Fox’s Mandel Latest to Dis on Ducks

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Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

In Mark Helfrich’s short tenure as the Ducks head football coach he’s taken a team to the national championship game, developed a Heisman winner and turned a dismal 3-3 start into a 9-3 regular season finish.

Yet who gets the kudos as top Pac-12 coaches? Stanford’s David Shaw you can understand. Utah’s Kyle Whittingham? Well, he’s done a lot with less, though he still hasn’t won so much as a Pac-12 South title.

Last year some expert bozo put out a list that had ASU’s Todd Graham and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez near the top of a list that had Helfrich in the bottom half. Sorry – no link on this one. It doesn’t deserve it.

It’s enough to make you go all Rick Neuheisel and start screaming, “Scoreboard, baby!”

It may all be topped, though, by Fox Sport’s Stewart Mandel’s assessment of the Top Twenty Coaches headed into 2016. Mandel is so full of doggy-doo sandwiches that he can’t even follow his own criteria.

Here’s a direct quote from Mandel’s article:

“Note: I place much more emphasis on recent performance than career achievements.”

Now here’s what he says about ranking Washington’s Chris Petersen a lofty # 12, one ahead of LSU’s Les Miles:

“A rough first two seasons at Washington make it hard to justify the lofty ranking Petersen held throughout his eight-year, 92-12 tenure at Boise State. The fact the Huskies, 7-6 in 2015, enter the season a Top 20 team is due largely to voters’ respect for Petersen.”

As a CPA I’ve made my living reconciling things, but I’m at a bit of a loss where to start on that one. Somehow “recent achievements, 7-6 last year, and # 12 coach in the country” just doesn’t work for me.

I’m more of a “coached recent Heisman winner, took team to national championship game and went 33-8 over the past three seasons” kind of guy when it comes to rating recent performance.

But having an overrated team worked in gathering accolades for Todd Graham last year, so why shouldn’t it work for Petersen this year? Along with Petersen, Mandel ranked Stanford’s Shaw and Utah’s Whittingham among the Top 20.

Shunned on Mandel’s Top 20 coaches list is Oregon’s Mark Helfrich. Helfrich’s record – as described above – stands on its own. Of course the naysayers are going to attribute all of Helfrich’s success to the full cupboard he inherited from Chip Kelly.

But the truth is that coaches following legends often bomb from the start. Helfrich, on the other hand, continues to build on one of the most successful programs in the country. Three of Helfrich’s most brilliant moves as the current CEO of Oregon football are the subjects of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1.  Overcoming a Recruiting Nightmare. If you think Chip Kelly is God, you won’t like this part. The truth is, Kelly left Helfrich with a recruiting nightmare when he slipped out of town that dreary night in January 2013. He not only left mere days before national letter of intent day. He left Oregon hanging with possible pending NCAA sanctions over the Willie Lyles case.

Helfrich -- not Kelly -- is responsible for a strong group of upperclassmen.

Gary Breedlove

Helfrich — not Kelly — is responsible for a strong group of upperclassmen.

Helfrich rallied the troops and visited every member of the recruiting class with his assistants in tow. Despite a classless attempt by tOSU’s Urban Meyer to pillage the class, the Ducks lost only one recruit – who has done essentially nothing at Ohio State.

For his first act as a head coach, Helfrich was brilliant. The class he retained – when things might have fallen apart completely — includes Darren Carrington, Devon Allen, Cameron Hunt, Kani Benoit, Danny Mattingly, Jake Pisarcik, Tyree Robinson, Doug Brenner, Chris Seisay, Torrodney Prevot, Matt Wogan, Elijah George, Evan Voeller and Johnny Mundt, among others.

This is a huge chunk of the core that will define Oregon football this year, and we have Helfrich to thank for keeping the class together – under highly stressed circumstances.

2.  Retaining/hiring high-grade assistants. So often when a head coach leaves a program, the top assistants go with him. And some quickly depart for greener pastures. When Kelly left Oregon, Helfrich retained the key position coaches. As a result, Oregon has the longest tenured assistant coaches in college football.

