Athlon lowballs Helfrich–is this just another Duck diss?


Coaches are measured by a complex equation of expectations versus results, which Mark Helfrich won’t waste a minute calculating. He has enough to worry about contending with Stanford and Michigan State (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports images).

Ratings and rankings are the stuff of the long off season. No one worries about rating the major leagues’ top five hitters during the fifth game of the World Series. Come September, the only evaluation of Mark Helfrich Duck fans will care about will be the scoreboard at the end of the Michigan State game.

Until then, we’re willing to entertain almost anything to keep the sports conversation going. This week Steve Lassan of Athlon Sports rated the PAC-12 coaches, and surprisingly, he set down Mark Helfrich as the 11th-best coach in a 12-team conference, ahead of only Sonny Dykes of 1-11 Cal:


1.David Shaw, Stanford
2. Chris Petersen, Washington
3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
5. Mike Leach, Washington State
6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
7. Jim Mora, UCLA
8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
12. Sonny Dykes, California

Lassan offered the following capsule evaluation of the Ducks second-year head coach:

“Helfrich had a tough assignment replacing offensive mastermind Chip Kelly in 2013. The Ducks were picked by many as a threat to win the national title, but a late-season injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota hindered the offense in November. Oregon finished 11-2 in Helfrich’s debut and No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll. Despite not getting to the national championship, 2014 was a solid debut for Helfrich in his first season on the sidelines in Eugene. Helfrich needs a little time to put his stamp on the program, and with Mariota returning in 2014, Oregon should in the hunt to win college football’s playoff.”

David Shaw, head man of two-time conference champion Stanford, rated number one. Lassan picked Chris Petersen second. The new head coach at Washington hasn’t yet coached a game in the PAC-12 but won a pair of BCS bowls and finished in the Top Ten four times at Boise State.

Lassan makes the point that wins and losses are an incomplete way to rate coaches, because “winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning ten games at Kentucky.”

It’s hard to argue with the top of the Athlon list. Shaw certainly deserves to be number one at this point after completing Stanford’s transformation from a soft academic school to a hard-nosed football power, particularly after taking over from Jim Harbaugh and having to replace stars like Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart. The Cardinal have forged an identity and consistently delivered, 34-7 in Shaw’s three years while losing only four conference games. They’ve embarrassed and manhandled the Ducks for two straight seasons, in games that were close on the scoreboard but won by a decisive margin at the line of scrimmage.

Petersen seems a little high at number two, Jim Mora a little low at 7. Todd Graham is certainly among the conference’s best, but doesn’t Mike Riley get a little too much credit for maintaining mediocrity at Oregon State? After all, this is a team that lost to Eastern Washington last fall, 7-6 after a win in the Hawaii Bowl over the Petersen-less Broncos.

What really jars the football sensibility is placing Helfrich behind Whittingham, McIntyre, Sarkisian, coaches of teams the Ducks beat handily, two coaches that didn’t achieve a .500 record in 2013, one (Sarkisian) that didn’t beat the Ducks once in five tries with the Huskies. Mike Leach gets vast credit for resurrecting Washington State, a bowl team last year, but he’s 9-16 in two years on the Palouse, and for all his schematic genius, he’s had a series of distracting feuds with his players and media dust-ups, and you wonder if he has staying power with his scorched-earth style at the podium.

Helfrich hasn’t yet proven himself as belonging in the top rank of conference coaches, but he seems to be unnecessarily penalized in this ranking for achieving but not exceeding expectations in his first year. True, the Ducks lost a couple of games, but they also had a star quarterback hurt. Knute Rockne would not have won a national championship with Jeff Lockie or Jake Rodrigues.

Over the off season we’ve discussed at length the failings of last year. Oregon’s coaches and players have gone through a necessary period of evaluation also, and there are strong indications they’ve made adjustments and improvements based on the lessons of 2013. There’s a new commitment to discipline and organization in the program, stronger horizontal leadership, better communication on the staff.

11-2 was a good but not great first season, and both Duck fans and the players and coaches are aiming for more in 2014. Oregon’s squarely in the hunt for the national title. The first order of business is winning the conference again.

By this time next year, Helfrich is likely to be in the top five. He’s grown in the job over the last few months after a full season of making the decisions and taking the heat. Naming his own defensive coordinator helped, something that tightened the unity on his staff  and the chain of command.

Note that the Ducks went through the winter without a single disciplinary issue, with significant gains in the weight room, and minimal losses to attrition. Three star players passed up the NFL draft. Reports and indications are that the energy and attitude at spring practice have been outstanding.

After interviewing several members of the 2014 class, I’m strongly convinced that Helfrich’s first full recruiting class is an outstanding group that will dramatically exceed their star ratings. The speed and athletic ability is impressive, but top-to-bottom, this group is off the charts in attitude, maturity, and leadership.

Fans at Oregon have come to expect excellence from the Ducks, and they’re not ready to adjust expectations downward, not while Marcus Mariota is in uniform with Bralon Addison, Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall and a veteran offensive line surrounding him. The truest test of Helfrich’s long-term coaching chops will come next season, but in this one, fans expect results that will move him up the subjective off-season lists.


Dale Newton

About Dale Newton

The Ducks Stops Here is a site for opinions, commentary and analysis on Duck football. I've written it since 2010. Reader contributions are welcome and can be submitted at