Mark Helfrich met the media today as Oregon's new head coach, and made a strong impression with his sincerity and enthusiasm for the job.
"This is the pinnacle for me," he said. Welcome words to an Oregon fan base and donor group after Chip Kelly's year-long flirtation with the NFL and double reverse departure this Wednesday. In the 39-year-old Helfrich the Ducks got an Oregon native whose father was a lifelong Duck fan, who met his wife while she attended school at UO, and whose family and friends have deep ties to the state and the Webfoot tradition.
Helfrich joked about a lifetime contract. But there are other factors besides continuity and commitment. After all, now that he's hired, can he succeed? Oregon football has reached a level where success means competing for conference and national championships consistently, not just when the school has a special senior class.
These are the benefits to the Helfrich hire, and together they provide a sound basis for continued success:
1) The players believe in him, and expressed confidence in the decision.
In a time of uncertainty and upheaval, their enthusiasm for the decision, reflected in an energy-packed team meeting last night, immediately shifts the focus back to winning and preparing. They got a coach they know, like and trust, and with a tremendous nucleus returning for next year's team, that's huge.
2) The staff is behind him and he'll keep the system in place.
The core of the staff is intact with Steve Greatwood, Jim Radcliffe, Nick Aliotti, Gary Campbell, Jon Neal, Tom Osborne and Don Pellum returning next year, as well as Scott Frost elevated to replace Helfrich as Offensive Coordinator. The electrifying up-tempo, spread, no-huddle offense remains in place, and that's become the heart of the Oregon brand and style. The defense, limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play last season while forcing 26 interceptions and 14 fumbles, can continue its same aggressive, blitzing style. "We'll attack in all phases," Helfrich said, and that has to be a reassuring declaration to fans, players, coaches and recruits.
Helfrich is committed to keeping what's good about Oregon football in not only the tradition and results, but the process. He's a smart, quick football coach who'll lean heavily on what he's learned from Kelly and has the good sense not to fix what isn't broken or try to reinvent a wheel that already runs beautifully at the speed of De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota.
The biggest question that remains is how he'll handle the job. Helf comes across as a "nice guy" coach, a player's coach, and while a man like that can have a lot of success, he'll have to prove that he can lead, discipline, motivate and command. How decisive is he? Kelly excelled in these areas, and to sustain the unprecedented success of the last four years, his successor will have to grow quickly in a job he's never had at any level.
The most encouraging news is that Helfrich is already on a plane to recruit tonight and tomorrow, seeking commitment from players with talent and character. The best way to answer all those questions is to get to work, and he appears ready to embrace the challenge.
There's no doubt about Helfrich's aptitude, focus, energy and football pedigree, all of which will serve him well in succeeding Brooks, Bellotti and Kelly. His hire might signal a new era of openness and accessibility in terms of his dealings with media, fans and donors, and that could be refreshing.
His new contract includes a clause that gives him the option for a one-year extension in any season the team wins 11 games. Here's hoping he earns a lot of those, and sustains what has been a remarkable run for Duck football.