Look for vast improvement in Oregons linebackers with Pellums full attention.

Kevin Cline

Look for vast improvement in Oregons linebackers with Pellum’s full attention.

If the Oregon assistant coaches had merely been around a long time that would be one thing. But the important thing is that they get results. Running backs coach Gary Campbell and running game coordinator Steve Greatwood have coached a corps that has led the Pac-12 in rushing going well back into Pac-10 days. Don Pellum and John Neal have sent more guys to the NFL than I would care to try to add up – and I make my living by adding things up.

Undeniably, there were a few hiccups last year. And look what Helfrich did to address them. New defensive coordinator Brady Hoke and quarterbacks coach David Yost are spectacular hires. And more likely than not, Oregon’s linebacker corps will reap the benefits of having Pellum return as position coach.

Hiring and retaining great assistants is an important role for any CEO. And Helfrich’s performance in this function is quietly spectacular.

3.  Bringing in the FCS QB’s. It is ironic that Helfrich and the Oregon program are taking media hits for bringing in FCS quarterbacks for last season and the current season. In any game where you can only count on having top players for three years (as was the case with Marcus Mariota), no matter how much you plan, some holes in personnel are going to pop up from time to time. It’s a bummer when it happens at the quarterback position, but it happens. So what do you do about it?

Helfrich saw the need for help at the QB position and brought in Vernon Adams last year.

Kevin Cline

Helfrich saw the need for help at the QB position and brought in Vernon Adams last year.

You do the best you can to fill the holes, of course. And that’s exactly what Helfrich did by bringing in Vernon Adams (who ended up with the highest efficiency rating in I-A) last year and Dakota Prukop this year. Helfrich supplemented that with bringing in Yost to coach the quarterbacks, and by recruiting Travis Jonsen (who redshirted last year) and Terry Wilson and Justin Herbert this year.

Oregon now has four quarterbacks who have wheels. With the rest of Oregon’s offensive firepower, this is very bad news for defensive coordinators – quietly brought to you by Mark Helfrich.

But for some reason – no doubt highlighted by a bad second half when a good part of the starting lineup was getting medical treatment – “experts” like Stewart Mandel overlook Helfrich in favor of a 7-6 coach who “has voters’ respect.” And, no doubt, the voters’ respect revolves in part around experts like Mandel telling them who the top coaches are.

Thank God the game gets settled on the field, not on Mandel’s keyboard.

Mike Merrell
Editor and Writer for FishDuck.com
Sandpoint, Idaho

Top photo by Gary Breedlove

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • I have to stand up and applaud you taking the media to task, as they simply don’t deserve the “cred” given to them by the public. A Mike Merrell skewering is a great way to begin a Monday morning, as we learn and get a smile from your observations.

    The media narrative on Oregon is taking me through stages of indignation, concern, and curiosity as to WHY the blind eye towards the Ducks exists. But it is real and apparent this preseason! Great stuff Mike.

  • Tom

    Don’t sweat the low ranking. Rankings matter at the end of the year, not at the beginning. I

    would rather the Ducks be ranked low and surprise people than spend a full year with a target on their backs. Psychologically, its just an scenario that makes it easier to succeed. Although the Ducks have had some success in the latter scenario as well.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      if this was the first year i heard this “ducks are finished stuff i might be worried. but its gone on for 10 years in a row. the media is like the little boy who cried wolf.

      • Mike Merrell

        I don’t think it’s worrisome, since the game is won or lost on the field and the low ratings are good bulletin board material. Beyond that, it’s great motivation for the coaches, since they, more than the team, seem to be the ones who don’t get the respect they deserve.

        It’s not worrisome, but it is a bit troublesome. There are a lot of high school seniors who have already made their choices — likely based in part upon what the media is telling them. It is a mathematical fact that Oregon has consistently outperformed recruiting rankings, regularly finishing in the top 20, if not the top 10. If it’s not top 20 coaching that’s causing it, what is it? Yet the media doesn’t blush when it rates programs that haven’t touched Oregon’s success as having better coaches.

        My concern — outside of the inaccurate/unfair/stupid issue — is that having the media assert that the Oregon coaches don’t measure up cannot possibly help recruiting.

  • Platypus

    For me this is a great scenario…The Ducks suck and the dawgs are all world. This season is going to be FUN!! The resentment of the media over the last few years toward a small Willamette valley school who would dare challenge the traditional elites…They will not stand for it! Again, this is going to be FUN!

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      14 straight losses and now the huskies are the media darlings. takes some pretty strong koolaid to believe it. glad i wont be needing any,.

      • duckusucker

        “we’re #1, jim jones says so!”
        new dawg t-shirt suggestion

  • Drex Heikes

    Oregon has a 20-year history of defying low rankings. This will only serve as further motivation for a team that needed none after the TCU loss.

    All Brady Hoke’s D needs is a six-point improvement from last year. Had Oregon shaved the right six points off the total allowed in 2015, the Duckies would have been 12-1. One point each wins the TCU and Wazzou games before overtime. Four points wins at Michigan State–with a broken finger.

    We needn’t worry about playing the Fuskies. Judging by what I read, they will be in the NFL by October.

    This season is setting up perfectly.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      every program has a different happy time. for some teams it is the preseason trash talk and puffed up ratings of recruits. for other teams it is when the football actually starts getting played. its great to be a duck fan!

  • douglas fur

    The less accurate information which opponents can game plan on the better.

    Helfrich was the one who told Kelly we gotta have this guy and recuited Mariota.

    Recruiting is “betting on the come”. Sometimes that 16 or 17 y.o. star doesn’t grow up into a championship MVP. Having a down year happens.

    Having a hole in your roster after a Heisman year looks like the wheels have fallen off your program when it’s more like you just need to balance the tires.

    That Jeff Lockie didn’t win our bowl game is less a measure of Helfrich’s recruiting skills than his QB rating compared to the other 128 CFB starters.

    DRB’74

  • Platypus

    Just watched ESPN’s Championship Drive show. The Pac 12 didn’t even get mentioned until 40 min into the program and then they mentioned, Wash, Wash st, UCLA, Utah and Furd…seems like they overlooked someone. None of the talking heads picked a team in the Pac for the playoffs.

  • duckusucker

    Predicting the future: it’s tough, whether you’re talkin’ economy or football. But at least with football, you have some control in a program. This is an excellent article, making more than a few insightful and original points.
    I’d have to say the hire of Lubick also was a brilliant one— no team in the nation has had a better group of WRs than OR since he arrived. And, now that he’s taken over for Frosty, I expect an even more lethal offense (aided by an improved O line; last year, it couldn’t seem to protect the passer, forcing Adams to improvise way too much no matter how amazingly).
    The PAC, somewhat, is responsible for its lack of respect this year: the bowl performances were weak.

    • Mike Merrell

      I probably should have focused some on Lubick in the article. His last year at Duke he had two receivers with over 70 receptions each and was named national receivers coach of the year. I agree that he was a brilliant hire, and look forward to seeing what he can do with a full season as offensive coordinator. The cupboard is loaded — and again, it’s not because of what Chip Kelly left behind.

      • duckusucker

        Agree…. but let’s give the Chipper credit for the Helf hire!

  • Nate Haas

    I love this article. Unlike the haters or those hedging their pre-season bets based solely on the Alamo Bowl surprise (and the Utah collapse), I’m very optimistic because I’m seeing a lot of very good things lining up for the Ducks this season.
    – great, great running back stable
    – great receiving corps
    – a very good kind of quarterback question (tOSU had great depth at QB 2 seasons ago)
    – the right direction on defense and the right magnitude of makeover in the works (even last season’s “horrible” defense stopped Washington and both the Pac-12 division champion offenses)
    – promising looks by both the O-line and D-line
    There is no question that this season’s team is as loaded as ever.

