In Defense of Mark Helfrich: RECRUITING

Jim Hanks Editorials

This is too little, too late – but Mark Helfrich is an outstanding coach who paid for Coach Chip Kelly‘s sins. Helfrich’s tenure as a head coach was not perfect – he failed to find an adequate defensive coordinator – but his body of work was excellent. (This post is focused on recruiting.)

Should I survive the comments on this piece, I may follow up on other aspects of the Helfrich era. Whatever the case, this story should give you a different insight on what happened when Kelly left and how its impact inevitably led to two years of decline.

First the good stuff.

Just about everyone agrees that Coach Helfrich’s first two years were great: Two conference championships, a Rose Bowl victory against a Florida State team unbeaten for two seasons, and a trip to the first-ever playoff national championship. THAT was before the full effect of the Chip Kelly recruiting sanctions went into effect.

Duck Defense Before Four Years of Sanctions

By now you might be wondering, what effect could the sanctions, generally described as a “slap on the wrist” have on the team or Coach Helfrich’s career. You certainly have cause to wonder. In 0.87 seconds, I found over 7,500,000 (not hyperbole) Google links to “Chip Kelly slap on the wrist,” with (to the dismay and more likely the delight of FishDuck himself) being the first entry listed.

Everyone thought the sanctions were nonexistent; they weren’t. The sanctions were huge and would have made it extremely difficult for anyone to achieve continued success beyond those first two glorious years of the Helfrich era.

All the sanctions look benign. Most of them were; three had impact. The benign include: public reprimand, probation, total scholarships reduced by one every year and the absolute limit of scholarships reduced by one. (This hurt walk-ons looking for the last scholarship.) Willy Lyles was disassociated from the program, as someone had to be punished. And any NCAA institution hiring Kelly before Christmas Day 2014 would have to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to consider if additional personal sanctions should be imposed on him. NFL contracts with Philadelphia and San Francisco mitigated the impact of this lump of coal in his Christmas stocking.

The Three Killer Sanctions

The Least Terrible Sanction:

A ban on subscription to recruiting services until 2016. This sounds like a non-problem. And it would have been without the remaining conditions. Oregon was, and still is, making a major effort to recruit players from around the country. This requires information, and these services can identify more great players than the football staff alone. Player evaluation, is the coaches job. Services help identify far-away prospects to evaluate.

The Second Killer Sanction:

Official football visits by recruits were limited to 37 from the normal 52 through the 2015-16 academic years, with no allowance for carryover. This Duck recruiting killer would be a slap on the wrist for teams in football hot beds. USC probably has more 5-star recruits within walking distance of the campus than Oregon does in the entire state. Getting a student-athlete to see the school is key in getting a commit. SC, Alabama, Texas, etc. can host unlimited, non-official visits by more highly-rated local kids than exist anywhere in Oregon. Some recruits can pay their own way for an unofficial visit, but a substantial number especially those from across the country, cannot. With only 13 more visits than scholarships to offer, visits were extremely hard to come by and were very carefully allocated.

Recruits love the facilities…

People following recruiting know that some recruits want to visit Oregon to see the facilities, and the scenery, without any intention of signing with Oregon. Coach Helfrich and his assistants had very little room for error regarding visit offers. They could not waste a visit on a player who expresses an interest in Oregon, who was likely to sign with another school. The next killer sanction made it very difficult to evaluate and determine  who should visit.

The Third Killer Sanction:

This most sanction is technical and requires some explanation: The permissible number of evaluation days was limited to 36, instead of 44 for the fall evaluation periods of 2013, 2014 and 2015. The spring evaluation periods were reduced to 144, down from 168. Sounds innocuous, but isn’t.

Evaluation days are days when coaches can visit prospective student athlete’s schools to meet with their coaches, teachers, school officials, etc. and to attend athletic competition. During this time, coaches are not allowed visit with prospective student-athletes or their families. The evaluation days are the totals for the entire coaching staff. Any portion of any day when the coach is off the campus on an evaluation trip counts as an evaluation day. A plane delayed past midnight results in a lost evaluation day. If multiple coaches are on the same flight, the school loses a day for each.

If you have flown from Eugene, you can understand the problem. It can take a full day to fly to Texas, Alabama or Texas from Mahlon Sweet, ditto on the way back. This is wasted, but counted as evaluation time. Geography adds to the severity of the Ducks sanctions..

With the sanctions, with the official visit limitation, and with the loss of official visits, a reasonable person would expect that the team to experience a gradual talent reduction over the sanction period.

Helfrich Recruiting Strategy:

The coaches attacked the problem in the best possible way, given the circumstances. They were not the aggressive, give everyone a visit, recruiters, that web-site lurkers seem to favor. They couldn’t be. They had to carefully evaluate each potential player and ensure that almost most of those offered a visit would sign a letter of intent. A coachable three-star with athletic ability having Duck photos pasted to all his locker since he was a freshman might be more likely to get a scholarship offer over a five-star momma’s boy whose girlfriend goes to Alabama.

Justin Herbert,, Local Boy, is All Pac-12 Freshman

Coach Helfrich and his staff made an Oregon scholarship both rare and prized. Being a good athlete wasn’t enough. The scholarship was earned and as much as possible, was only given to players who would be eligible for admission and who could demonstrate desire to attend Oregon. Official visits would not be wasted on official visit tourists. This worked, and Coach Willie Taggart is the beneficiary of it working.

Before you blow your stack on that last sentence, consider this. There are any number of Pac-12 All Freshman Teams picked by various websites. Depending on the site, Oregon had from six to eight members on the team. None of the sites I visited had a team with as many All Pac-12 Freshman Team players as Oregon.

Oregon had from three to five players on Freshman All-American teams. No Pac-12 team had more, and nationally only Alabama, Ohio State and Mississippi exceeded Oregon’s total. The achievement of a recruiting class is measured by on the field college-level accomplishment rather over the ranking of high school players. On that basis Coach Helfrich’s recruiting was good, even excellent.

2016 was a down year for Oregon. It took a while for a quarterback to emerge, a freshman dominated team makes mistakes, and the defense was poorly coached. Almost every major team in the country has had a season as bad or worse since the last time the Ducks had a losing season.

Coach Taggart’s cupboard is not bare. Oregon is not under sanctions. He inherits an exceptional freshman class and for that, he should give some thanks to Mark Helfrich.

Jim Hanks
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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