Despicable you: don’t doubt that Mark Helfrich can do the job; he already is

helfrichImagine 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.

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