Imagine starting a new job, and all you had to do was be perfect.
Chip Kelly was an innovative genius who changed the way an entire organization thought and prepared. He was a once-in-a-generation college football coach, a master of motivation, preparation and offensive scheme. So good at it that he could be arrogant, sarcastic, dismissive and contemptuous, and fans still loved him because he won.
The smartest guy in the room left town, so the Ducks hired his assistant. Mark Helfrich is capable and knowledgeable, a bright guy who was valedictorian of his senior class at Marshfield. He graduated with a degree in biology at Southern Oregon and considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon before he went into coaching.
Helfrich has had success teaching the passing game at every stop in his career. Kelly may have been the smartest guy in the room, but Mark Helfrich was the guy he trusted with his offense.
The affable 39-year-old is the first native Oregonian to be named head coach at UO since John Warren in 1942. He's never been a head coach before at any level. But neither had Chip Kelly before Mike Bellotti, Phil Knight and Pat Kilkenny handpicked him in 2009.
Bellotti did have some head coaching experience, but it was at Chico State in Division ll. He took over 18 years ago when Rich Brooks went to the NFL, and fans were just as uncertain as they are now. Even though The Mustache had done a superb job as Oregon offensive coordinator tutoring Bill Musgrave and Danny O'Neil, his record at Chico was a lackluster 21-25-2.
Bill Moos stood by the hire, and Bellotti helped bring Oregon their first four ten-win seasons, a number two ranking in 2001, 12 bowl games and 2 conference championships. Now an ESPN analyst, he's Oregon's all-time winningest coach, 116-55, 3rd all-time in PAC-12/10/8 history behind Terry Donahue and Don James.
In many ways, Bellotti is underappreciated for all he achieved and set in motion in Eugene. He was the architect and overseer of a great run in the history of the program, and he was the one who had the sense to identify and hire Kelly as offensive mastermind.
Duck fans are so mesmerized by the aura of Big Balls Chip, eschewing field goals and ordering successful onside kicks in the second quarter down by two touchdowns, that they forget the deer-in-the-headlights beginning of his Oregon career. On a sultry night in Boise the Ducks opened the 2009 season with a giant sucker punch to their own ambitions. 0-1, and they didn't make a first down in the first half. That squad needed a late game miracle or two to beat a very average Purdue team in game 2, struggled for three quarters to beat Utah, stumbled in November against Stanford, and kicked the ball away in a loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
It was the Ducks first Rose Bowl in 15 years, so most folks were very happy with 10-3.
Oregon goes 10-3 this year, and fans will be Tweeting Kevin Sumlin by the second quarter of the Alamo Bowl.
After the Spring Game Nick Aliotti told the press,
All of us are already in a can't-win situation. I don't mean this as defeatist, but unless we go 13-0 next year and win the national championship? That's the only way you can totally improve as a program.
The Ducks have had four head coaches in 37 years, and every one of them has improved the program. Each of them have Phil Knight to thank for it, but all of them, Brooks, Bellotti and Kelly, had a vital role in lifting Oregon football from the basement of the PAC-8 to the Greatest Show on Turf. The Harley roars with pride now. The Duck walks with a swagger. It wasn't always so.
But Aliotti is right. After all that success, expectations are now ramped up to the point that Winning the Day means winning them all. For many fans and donors, anything less than an undefeated season and a national championship would be a letdown. Even a return trip to the Rose Bowl, once hallowed and distant ground, would be met in many circles with an indifferent shrug.
It's hard to win a Rose Bowl. The Ducks have been to five in 110 years, and they've only won two. Yet this season with the talent in place and the organizational legacy Kelly left, the consensus among Duck fans is that Oregon shouldn't go any worse than 11-1 with a trip to a BCS bowl. If there were a loss, it would be analyzed, scrutinized and pored over for evidence of coaching errors, the guiding question being, "What Would Chip Do?" The first time Oregon faces a 4th and 3, Helfrich will be in a stadium with 59,000 offensive coordinators, a packed house in a forward lean of anticipation. If Matt Wogan is trotted out to kick a field goal, it had better be good from any distance.
But no pressure, coach. Just play by the recruiting regulations and throw the ball more and we'll be happy. But bring home that trophy.
Fans still wonder. They wonder if a nice-guy coach can maintain the standard of discipline and motivation. They wonder if this team of coaches will drive as hard as they did under the fast-talking New Englander. They wonder if the Oregon offense will be as creative and aggressive, if the Ducks will throw the ball more, and key players will be developed and utilized in the marvelous way they were under the dolphin-brained wizard who had a hot tub in his office and Erin Andrews sending him text messages.
