The Coming of Age of Mark Helfrich

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 8, 2015

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If we've learned anything from Hollywood, it's that every great sports team has a defining moment: an inspirational speech, a trip to a veterans' hospital or something of the feel-good nature. It's that light-switch moment when everyone finally gets it. Win-one-for-the-Gipper stuff.       

Everything happens in giant steps. That's why we'll never see a movie about the Oregon Ducks or coach Mark Helfrich, even though he'll become a national title-winning coach if he beats Ohio State on Monday. And he will.

But he looks like the guy you ask for help from at JCPenney, only to apologize later when you find out—after he helped you—that he doesn't work there.

The big issue for Oregon this season was whether things were slipping under Helfrich, who had taken over for Hollywood-ready Chip Kelly. Would Helfrich be able to make this team his own? Did he have the strength to do it?

Turned out the answer was yes, he did do it. But no, there was no defining moment.

How did he make the program his?

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Quietly. Smoothly. Patiently.

I asked him this week how he turned things around midseason. Last season, in Helfrich's first year since being promoted from offensive coordinator, the Ducks failed to make it to a BCS bowl for the first time in five years. This year, when they lost to Arizona at home, that made three losses in six conference games. Since then, the Ducks have posted blowout victories. 

Somewhere in there, that had to be Helfrich's moment. What happened?

"We believe very much in what we're doing," Helfrich told Bleacher Report on a media conference call Monday. "Our guys believe very much in what we're doing and how we're doing it.

"There's always—from the media's perspective or the fans' perspective—second-guessing. In our world, that's evaluation. You go back and evaluate why something happened. And you fix it."

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich stands on the sidelines during the College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Florida State Seminoles at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Helfrich doesn't get it. Evaluate it and fix it? Who could play a role like that in a movie?

If there were any one moment that the program became Helfrich's, that was it. But there was no moment. He is not willing things to happen by sheer force, excessive study or a football-24/7 lifestyle. He is redefining what a leader is in football, breaking stereotypes.

"As far as structure of what we do (between Helfrich and Kelly), it's the same format, the same routines," Steve Greatwood, offensive line coach who has been an Oregon assistant for 29 years, told Bleacher Report Wednesday night. "Mark's added a few tweaks.

"But the difference is Mark's approach to his relationship to his players and the way he leads. Chip was a very, very outspoken, dynamic guy that kind of hammered a mantra over and over and over again. Mark is a much more laid-back, approachable kind of guy.

"The way he states our goals to the players—these are our expectations of you—they don't want to disappoint him. They relate to him. Mark has a very self-deprecating personality. He'll throw himself under the table and always place the blame on himself and spread the credit around."

Helfrich, 41, grew up in a small town in Oregon. He played quarterback at Southern Oregon and then for the Vienna Vikings in Austria. When he got into coaching after that, he gave up plans to be an orthopedic surgeon.

That isn't a typical background for great college coaches. 

In general, head coaches are a strange group, all alpha-male or self-isolated in a football bubble. There is usually too much personality (Jim Harbaugh) or maybe a few serious gaps in one (Nick Saban, Bill Belichick).

But no matter what it is, they somehow look like a dominant figure. 

Not Helfrich. And I'd say he's missing the leadership gene. But his results suggest that the leadership gene isn't what we think it is. You let people know you're in charge, set the tone and put that together with incredible football knowledge. Maybe that's all it really is about.

Asked at his press conference Monday what he needs to improve on, he said:

Jan 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich reacts during the first half in the 2015 Rose Bowl college football game against the Florida State Seminoles at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"I definitely need to work on the biceps. That's true. I'm sure my wife will have a couple other things that I need to work on—throw out the garbage on time, stuff like that."

We keep hearing stories about how humble Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is. It's his Hawaii roots, his Samoan upbringing. Yes, but something about that made him a fit with Helfrich.

Mariota was not a highly recruited high school player. But Helfrich, who was Kelly's offensive coordinator at the time, found him while he was recruiting someone else. It was Helfrich's eye and attitude that got Mariota where he is.

"He'll joke with you; he'll find any little thing to make you laugh, " Mariota told Bleacher Report on Monday on a media conference call. "Coach Helfrich is really somebody that you love to play for. He develops that relationship with you from the moment you get here. It doesn't matter if you are a starting offensive lineman or a scout-team guy. When you feel that compassion, it makes you want to play that much harder for the guy."

Does he get angry? And if so, how can you tell?

"You'll know when he's mad," Mariota said. "His face gets red, and his voice gets a little higher."

You can point to the days after the Arizona loss, but that's not really when this became Helfrich's team. It's when his approach proved itself.

The Ducks were 4-1 at the time, but not only had they lost to Arizona (on Oct. 2), they also had looked sloppy in beating Washington State a week earlier. The offensive line was a mess, loaded with injuries. Mariota was scrambling around, getting hit. The media was openly questioning whether Helfrich had it.

Greatwood said it was a tough time, but Helfrich's level-headedness kept everyone calm and focused. Now, even the line is great.

"I appreciate that," Greatwood said. "After the Arizona game, I had to look at myself first and see what I was doing. We (the linemen) weren't getting beat by mental mistakes. We were getting beat physically because of fundamentals.

"We had been spending more time on scheme than fundamentals. I need to go back to fundamentals. It pays off. You'd think after doing this for 30-some-odd years I'd have been able to figure that out sooner."

Another humble Duck? They all follow their leader, even if he does look like a biceps-challenged clerk at the JCPenney.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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