    In my opinion, a key coaching issue will be solving the resiliency issue and imbuing the team with less-delicate confidence. The Ducks rely on deception, surprise, and keeping their opponents off balance, but while that formula can result in the “whoosh” scoreboard changes we love, it can also be delicate… too delicate. It’s true that these are D-1, power 5, elite athletes at Oregon, and you’d think they would have the confidence issue mastered, but it’s a huge factor and a huge problem at every level. The truth is,… the higher you go the higher the pressure. Helfrich sounds to me like a level-headed, smart guy. As the article points out, he’s been making smart decisions as a coach.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      you could take any team in college football, find a game they lost, assume they learned nothing from their mistakes in that game and judge accordingly if you hated that team enough. U$C loses to boston college and then beats colorado for example and they are said to have made a solid comeback. do you think the media would have judged the ducks the same way if they got the same result from those 2 games?

  • PDXDuck

    Take off your homer goggles. Helfrich is not a top 20 coach yet. He’s still a work in progress. He failed to manage the clock at least twice last year, Wazzu and TCU, and had he managed it better, we might have won those games. On top of that, to give up 62 points to Utah @ Autzen was absolutely embarrassing. The wins at Stanford and ASU involved a great deal of luck. I’d like to see him win games sans great QB play. This year is a barometer for the future IMO. I hope last year was an anomaly.

    • Anthony Joseph Gomes

      helfrich has the 5th best won/loss record of active coaches in the NCAA. that makes him the fifth best coach in college football today. whatever measure you use to judge his performance is irrelevant. it really doesnt matter.

      • duckusucker

        Good point i.e. winning. I’d look at his record w/out last year; how many coaches could do very well w/almost the entire starting cornerback group injured for most of the year as well as dealing w/an injured QB for several games? Mark is a gem who already is among the very, very best.

    • Mike Merrell

      I agree that Helfrich has a long ways to go before he reaches his ceiling — but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Anthony and Michael make good points. Helfrich’s performance stands on its own. And it’s not whether we make mistakes or suffer ill fortune, because we all do. It’s how we react when it happens, and I have tremendous respect for how Helfrich has handled his challenges. Mandel says he is going by recent performance — so are there more than 20 coaches who have made the final four in the past few years? Produced a Heisman winner? Kept their teams in the Top 20? Didn’t think so.

  • Michael Ostrom

    if your team consistently finishes in the top 20 you’re a top 20 coach and Helf easily qualifies during his tenure. That said, PDXDuck is right, coaching mistakes in the WSU & TCU games were among the reasons Oregon lost.

    If Helfich’s hire of Brady Hoke takes Oregon from an D grade on defense to a B-minus over the next couple years Helf may be a top 10 coach, maybe higher.

    All good and great coaches make poor decisions. Do you think Saban wishes he would have punted against Auburn in 2013? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR7s2m5Z5GA

  • Michael Ostrom

    If the team you coach consistently finishes in the top 20 in the nation, you are a top 20 coach. . . if it looks like a Duck, walks like a Duck. . . . The Ducks under Helfrich have been the 10th best team in the nation over the last three years: 9th, 2nd and 19th respectively.
    PDXDuck is right about coaching being one of the reasons Oregon lost to WSU and TCU but all coaches have been there. Do you think Saban wishes he would have punted in the 2013 Iron Bowl? Should Pete Carroll have run the ball at the goal line against the Pats? Heck yea X 2.
    Like every season, this is a big one for Helfich. If the Hoke hiring can bring Oregon’s defense from a D+ to a B- Oregon will have a shot at the Pac-12 North.

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    hating and making stupid irrational statements about the ducks is not a matter of opinion it is a full time job that pays very well. small rainy towns with great coaching and administration do not deserve to beat teams in large populated areas that cheat and buy the players they need….and then still lose more often than not. these big rich cities that buy their players and control the air in the football also buy the media. simple as that. as long as they dont buy the refs just wait for fall and football reality to kick in like it always does.

  • Anthony Joseph Gomes

    ” i place much more emphasis on recent performance than career achievement.” ducks 26 huskies 20. ducks 9-4 in 2015. huskies 7-6(just like clockwork) in 2015. vernon adams QB rating 179. jake browning QB rating 139. there is some recent performance for you stewie.