Five Losses? Or Five Wins? The High Stakes for Mark Helfrich and Oregon Football

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I never say “I told you so” and I don’t like people who do.

But I told you so.

I didn’t put any money on yesterday’s game. I could see it going either way. As hard as it was to fathom the Ducks dropping two in a row to Mike Leach’s Cougars a year ago, now? Not so much. Maybe the Ducks eked out the OT victory that eluded them last season. Maybe they came up short again in the 4th. What should be apparent to Ducks fans is that every conference game this year is in play. Struggling against Buffaloes and Cougars speaks to the sea change that has suddenly crested into a tsunami.

A dazed Thomas after big promises come up short.

C. Strobeck

A dazed Thomas after big promises come up short against Stanford in 2013.

Mark Helfrich’s 2016 Ducks play terrible second-half football and only marginally better football in the first half. The Ducks gave up three TDs in the second half in each of their first three games. Colorado didn’t need a third to thwart Oregon’s anemic comeback. The lack of discipline and mental toughness has been building like a slow crescendo since Helfrich took over. But it’s been there the whole time.

One of the first big red flags that caught my eye was when De’Anthony Thomas promised a big day against the 2013 Stanford Cardinal to avenge the 2012 loss. The Ducks nevertheless lost 26-20. There were other warning signs but that one sticks out in my mind. The behavior, from a star player no less, was unrecognizable under Chip Kelly. And now, nearly four years on, Helfrich’s program is itself unrecognizable.

The Cal Bears came within 2 points after choking up Oregon with malingering in 2010.


The Cal Bears came within 2 points after choking up Oregon with malingering in 2010.

When I asked whether we should prepare for a new type of football, I didn’t have losing football in mind. I didn’t expect such a precipitous devolution. I expected big first halves, troubling second half retrenchments, and more than a few goal line and red zone battles as time of possession and clock management became increasingly important. I foresaw screaming at the television during unbearably close games by recent standards. Because we have been a bit spoiled of late.

Outside of last year’s six-point margin over the University of Washington, you have to go back to the two-point margin in the 2010 Flim-Flam-Fake-An-Injury Bowl in Berkeley to see the type of close games I was expecting this season. When I (albeit incorrectly) foresaw for a 4-point victory over Nebraska, and still hoped for more, that was exactly the game I had in mind. But still I believed the Ducks’ talent and esprit de corps would lift our young men to victory. But as I sit here today, looking at the leadership, I’m not sure why.

To be sure, I was never a Mark Helfrich fan. Hailing from Portland’s own Lincoln High School in the early 1990s, I consider myself to be something of an idiot-savant at spotting poor coaching. You can’t hide it. You can’t fix it during a season. You can’t overcome it with a symbolic blue collar. It doesn’t get better with age. There’s no montage where the coach and team bond through hard work and humility during a three-minute rock ballad with a compelling bass line. Adversity and loss may teach young men how to pick themselves up and get back in line, but bad coaching squanders the very promise and opportunity of youth.

There’s one answer to bad coaching: 86.

The Sark puckers up before his big promotion.

FishDuck Archive

The Sark puckers up before his big promotion.

Coaching an elite football program is not an OJT opportunity. Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens has to ask himself: does Mark Helfrich have the chops to right this ship? Let’s examine that for a moment because I was never convinced Helfrich was the man for the job. Prior to the biggest promotion of his life, matched perhaps only by Steve Sarkisian’s mysterious and brief ascension to Trojan glory, Mark Helfrich spent three years as Chip Kelly’s OC. Does anyone today credit any of the Kelly-era success to Helfrich’s tenure as OC?

Prior to that wild success, Coach Helfrich was Big-12 University of Colorado’s OC (2006-2008, 13-24 combined record); Arizona State University’s QB coach (2001-2005, 33-28) and Boise State University’s QB coach (1998-2000, 26-10). I keep asking myself: what convinced Mullens that Helfrich could helm an elite program? His commanding sideline presence? At best, it was a Kelly-esque gambit: Kelly spent two years as an OC before his own promotion.

Under Helfrich, Coach Don Pellum was promoted, demoted, and replaced along with the entire defensive scheme. I have no bone to pick with Brady Hoke, but switching the base D from 3-4 to a 4-3 is no small affair. Plus, it’s hard to ignore that as the University of Michigan’s head coach, he had a disturbing trend, namely 11-2, 8-5, 7-6, and 5-7. After all, that’s why he was available on short notice. He was an improvement from Rich Rodriguez, but not good enough for Ann Arbor.

Aliotti had a quality sideline presence.

C. Grassmick

Aliotti had a quality sideline presence.

One may forget why Helfrich promoted Pellum in the first place: Helfrich didn’t know what to do after Nick Aliotti resigned. And why did Aliotti resign after investing 21 seasons in Oregon? Because a newcomer with a scant record of success, no time in the pros, and who had spent but three years under Chip, got promoted over him. Maybe I just never believed that was the right choice.

We know Aliotti told Mullens to find a new DC if he wasn’t named the head coach for 2013. For some reason, I doubt Helfrich had the stones to deliver the same ultimatum. How could he, after three years? And even if he had, I don’t he think he would have followed through. To be sure, Aliotti and Helfrich weren’t the only candidates. At least they shouldn’t have been. But for my money, I think the Ducks would be better off today under Aliotti’s stewardship.

So we come back to these questions about character. Resolve. Judgment. Is this the man we want overseeing fundamental changes that dictate the direction of Oregon football for years to come? And if so, how much time is he due?

Kellys brief tenure lends credence to his Oregon-era critics.

K. Cline

Kelly’s brief tenure lends credence to his Oregon-era critics.

Here’s my prediction in all its ugliness: Oregon will remain unranked as long as Helfrich remains the head coach. The ranking system is a thinly veiled popularity contest. But it is an important one for recruiting. Like it or not, even if you believe Helfrich can recover, he will not command the respect of the pundits.  I didn’t cotton to the pundits when they disregarded Kelly’s revolution. But maybe they weren’t that far off the mark about Kelly after all.

No one questioned his skill as a coach but he was, it turns out, a flash in the pan. Win The Day won him a promotion to the NFL. Nor do the pundits’ preseason Oregon predictions this year now appear to be off the mark. Let’s not forget that many of the pundits we revile are experienced players. They can spot bad coaching too. Does anyone foresee Helfrich out-coaching the likes of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, or Jim Harbaugh to a national title? How long that will take? Because I don’t see it.

What is the Helfrich era going to cost Oregon? In terms of recruiting, it’s an unknown but frightening variable. But we know the real-time cost. Not only did he earn a contract extension after his appearance in the title match, but Oregon paid Helfrich $3.15M for last season. This season, it’s $3.3M. Hoke signed a record breaking DC salary at Oregon: $1.8M for 3 years. Matt Lubick is taking home $600,000 for the season — a 40% raise from his salary last year. And for some reason, Helfrich’s contract includes a performance bonus for any five-win season. Do these results merit those figures? Does a five-win season merit a bonus? Is that the new standard for Oregon football?

The Beavers came within 1 point of Platypus Trophy in 2013.

C. Strobek

The Beavers came within 1 point of Platypus Trophy in 2013. This year will undoubtedly pose a similar challenge.

Every single conference game will be a challenge this year. To reach his five-win performance bonus, Helfrich needed to bag the Cougars yesterday, he’ll need a Beaver pelt from the Civil War, and he’ll still need to upset one of the six teams in between.

Prior to the start of the season, I dismissed the punditry trumpeting a five-loss season out of hand. I’m now struggling to see how Helfrich will claim his performance bonus this year. That should be all the incentive Mr. Mullens needs to think about the future.

I think Aliotti is still available.

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Matt Bryant

Matt Bryant

Matt grew up in Oregon, graduated UO in 1998, and tried to impress a young lady (not from Oregon) by going to law a fancy law school on the East Coast. He did pretty well in law school but never saw the young lady again. Matt is now a lawyer in New York where he bores everyone around him with tales of how much better life can be in the Pacific NW usually carrying on about the biking, the coast, the salmon, the complete lack of humidity, Reubens from The Goose Hollow Inn, and Ducks football. When Matt is not litigating high-stakes, important, commercial disputes for important people, arguing important points, or writing important things, he is likely either reading, on his bike, or (from late August through February) watching football. He lives with his family on North Shore of Long Island because the coast overlooking the Sound almost has a real shoreline but still can’t hold a candle to Oregon’s coast.

  • banned buckeye steve

    All great points Matt….switching defence is tough and probably not necessary…my concern would be recruiting. I would not be surprised if a few top commits fall out over the next few games… good luck.

    • Matt B.

      Thanks for reading an commenting, Buckeye. Any and all support is welcome. My concern is that folks in the PacNW, shall we say, may be a little too sensitive when it comes to pulling the trigger? For example, UW for most of the 1990s and 2000s and, well, up until Chris Peterson (who incidentally would have been a much better snag than Helfrich). Oregon has to nip this in the bud and redirect or the hole will keep betting deeper and more expensive and difficult to fill. Kelly ain’t coming back to save the program and waiting around for him is certain doom.

      • Banned Buckeye steve

        I agree…..I would just hate to see USC turn the table before Oregon…so keep Helfrich and get a real DC…hoke is not it. Without keeping Helfrich you are starting from scratch.

      • Chuck Dult

        I think you keep helf….don’t start from scratch.

