebraska), Mark Helfrich has proven the critics wrong and guided the Oregon Ducks to what could be argued as the most successful season in Oregon history. The Kelly era is over. This is Helrichs’ team now.
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck