Once again, Oregon has decided to be different.
Instead of getting caught up in the coaching-carousel arms race—like pretty much everyone else these days—the Ducks played it safe with their new head coach. No huge name, no huge salary, no huge shift in philosophy, no parade. Just a press conference and a promotion.
With Chip Kelly off to the NFL, making a cool $6.5 million a season with the Philadelphia Eagles, former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich has been given the keys to a Ferrari. I assume this Ferrari can float, change color in different lighting and pour coffee. After all, it is Oregon.
While many are wondering why the Ducks didn’t drive the Brinks trucks to Boise, Idaho, to meet with a certain employed head football coach, I love this hire.
A promotion of this kind is filled with unknowns, but we do know this: Oregon has a wonderful football formula in place, and he’s the perfect person to receive the baton without breaking stride. If such a thing is possible.
After all, Chip Kelly was in a similar position before taking over in 2009.
As for the changes you can expect to see, well, you may notice at least one when it comes to fashion. Have no fear, all is safe on the uniform front.
"I won't wear a visor, I'll eat more vegetables" - Coach Helfrich on differences b/t himself & Coach Kelly #GoDucks— Andy McNamara (@McNamaraUO) January 20, 2013
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it’s starting to come apart at the seams, a little maintenance can be much more effective than starting over. It’s a luxury not many teams have, but Oregon, of course, isn’t every other team.
More than just the headgear and the increased greens intake will be the task of managing a wonderful foundation already in place while adding in his personal touch. Helfrich labeled himself the “caretaker” of the program, saying they will be "99.2 percent in lockstep” with how things have been run. That .08 percent is vital, however, and so is originality from a program that’s seemingly always ahead of the curve.
The plan has been in the works for some time now. While Oregon interviewed five candidates for the opening, Helfrich had been pegged as the likely “next man up”—a term used frequently around Eugene—when Kelly almost bolted to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Kelly’s indecisiveness, while unpredictable to the very end, allowed the Ducks time to prepare for the day he left.
It wasn’t a matter of if, but when, even when it was announced that Kelly would be staying for another season. USA Today reported that Mark Helfrich would be the coach chosen to replace Kelly before he was wined and dined by NFL teams after cruising in the Fiesta Bowl. The backup plan didn’t play out exactly as expected, but it never does.
Helfrich has been the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the least four seasons. Before coming to Eugene in 2008, he held the same position at Colorado. Prior to the stop in Boulder, he was the quarterbacks coach at both Arizona State and Boise State.
Since becoming the OC at Oregon, the Ducks have averaged a staggering 500 yards and 44.7 points per game. That’s an offensive explosion for most. In Eugene, it’s just another fall Saturday.
2012 was the most impressive year yet, and Oregon—led by talented freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota—averaged 537 yards and 49.6 points per game. Some of this can be attributed to Pac-12 defenses, but there’s much more here.
The combination of talent, tempo and offensive production has separated Oregon from pretty much everyone else. With the mastermind behind this plan gone, Helfrich will be asked to continue the scoreboard destruction. Because he’s worked closely with Kelly the past four seasons—and also because he’ll inherit a roster still rich with offensive talent—there’s no reason to believe we’ll see a dramatic drop off.
Big names, starting with Boise State’s Chris Petersen, seemed a likely route for a hire with a school that’s about innovation. Behind the reflective helmets and neon green socks, however, is an intelligent administration that values continuity and sees plenty of promise in the 39-year-old first-time head coach.
"Seeing how Mark conducts himself and how people around him respond to him at practice, in the locker room, in the office, really was impressive," Oregon AD Rob Mullens told CBS Sports. "I've had a chance to see him working with the football staff. I've seen him in development situations. Seen him with the media. He really exemplifies excellence in his leadership and character."
These traits will be needed, especially right now. The timing of Chip Kelly’s departure is not ideal, and Oregon will now need to scramble with national signing day closing in. It’s been a lackluster recruiting class for the Ducks to begin with, and it will be Helfrich’s job to provide stability in the unstable madness that is this home stretch.
And then, of course, there are the NCAA sanctions that will come later this year, assuming the NCAA gets around to it. This is the great unknown, and the NCAA has proven to work in mysterious ways. Helfrich will cross that path once he gets there, but having someone who has been entrenched in the program—along with a staff that should feature many familiar faces—will be beneficial when that day comes.
A few years from now, we will know if this was indeed the right hire. Things may look slightly different, despite the ridiculous tempo and familiar offense that will continue to torture Pac-12 defenses for the foreseeable future. Or perhaps it won’t change much at all. It depends on the .08 percent.
Oregon has once again proved its innovation, this time through simplicity and willingness to adapt. In an age where hiring a big name seems more important than the ideal fit, the Ducks are setting a trend by staying the course.
Forget about the extra zeroes on the paycheck and a robust welcoming party that would generate headlines and a quick recruiting flurry. What you had was working just fine, and there’s absolutely no reason to alter the plan.
Well, minus the visor.