In Eugene, the days of losing seasons seem to be far in the rear-view mirror. With two national title appearances in five years, and a slew of BCS bowl wins under the program’s belt, the Oregon Ducks have ascended to the top of the college football landscape.
Without a doubt, Oregon has one of the most talented rosters in college football, but there is so much more to the Ducks than meets the eye. The success starts underneath all the glitz and glamour of the uniforms and facilities — it starts at the foundation of what it means to be “Men of Oregon.”
Being a man of Oregon is “A philosophy, a mindset, a goal,” according to head coach Mark Helfrich. Former wide receiver, Keanon Lowe described it as, “First and foremost about being respectful — just being respectful to the game of football. That means showing up on time, working as hard as you can, putting in extra work, and just being mature about any situation you’re put in.” Those values were passed down to Lowe, thus he passed the same ideals down to younger guys after him.
We know that having talent helps to win football games, but does that talent come at a cost? With all the success Jameis Winston had at Florida State, the off-field incidents certainly added drama that surrounded the football program — a stark contrast from that of Marcus Mariota, whose worst offense while in college was a speeding ticket. Talent certainly is important, but it’s not always linear.
This is not to say the Ducks haven’t had their bad eggs, as there are rule-breakers at every school. Under the lead of Helfrich, the Ducks have become men of honor and respect. It wasn’t too long ago, however, that the Ducks were making headlines for the wrong things.
It was in 2009 when Abe Asher of Oregon Sports News pointed out, “Chip’s first year, if you remember, was a total disaster off the field.” LaGarrette Blount was almost suspended for the entire season after punching a Boise State’s Byron Hout after the week 1 loss on the blue turf. Troubles remained during the following season as well; LaMichael James had an incident with his girlfriend and was suspended for the 2010 season opener, Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the entire season after pleading guilty to theft, and Cliff Harris’s issues continued, ultimately leading to him being cut from the team.
Coach Helfrich has learned from Oregon’s history, and has vowed not to let players get away with immature acts. Rob Moseley, Editor in Chief of GoDucks.com, quoted Helfrich as saying, “As soon as you make one exception, then you make three, then you make five, and it’s a mutiny.”
Chip Kelly revolutionized college football and elevated the Oregon program to new heights, but Helfrich has brought a new standard to the Oregon program. Not just in terms wins, but in terms of culture — and the players have bought in too. Each guy on the roster believes in Helfrich and the philosophies of the entire coaching staff as a whole. Since Helfrich took over, there has been a clear shift in overall leadership within the program, both from the coaches and the players. Carmine Gallo of Forbes stated that, “Oregon coaches have discovered that culture matters and it matters a lot, especially when it comes to leading young people.”
Some say the culture started with the uniforms, but that is just one piece of the puzzle. The uniforms, the “Win The Day” mindset, the speed of the offense, the focus on metrics, the belief in respect but the bravado to say screw tradition — this has all made Oregon what it is today. The sudden success of the Ducks has caught the attention of coaches across the nation, and many have tried to copy the Oregon formula. According to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, former offensive tackle Jake Fisher, said, “You can duplicate it, but it’s the culture and the guys on the team that make it what it is.”
If this mature culture remains as the core of the football program, it can become a way of life for years to come. When everyone buys into the message and what the program stands for, that message becomes a fundamental belief within the organization and helps to keep players on the right path. It’s clear that there is a correlation between the lack of recent off-field incidents and the cultural refinement since coach Helfrich took over.
If Chip Kelly started the summit, so to speak, Mark Helfrich will be the one to take this team to its peak. Oregon’s culture has created a winning mind set, and that is why players from all around the country “ooh” and “awe” at the chance of being an Oregon Duck. With one of the younger Duck rosters of recent memory, having a strong grasp of what it means to be a man of Oregon is paramount for sustained success in Eugene.
Top photo by Kevin Cline