Oregon's new coach painted different strokes with different brushes than their last one. Mark Helfrich was formally introduced as the new Oregon Ducks head football coach Sunday afternoon in Eugene, leading off his era with a press conference in which the new main man on campus was personable, humble, friendly, affable and reasonable.
In his opening salvo, Helfrich talked about contrasts with Kelly, growing up playing catch in Autzen Stadium and, touchingly, about his father, a life-long Ducks fan who passed away on the morning of the Arizona game in 2011. But I only took in one thought Helfrich had to share, one sentiment on a day when many fantastic sentiments were offered by the Ducks new head coach: “Coaching at Oregon is the pinnacle for me,” Helfrich said. “… This is a special place to me. We talked about a lifetime contract; we were not able to get that done, but maybe we’ll earn that here down the road.” Mark Helfrich is 39. He's got his dream job. He's grounded, devoted to his family and his school, and already has the players, coaches and brand in place to succeed big over the next few years. This is the stuff legends are made from, right?
I don't want to get ahead of myself, but the possibilities are so big with this Helfrich guy, my mind leapt miles and years ahead every other time Oregon's new head coach opened his mouth. The pieces are in place; there is a rare opportunity at Oregon for Helfrich to become a coaching hero. One of things I liked least about Chip Kelly during his reign with the Ducks was that he never seemed interested in living up to his full potential off the field. Sure, Kelly maxed out on the field, where he was undeniably brilliant, but in every other category of college coaching, of which there are many, Kelly didn't want to give the time or attention necessary to become a truly great leader. Helfrich is the opposite.
In his first press conference, you could see the happiness and energy burn in Helfrich’s eyes when he talked about not just playing and winning football games, but talking to boosters, opening up practices to fans, and making people feel involved with the program. Helfrich choked up talking about family and humility, and, just from his opening remarks, it was wonderfully easy to see why Oregon's players gave Helfrich a standing ovation when he faced them for the first time as the team's head coach.
The Helfrich hire was a no-brainer. Not just from a football perspective, but from all other angles of the puzzle. Oregon is paying Helfrich a very low salary – $1.8 million dollars a year over the next five years – for being the head coach of a perennial top-10 team. Rob Mullens can elevate the first native Oregonian to the Ducks top job since John Warren had the gig back in 1942. What I'm saying here is this: Oregon has the potential to go to the moon with Helfrich while only paying for a trip to the skyscrapers, and if true Ducks fans can't get behind Helfrich and give him full-throated support to succeed, they'll never get behind any coach.
Oregon's recruiting suffered this year under the weight of the Chip Kelly saga, and diminished effort from Oregon's head coach himself on the recruiting trail. The Ducks currently have the 44th ranked incoming class in the nation, according to Rivals.com, and while those ratings can't always be accurate, they paint a clear picture of the different between Kelly's x's and o's acumen and his ability to sell the program to others. Helfrich could go out into the woods and successfully pitch the Ducks to a beaver. He loves the program. It's easy to see what Oregon means to him, and that effusiveness, combined with a sharp sense of humor and easy affability, will give Oregon a huge advantage in the recruiting.
Great college coaches don't just win games, they embody their school, breath their town and campus. They're more than coaches; they're voices of reason, godlike figures who love their school as much as their school adores them. They leave footprints that last generations, and their achievements, accomplishments, and contributions can be seen day after day, all over a college. Helfrich is just 39, has two young children rooted in the community, and has risen to the top job at his de-facto alma-mater – a school who's athletic department is supportive, rather than derisive. If he wins, Helfrich has a chance to be Oregon's head coach for a good 25-30 years. Couple that with his off-field personality, and we could see Mark Helfrich Stadium pop up in Eugene in 2040.
This never would have happened with Chip Kelly. With Helfrich, the on-field potential is the same as it was Kelly – competing for national championships – but off the field, Helfrich can do so much better. High expectations for a first-time head-coach? Of course. Unfair expectations to burden Helfrich with right out of the gate? Sure. But the potential for all-around greatness makes me giddy.
We know, however, that there is no path to legendary status that travels around winning. For all of his charm and feel-good effect, Helfrich will be out on his butt in three years if Oregon ends up back in the Las Vegas Bowl – the little demonic fear deep inside the stomach of every Ducks fan that reared its ugly head after Kelly flew for Philly. But in reality, the Kelly to Helfrich transition should end up looking like the Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw transition at Stanford – the brash, NFL-bound predecessor paving the way in uncharted waters for an inexperienced, but more likable offensive coordinator to rise to the challenge and keep the program going at a fantastic clip.
Luckily for Helfrich, Stanford should be, at least in the foreseeable future, the biggest obstacle between Oregon and Pac-12 supremacy. While there are a lot of good programs in the Pac-12 right now, greatness is hard to come by outside of Eugene. USC, whose dominance dwarfed the nine other programs in the old Pac-10, has fallen into shambles and disrepair; Lane Kiffin succeeded in running a once proud program into the ground with the help of NCAA sanctions. Kiffin tried to hire Nick Allioti away from Oregon to be the Trojans new defensive coordinator last week, but Allioti turned him down … a huge win for the Ducks. If Oregon can stay focused week in and week out – Helfrich's biggest challenge in replacing Kelly, whose teams were never caught looking ahead – the Ducks should be just dandy in conference for years to come.
Mark Helfrich ran day-to-day practices and developed quarterbacks. Four years ago, Helfrich turned Jeremiah Masoli from a hunk of running ability into a quarterback, competent enough in the passing game to shred defenses who stacked the box against the Ducks. Helfrich had to completely rework Masoli's throwing motion and teach him the position – a task he did effectively to the tune of a Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl appearance. It was Helfrich who developed Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota. He has been in the trenches with the offense the last four years and has the complete trust of everyone who has played for him.
Helfrich also boasts, of course, a fantastic ensemble coaching staff, led by Allioti, Scott Frost, a rising coaching star who had a brilliant college playing career of his own, was promoted to offensive coordinator. Helfrich is the new face of the Ducks, but a great coaching staff full of fantastic people is still running the show in Eugene.
The uniforms, money, and brand all remain at Oregon, and the controls of the football program are being taken over by a nice homegrown boy in his dream job. I don't know if the Ducks will rack up the wins under Helfrich that they did under Kelly, but I do know there will be a lot to root for at Oregon. The future of Oregon football is bright. The 2013 season can't come fast enough.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports