Oregon fans owe Mark Helfrich an apology.
I can still remember the rumblings of frustrated Oregon Football fans on Twitter after the 2016 campaign ended with a dismal 4-8 record (2-7 in Pac-12) to finish dead last in the North Division. For many, the answer was simple: #FireHelfrich.
Admittedly, I was frustrated as well.
In four years as head coach, Helfrich, the Coos Bay-born quarterback whisperer and former offensive coordinator under phenom Chip Kelly, had guided the Ducks from a national championship appearance and a Heisman trophy to the dregs of Division I football.
By 2016, the two-time Football Scoop National Quarterbacks Coach of the Year, largely responsible for the record-breaking success of Oregon quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota, led Oregon to its first losing season since 2004.
After a 37-16 career record as Oregon’s head coach, Helfrich was fired.
But why? Helfrich is a really smart guy. NFL coaches boast about his high football IQ. He understands the game. More importantly, Helfrich understands how to generate a productive offense. Don’t believe me? In Helfrich’s final season with the Ducks–a losing season–the offense averaged 35.4 points per game, precisely the same ppg average as Mario Cristobal‘s Rose Bowl season in 2019.
Here’s what former Ducks quarterback Nate Costa told CBSSports.com about Helfrich:
“This is (Kelly’s) system, people know this, so they automatically think Helfrich has little input on what happens on Saturdays. This is simply not true, Helfrich doesn’t get half the credit he deserves. He is one of the smartest people in the college football world and has a great football mind. He has a large amount of involvement in the game planning, scripting and coaching on a weekly basis. He may not call all the plays on game day, but he has a high amount of input in what plays are called and why they are called.”
During Helfrich’s first two seasons at the helm, the Ducks posted a 24-4 record, capping off each season with convincing bowl wins, including a 59-20 trouncing of reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles and enfant terrible, Jameis Winston.
Honestly, things looked good for the Oregon football program and the future seemed promising in the wake of Kelly’s abrupt (and heartbreaking) departure to the NFL.
So what went wrong?
Lots of things. Namely, the defense.
Following the 2013 season, longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired. Giant shoes to fill, but Helfrich plugged the vacancy in-house with former linebackers coach, Don Pellum. This proved to be a costly mistake.
Under Pellum, Oregon slid from being ranked 37th to 87th in overall defense. Additionally, in 2015, the Ducks were the second-most penalized team in the NCAA with 123 penalties for 1,084 yards.
Then came Brady Hoke. In a desperate attempt to revive a flailing defense, Helfrich brought in a “big name” from the B1G, hiring Hoke as Oregon’s defensive coordinator. Fans were somewhat baffled and reluctant, especially since Hoke had never worked as a defensive coordinator prior to accepting the position at Oregon.
Perhaps some new blood from the Midwest with some fresh ideas was just what a struggling football program with an identity crisis needed?
Hoke’s switch to a 4-3 defensive scheme had players wandering aimlessly in the backfield which led to frequent blown assignments. And the numbers don’t lie. Under Hoke, Oregon’s defense finished 116th (out of 127) in total defense, allowing 485.3 yards per game, 306.5 passing yards per game, 178.8 rushing yards per game, 35 passing TDs and 24 rushing TDs.
Ugh. In 2016, the Ducks posted their worst losing season in 25 years with the nation’s fifth-best overall offense. Oregon scored 425 points, but surrendered 497 points. The defensive woes were just too much to overcome.
So, Helfrich, one of the most successful head coaches in Eugene, gets canned after one losing season. What about other beloved Oregon coaches credited for elevating the program to historic heights?
Rich Brooks was Oregon head coach from 1977 to 1994. After nearly two decades, Brooks was credited for turning around a dismal Oregon program and ushering in the Mike Bellotti-era. Despite being Oregon’s winningest coach prior to Belotti, Brooks finished with a career record of 91-109-4, with nine losing seasons in 18 years.
Len Casanova, the namesake of Oregon’s athletic facility, had seven losing seasons in 16 years.
Okay, every coach loses. So what’s my point?
My point is, give the guy some credit. Helfrich was a good coach, albeit not a great coach. Kelly was a great coach. Cristobal is proving to be a great coach. Why? For the first time in years, the Oregon Ducks football team has an identity, a clear vision for the program and Cristobal, like all great coaches, can recruit.
Helfrich struggled to uphold the glitter of the Kelly-era, rather than develop his own signature. He was more concerned with keeping the status quo than tearing things down and rebuilding–just don’t crash the Ferrari, right?
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Helfrich is a great offensive coordinator, a proven winner. And he wasn’t a bad coach, he was simply a bad fit for the Ducks at the time. Oregon needed a shakeup after Kelly left, and Helfrich couldn’t do that.
Oregon chased Helfrich out of town with pitchforks. And for that, we owe him an apology.
San Diego, CaliforniaTop Photo by Tom Corno
Chris Brouilette, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a current student at the University of Oregon from Sterling, Illinois.
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