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 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.
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?
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.
Editor and Writer for FishDuck.com
Top photo by Gary Breedlove