Here's my answer: every indication is that Mark Helfrich will be a fabulous, successful and long-term head coach at Oregon. He was decisive and in command in saving the 2013 recruiting class. They held on to Tyner, the Robinson twins and Darren Carrington. They added Torrodney Prevot and Cameron Hunt. They lost Dontre Wilson, but that was just unfortunate timing; Kelly announced for the NFL the morning after his home visit with the Wilson family.
Helfrich signed a good class full of promising athletes, all of whom successfully enrolled in classes this summer. A few of them will develop into stars. Together they are the sharp, bright, motivated kind of young men fans are used to seeing in the Moshofsky Center. The Ducks addressed needs and continued the tradition of athleticism, speed and team-oriented football players.
Pulling that together in just two short weeks was a coaching coup. In particular the decision to have the coaching staff travel as a group to recruits' homes stabilized the situation, assuring players and parents that the nucleus of Oregon football, the continuity in coaching, was still a great strength. Helfrich moved quickly to establish trust. It was a decisive and magnificent victory in his first exposure as a new head man. Moving so quickly from the initial press conference to getting on a plane and getting the job done was truly impressive.
At Spring practice players were asked about the difference between the old coach and the new. Most laughed and said, "Well, there's a lot less yelling" but then went on to insist the vibe was good, the tempo was fast, and everybody was working to get better. Fans had to trust them, because nobody got to see spring practice, Helfrich electing to keep them closed after some deliberation, citing safety concerns.
The attitude of most of the Duck faithful seems to be, it's fine if it helps them win. Players say the focus is better without spectators and reporters. Pete Carroll wanted fans at practice. He felt it kept athletes competing, wanting an atmosphere were they were challenging each other constantly. Mike Riley at OSU has open workouts. But then, the Beavers go to the Sun or Las Vegas Bowl every year. Call it a footnote or a quibble--it's far more important what they players get out of practice than what writers and bloggers do.
At the Spring Game the team looked sharp and organized, and a Mark Helfrich offense looked like a Chip Kelly offense only with more passing. Byron Marshall ran hard and looked very able in his bid to be the workhorse of the Duck running attack. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was confident and crisp, decisive and smooth leading three scoring drives in just over a quarter of work. The receiver group showed significant strides in improving their route running and productivity.
Everybody prospered but the banged-up, undermanned defense, which got hosed by the scoring system. Give them about 5 points for a series on which the offense has to punt (reasonable, figuring how often the Oregon offense turns a change of possession into points) and the score turns out to be pretty respectable, something like 65-55 with extra scoring awarded for the two turnovers.
So give Helfrich a grade of at least B+ for both Signing Day and the Spring Game.
It's in the two and a half months since the Spring Game that it comes to light that Helfrich might be a better coach for the stage Oregon is in now.
The 2014 recruiting class is shaping up magnificently. Bolstered by the favorable NCAA decision, in the last two weeks the Ducks got commitments from 4-star defensive back Arrion Springs and a 5-star bruiser of a tailback, 227-lb. touchdown machine Royce Freeman, bringing their total count of verbal commitments to 8, excellent for a school that historically closes late in recruiting.
Under Helfrich, the Oregon staff seems far more aggressive and proactive in recruiting. Chip was in some ways a reluctant recruiter, a charismatic salesman who related well to athletes but disdained the butt-kissing nature of the recruiting world, the fact that a few ultra-talented kids expected to be catered to and wooed. The attitude of "we'll miss you, but we can win with or without you" permeated UO's recruiting approach under CK. So far Helf and this staff has shown more willingness to get out there early and mix it up, and the results are fantastic. Already there's a good nucleus, with several other positive developments on the horizon. It's still the same superbly capable position coaches that are making the evaluations and working the circuit.
With the NCAA debacle and the interminably looming sanctions no longer an issue, the Ducks are poised to have a brilliant recruiting year. Helfrich's genuine warmth and positive, open communication style are bound to play well in homes. Phil Knight and Kelly have ensured that there is a great product to sell.
So summer recruiting represents another success for the new head coach. He earns a solid A in that class.
In two weeks, though, beginning on August 5th, he faces the real test. That's when Oregon begins fall practice, with the season's first game on August 31st.
The Coach has to get their attention and keep it. He has to sell them on the idea that the success of the recent past doesn't guarantee the success of the present: it has to be earned one rep at a time.
To win here and succeed long term, Helfrich is wise enough to know he doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. The system and the organizational disciplines that are in place are tremendous. The talent base, with Mariota, De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff, Colt Lyerla, the nine-deep defensive line and Terrance Mitchell, Brian Jackson, Bo Lokombo and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, is excellent.
Helfrich's situation is analogous to what Darron Thomas faced when he took over at quarterback. There is so much talent here his first job is to distribute the ball and be fundamentally sound. That will be easy for him, because he is a fundamentally sound guy.
Finally, too much is made of fancy formations and gadgety plays, the super-secret new double-x wing with the tight end acting as a fullback. Football is won with execution, simple blocking and tackling. The occasional trick can turn a game or two, but the rest is knowing your assignment and seeing it through, a lot like any other kind of work.
Helfrich knows as much about x's and o's as anyone in the game. He's intuitive, passionate, and he knows how to delegate and lead. His genuineness and humor foster loyalty, and in the long run, that's a more effective way of running a successful organization anyway.
For this stage of Oregon's development, Mark Helfrich might be a better coach than Chip Kelly. Not better in terms of having the massive array of innovations and being two moves ahead of everyone in the world except Nike and Federal Express, but in terms of being the right guy who's happy to be here and does the job the right way.
He's bright enough, competitive enough and motivated enought to be very successful. Most importantly, this is where he wants to be. It isn't a stepping stone to anything else.
Dale, thanks for setting this site up. Looks really good and I like your articles. Just in time, too!
Loved the phrase "59,000 offensive coordinators". So true. But that's what they pay us for... LOL! I have been one of the people wondering if Helf, as a nice guy coach, has what it takes to keep us more or less at the level Chip established. I don't expect us to be in a BCS bowl every year. But I would be unhappy if we didn't recruit well in the future or play competitively in games that we match up well in. I don't expect that we will have to go 13-0 or 12-1 to have a successful year. Some years we may be reloading and not able to do that well. But I would expect that we'd still be a good team and get into some kind of decent bowl and play well with the guys we do have. That would be successful to me. Being unsuccessful would be going 8-5 with talent that should go at least 10-3 or better - like USC last year, for example. This kind of performance is what will tell us how good Helf is. I do happen to like a tougher kind of coach (my own bias I guess) but I'm hoping to be disproved on that point. But tough is what I liked about Kelly and what I liked about Rich Brooks. I liked Bellotti too, but I do think that he had years when we under-performed. Like when BYU blew us out in the Las Vegas bowl. Bellotti was a little too easy going in my mind and that allowed that kind of thing to happen some years. So I hope Helf doesn't have that kind of thing. Along those lines I have somewhat wondered if losing Azz was as bad or maybe even worse than losing Kelly. Azz turned the defensive line around into a real mean machine the last year or two. Lots to get excited about. I'm ecstatic that we're only two weeks away from the start of practice. And I do like the idea of a bit more of a passing game with a QB like Mariota here. Go Ducks!
I dont have any inside info but it seems to me that two changes at the RG inspired Rob to look for something more certain. They let Adam Jude get away just before they went to the pay to read plan. From where I sit that looked like the RG was getting lean and looking for bucks wherever they could find them. Rob may not have the freedom to tell the whole story about anything UO, but he should feel pretty good about the odds he will get to stay in Eugene and not have to look for one of those jobs you're thinking about filling Dale. In fact, that may be what the RG is preparing to do: lean on freelancers to do the trenchwork. I did that for five or six years on the Olympic Peninsula. stringing for two and sometimes three papers covering everything from jr college basketball to high school sports and the local little league in post season play. If not for the fact I loved to be there and I loved to write, the pay would have been an insult. But that was the way of it with regional dailies and weeklies. No money to purchase enough fulltime folks to cover everything adequately.
Dale this article is your best writing so far at least what I have seen. Is it time to pursue your dream? Perhaps, only you know for sure. Have you considered applying to the Register Guard to replace Rob Mosely?
On a week when newspapers lost Rob Mosley and a couple of Oregonian sportswriters, you write a piece that provides hope for good journalism from other sources. This is analytical and smart, and crisply written. I still don't know how we replace journalists who have the time to develop sources, hover outside the AD, chat up players and coaches, keep the program honest. Those reporters dug up original information that others chew over and analyze. Without that original reporting, we are poorer. But as I said, finding this among the typical online drivel from other websites gives me hope. Well done.