        • Matt B.

          A tough argument to make, but its yours to try. From my perspective, scratch is where Helf is leading the program. The sooner we change leadership the sooner we can start rebuilding discipline and other fundamentals. We’re already in pretty deep.

  • Platypus

    Hoke has a good class coming in next year and to me that’s where every ounce of effort by the entire football program should be directed. If you can’t put together a good defense, now that just about everyone is running some kind of Spread Offense your doomed. Coach Petersen at Washington and all great coaches understand this.

    • Matt B.

      Fingers crossed, Platypus, but we’ve got serious issues on both sides of the ball. Discipline can’t be fixed with a better class of recruits.

  • beautifulportland

    Thanks Matt, everything you said, I agree with. It’s unfortunate we didn’t make the tough choices 4 years ago so I hope we can make them within the next 8 weeks. If not, the hole will only get deeper and more costly in recruits, season ticket holders, alum and fan support. Helf has had 4 years to improve or maintain what it has taken 20 years to build. I have not seen any improvement in the 3 major areas of the team that Oregon needs to compete in Pac-12 or on the national level, and it shows in all our games. I will always remember, what a Oregon player said once CK, left ” We can relax, now that Chip is gone”.
    Oregon does not have the luxury to wait around 1- 2 years for Helf to figure things out. At this point in time, the AD can sell the HC position as a destination job. In a year or two, it may be too late! At this point, it’s difficult to watch the games, let alone sit through another presser with the tag line. “we can coach that up”.
    Thank God, I just purchased my Basketball Season tickets. Now that Dana Altman was a great hire!

    • beautifulportland

      Oh, I forgot to mention: If Helf can manage to beat the Huskies on Sat. He can stay another season to try and get the Oregon program back the to level it was, when he was hired!

      • Matt B.

        Doesn’t look likely. Peterson is no slouch. I am perpetually impressed by David Shaw but Peterson made Washington-Stanford look like a Varsity-JV scrimmage.

    • Matt B.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. The games are tough to watch. But you’re right that the pressers are worse. After spring ball and pre-season practice, there’s only so many times I can listen to Helf complain that his kids weren’t lined up right, that players weren’t doing their jobs, etc. This is fundamental stuff and I think the program owes its recruits the best coaching money can buy. I keep thinking about Freeman, 20, a junior, a Heisman contender, missed a couple games to due to injury, it happens, and undoubtedly will disappear from Heisman talk as the program collapses around him. Would any sensible man in his position risk injury and return for his senior year? These young men committed their futures to Oregon and they are now on a fast track to the Pac-12 basement.

  • douglas fur

    I didn’t get on board with you until you mentioned the details of Allioti’s retirement.
    (And why was it H left Idaho State ?)
    With closed practices it’s hard to tell how the culture of practice has changed or not.
    But I’ve caught a few wiffs that the tempo has slacked off (some comment of H’s that they’re practicing more “efficiently”.

    • Matt B.

      Hi Douglas, thanks for reading and glad you got something out of it. I’ll have to look into Helf’s Idaho departure, though. Thanks for sharing. To my eyes, the cultural shift, while somewhat behind the practice veil, mirrors Helf’s charisma, which is vanilla on a good day and absent more than often. Wooden is spot on, talent alone is never enough. It’s all about hard work. Plus, I can only shudder when I think of the awkward silences in living rooms and kitchens as Helf tries visit recruits at home.

  • kidblast

    Agreed. Too many people assert that it takes time for a coach to build a program. However, when you inherit a team that went 12-0, you don’t have to turn around the program — you just have to maintain the momentum. In Helfrich’s case, he’s managed to somehow dramatically shift winning momentum to losing momentum in a very short time. Maybe he did it with lackluster recruiting and anemic leadership. (Speaking of recruiting, does anyone really believe that the top QB recruit for a national championship contending team is an under-recruited kid right from our own backyard? What are the odds that of all the QBs in 10,000 high schools, the very best guy just happened to live in Eugene?) Momentum shifts are the danger of “promoting from within” — sometimes you can take people who are good in their role and promote them beyond their ability. As the losing momentum increases, recruiting and culture changes (both already major problems) will continue to get harder. Maybe it’s time to make a coaching change and recruit a “momentum builder” before it gets much worse?

    • Matt B.

      Amen. Living on the East Coast I can see a noticeable difference in temperament between Oregon fans and others. When LSU isn’t winning, they can the coach. Now. They don’t wait to see if it gets better. Just one example but elite football, especially when an outside program like Oregon is trying to cement a place at the elite table, is a high stakes business. It is very much a what-have-you-done-for-me environment. It may rub the sensibilities of your average PacNW’er the wrong way but welcome to the Big Time. We had a place at the table, but can we get it back?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.