For Mark Helfrich, who went to high school in Coos Bay, Ore., played pick-up football inside Autzen Stadium, whose father and uncle are former Ducks, and whose brother and sister-in-law attended Oregon, Sunday’s official promotion to head coach is “the pinnacle”.
Helfrich, 39, played his college ball at Southern Oregon and his coaching stops include NFL Europe, Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado before he was hired as Chip Kelly’s replacement as the offensive coordinator at Oregon in 2009. The two began a symbiotic relationship that ultimately led to Helfrich following Kelly’s footsteps again, this time to the big office. “He taught me much more in the past four years that we could discuss today,” Helfrich said of Kelly.
“Because of the foundation laid by Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly and the generosity of Phil Knight and his family, this place is in the elite of college football,” Helfrich added.
Oregon is a place where continuity is a tradition, as Helfrich continues a streak of hiring head football coaches from within that began in 1977. However, Helfrich was chosen for the job ultimately because he was the best person for the job. “Continuity was a bonus, but it was not the leading factor. It was a factor because of where we are in the recruiting cycle, but it was not the factor,” said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens. “The most important thing to us was to have long-term success.”
Oregon had nearly a full-year to consider Kelly’s eventual replacement, after he briefly accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job in January 2012 before changing his mind and returning to Eugene.
“This didn’t start Wednesday at 7:15 when I got the call.” The wheels are always spinning. We were very aware this was a possibility a year ago, and then again after the Fiesta Bowl. The clock didn’t start when I got the resignation letter,” Mullens explained.
When those wheels did start spinning, Mullens arrived at a familiar destination. “We talked to an awful lot of people,” said Mullens. “We had five in-person interviews. We have a great staff, so naturally we had a lot of internal candidates. Everything we learned about Mark re-affirmed what we already thought. I’ve had the opportunity to observe Mark in so many settings over the past two years, whether it’s in the office, locker room, practice field. He has a clear vision and has shown the ability to make difficult decisions. We wanted somebody to be the caretaker of this program moving forward.”
As part is expected after helping Oregon enjoy a 46-7 mark over the last four seasons, Helfrich, who will be paid $9 million over his five-year contract, doesn’t plan on changing much now that he’s in charge.
“99.2 percent of the time (Kelly and I) are in lock step. It’s going to be that .8 percent when you’re going to go ‘Oh, that’s different.’ I won’t wear a visor and I’ll eat more vegetables,” Helfrich deadpanned. “It’s about the players and the process. I don’t think there’s going to be anything outwardly, hugely different.”
“We will attack in all phases. We will embrace innovation in all that we do. To our great fans, we will work as hard as we possibly can to make you proud,” he concluded.
Continuity may not have been the deciding factor for Mullens, but it was definitely preferred within the Ducks’ locker room.
“I feel like our team has a great vibe,” said running back De’Anthony Thomas. “We’re ready to go right now. Our team is excited for Coach Helfrich to step up and learn from him.”
Multiple Oregon players made note of a constructive team meeting on Saturday night in which Helfrich was formally introduced as the team’s new head coach.
“He walked up there, everybody gave him a standing ovation,” cornerback Brian Jackson said. “As a defensive guy, I’m excited to be coached by him. That’s who we wanted to step in that role. He’s been there with us, he understand the way this program rolls. He knows the struggle, he knows what we go through. I feel like we’re going to hit the next level.”
Helfrich is keenly aware of the added duties he must now take on as head coach that previously fell to Kelly. “We’re going to do our best to make everybody feel involved. The biggest thing that’s simultaneously exciting and unnerving is, the players. Our kids have 105 brothers now.”
In the end, Sunday came back to a high school kid that could only play in Autzen Stadium in a pick-up game now leading his own team on to that field.
“I grew up in this state and I know what Oregon football means. It’s an honor to me to be chosen as the caretaker of this program.”