What a great read. I'm sitting here like a puppet on a string nodding my head in agreement as I read. Very well put together piece.
You said, "Kelly may have been the smartest guy in the room, but Mark Helfrich was the guy he trusted with his offense." CK is still the smartest guy in the room. Picking MH as the coach certainly proves it.
Go Ducks WTD
I'm with Michael, you're hitting on all cylinders, Dale, with the ample Ducks good and ever potential bad. Great observations and insights - I love it.
Couldn't agree more that the magnificent 7 coaches flying around together to reassure Duck commits - successfully no less - was the perfect transition statement to kick-off the Kelly to Helfrich era.
I've given a lot of thought to Kelly's genius, from how he assessed the situation at Oregon with a brutal honesty, and developed a scheme and philosophy to live and work by that, along with Knight's support, the school's backing, and the fruits of a successful coaching lineage, produced overwhelmingly positive results. Now it's Helf's turn and I'm excited to see what he does, how he leads and creates leaders, and all the rest.
I'd expect that once he gets a few wins under his belt and the butterflies go away, we'll see Helf and co's version of procreative football start to blossom. Even if it's Kelly 2.0 with more passing, I'm fine with that. Going forward, the Ducks can't sit still, but must adapt and evolve, doing whatever it takes to stay a couple3 steps ahead of the competition.
Then there's Aliotti. His boys defend a lot of snaps, forcing constant rotations. The result? An excellent 3-deep, next man in, defense. They play with skill, speed and aggression (look who they practice against every day). Sure, he allowed a lot of points at USC. But they did enough to keep the lead and win against a formidable offense playing at home with lots of pride and motivation. And with injuries later in the season, the next men in didn't miss a beat.
Sorry for the ramble, good coffee this morning!
You're on a roll, Dale. Your football acumen and literary style make keeping up with the young'ns a real joy. You are spot on regarding Helfrich's decisive move to take the teaching crew as one to the Duck wannabes. That move was brilliant and may have been more so for his staff. HOw many times does that group get together, bringing each of their physical presences -- thinking short Allioti and classy Campbell, etc -- as the team behind the team. I am confident that they, like the veteran players understand that in order to stay at the top they will have to continue what has worked and continue to tweak as the players and the opposition evolve. Thanks again for another good read.
@MarcTheDuck Marc, welcome and thank you. Great post! Thoughtful take on expectations, and a good working definition, not going 8-5 with talent that should be 10-3 or better (hmmm...that sounds like Lane Kiffin. How DOES he keep his job?) The BYU/Las Vegas Bowl, coupled with the Wake Forest/Seattle Bowl were the low point of Coach Bellotti's tenure.
Coaching is like parenting in that a lot of styles can work, but you MUST be consistent and keep expectations and consequences clear.
Helfrich has the great blessing of coaching a group that appears to be self-motivated and self-policing, with strong role models and leadership within the group.
Azzinaro did do a tremendous job with the d-line, both in technique and motivation, but I believe they have a coach of equal caliber in Ron Aiken, an NFL mind with a strong resume.
@MichaelBurgwin Michael thanks for sharing that story. The shakeup in Willamette Valley newsrooms was pretty dramatic and some very fine people lost their jobs. It's clear the writing game and the paper business are undergoing a sea change. I may just have to bloom where I'm planted.
Both Jude and Moseley landed better jobs, and it's no surprise. Two of the best we have in the Northwest.
@SonomaDuck SD Hard to think the R-G would hire a blogger to replace the top sports reporter in the Valley. But yeah, I'd love that job. I would write my heart out.
@DHLA DH--I inadvertently deleted my original reply to you, and I'm sorry. I just pressed the wrong button.
I am humbled and gratified by your comment. I dearly want to write features that are "analytical and smart, crisply written." If I've made that impression in the mind of one careful reader it makes me want to keep working and getting better. I'll be producing stories daily for the remainder of season.
In the deleted post I mentioned that I'm contemplating early retirement to become a full time freelance writer. Not a practical decision when writers are being fired and newspapers are shrinking all over the country. But it's my dream and the thing I want to do. I have some money put away (not enough) and rather than squeeze it out in my old age or take a trip to Greece I want to write and study until it's gone. If I go broke I'll pick pears or put on a suit and take my resume to a temp agency. I've been broke before.
Thank you for your interest and encouragement. I wrote a post on the Moseley move to goducks.com last week: http://www.duckstopshere.com/2013-articles/july/moseley-s-win-the-day-gig-a-big-win-for-duck-fans-with-a-caution.html. It's wonderful for Duck fans getting a quality writer on the inside, but the move has ramifications and raises concerns, even beyond football.
Thanks again for a wonderful, gracefully written compliment.
@hoboduck Hobo, thank you. Helfrich was the the perfect, logical choice to succeed Kelly and preserve continuity, the best possible hire to extend this run of success. With a higher profile national guy, there's no guarantee you keep him. Helf may indeed earn that lifetime contract, or a series of one-year deals like Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda.
Rgyle, I apologize--I wrote a reply this this morning but the cyber sphere apparently ate it. When I get home both will probably show up.
Appreciate your observations. I love a good ramble, the rhetorical equivalent of a tight end down the seam for 35. Kelly had a vision and a plan, and putting Helfrich in place, as you pointed out, was a crucial part of that plan. Helf benefits from a soft landing--he has five readily winnable games to find his stride as a head coach..
Nick Aliotti coaches with everything in his being. I don't think there's a coach in America who cares more about his players or winning. I thought last year's team was a wonderfully entertaining defense, with takeaways and defensive touchdowns, flying to the football. The Duck defense is loaded with athletes and playmakers.
As for USC, that point total was padded by a last-second touchdown, and an interception that was overruled by a ridiculous interference penalty. A legal chuck before the pass was thrown was flagged. It boggles the mind.
@MichaelBurgwin Michael, thank you as always. Love Campbell's style and Alliotti's passion. What a coaching staff--it'll be a challenge over the next few years to replace them, but Oregon has become a dream destination for top coaches. Two great hires this off season.
@Dale Newton @DHLA You said, ".....but the move has ramifications and raises concerns, even beyond football." I guess I'm a little slow this morning, or any morning for that matter, but could you clarify that statement? I'm definitely missing something. Maybe a little of rgyle's coffe would help.
@rgyle The PAC-12 may be the conference of champions, but the officiating hasn't caught up. They simply have to do a better job of controlling and managing a game, getting things right.
@duckified @Dale Newton @SonomaDuck Like all the truly great athletes, Mariota is a superb talent with the work ethic of the last guy on the roster--Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton all worked like journeymen. Loved Moseley's story on Mariota's focus and training. Great details, and a terrific glimpse at an exceptional young man.
It will be a lot of fun to see how far Mariota goes in football.
@SonomaDuck @Dale Newton @duckified From the way he's run his beat over the years, my sense is Moseley has a lot of personal integrity, and he took this job with some assurances he could remain objective and tell the truth.
But you are right, there have to be some constraints, and you'd think there'd be some pressure in a crisis. The test will come when there's some inevitable, seriously negative news, like an athlete getting into trouble, for example, or a violation of the probation (juju forbid). At that point the loyalties and principles will be tested.
I have great faith in Rob as a writer, but it's still faintly disturbing to me that a multi-million dollar, tax payer supported entity gets to write its own news.
Did you see the story Moseley wrote today on Marcus Mariota and what he's doing to get ready for fall camp? Great story. Really good work.
Bruce Feldman of cbs.com has another terrific piece, an interview with Jim Bartko on Oregon's rise to prominence through innovation and creating a brand.
@hoboduck @Dale Newton @DHLA Hope you got the coffee. The reference there about ramifications is that it's a bit of an alarming trend to have a very large, high-profile private/public entity to go to such lengths to control information and limit access. Rob Moseley is a wonderful journalist, but the Ducks employ the highest paid public employee in the state in Mark Helfrich. A free and independent press is a valuable safeguard of liberty. What if BP, Halliburton, the government and Monsanto bought their own papers and reporters? Should we be concerned?
Not to stray too far from football, but that's the other side of the argument with Moseley's new job. He'll be terrific; today he has a great story on Marcus Mariota and his summer preparation and readiness for fall camp http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=208713360.
That's a point about the SC fans. I can't help but feel we as a fanbase have something to learn from them. I remember John McKay telling a youthful running back to "act like you've been there before" the next time he scored a touchdown. The Ducks have been a Top 20 team for 20 years, and a top five team for the last three. I think it's time we checked ourselves in terms of fan behavior. There's too many of us that are using Game Day as a cover for alcoholism, screaming 'f' bombs in front of five-year-olds, groping and abusing strangers, rude and inhospitable to guests, officials, opponents.
There's a certain grace under pressure demanded of success. We are new money in the college football world, and at times, we forget to carry the success with an appropriate level of class and perspective.