Fentress 1-on-1 with Mark Helfrich
LOS ANGELES – Rightly or wrongly, the pressure is on Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.
But you wouldn’t know it by observing him Wednesday at Pac-12 Media day.
Helfrich bounced around from interview to interview during Pac-12 media day on Wednesday at Paramount Studios as the leader of the team that 24 out of 39 media members picked to win the conference championship.
The relatively soft-spoken coach, quick to interject self-deprecating humor or light cynical sarcasm, came off as cordial, unassuming and friendly during a seemingly endless round of Q & A sessions.
When asked how he is approaching year two as UO’s head coach, Helfrich, previously the team’s offensive coordinator, said he’s still adjusting to the role.
“I don't think you ever settle in and just sit down and exhale and relax,” Helfrich said. “There is another coach in this conference that told me when I first got hired that you won't feel comfortable for two and a half years and I was shocked by that. But I kind of understand what he meant. There are just so many different aspects to being a head coach than being in a coordinator position coach that are good, bad and different.”
The main difference is that unlike a coordinator, the head coach becomes the team’s face of success, or of failure.
Expectations at Oregon are off the charts as fans still yearn for an elusive national title that has repeatedly glanced off the program’s fingertips.
There are reasons to believe that UO’s proverbial national title window, opened in 2010, could close for at least a while after All-American quarterback Marcus Mariota heads to the NFL next spring.
There’s also the specter that the rest of the conference is catching up with the Ducks’ “blur” offense, making it less impactfull.
Oregon could be on the verge of simply becoming just another good team in a rapidly improving conference.
That all places Helfrich in an interesting position coming off an 11-2 season that some considered a failure after it ended with a ho-hum win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Anything short of winning a national title and Helfrich likely will never escape the shadow of the larger-than-life Chip Kelly, who led the Ducks to three conference titles and four BCS bowl game appearances that transformed the program from respected to feared.
It’s an unfair situation for Helfrich to be in.
While Kelly took over during the program’s upswing out of the Mike Bellotti era, and during USC’s decline, Helfrich took over at the crest of the UO’s success amidst a resurgence by many teams across the conference, including potentially the Trojans.
It’s like buying stock at the height of the market when an eventual decline is inevitable.
One must wonder how much patience Helfrich will receive if the Ducks make repeated trips to the Alamo or Holiday bowls.
Given his resume, Helfrich could be on a short leach.
Helfrich, in many ways, out-kicked his coverage by landing such a high-profile job as his first head-coaching gig.
He deserved the shot given he could replicate the team’s signature offense, but it’s rare that a perennial top 10 program doesn’t seek to make a splashier hire, one many in the fan base expected after Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Helfrich is not even close to the star coach here in Los Angeles. The glow of USC’s Steve Sarkisian, Washington State’s Mike Leach Stanford’s David Shaw, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, UCLA’s Jim Mora and Washington’s Chris Peterson engulfs that of Helfrich, a small-town boy from Coos Bay who made good by becoming the head coach of his favorite team growing up after serving as its offensive coordinator for four seasons under Kelly.
If the Ducks regress and some become restless, it could be expected that Oregon might panic and seek to throw big money at a bigger named coach, such as the basketball program attempted to do after firing Ernie Kent in 2010.
Despite Oregon’s success, the thought that a rising star coach assumed to be better than Helfrich would automatically head to Eugene if other top 20 jobs are available still appears unlikely.
But that doesn’t mean Oregon wouldn’t try.
The fact is that despite a fast start last season that had the Ducks in the national title hunt, Oregon closed the regular season with the worst four-game stretch (2-2 with a near loss to OSU) that the program had seen since Dennis Dixon blew out his knee late in 2007.
Oregon’s inability to stop the run and the offense transforming from unstoppable to highly marginal left some scrambling for someone to blame.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s knee injury aside, Helfrich received the brunt of the criticism for the offense’s regression and the team’s general lack of resilience.
The 42-16 loss at Arizona two weeks following a 26-20 loss at Stanford left many wondering if the Ducks were simply being outcoached.
Does Helfrich have Kelly’s leadership abilities? Can he be as offensively innovative? Can he recruit like Kelly did? Can he motivate the same way?
All fair questions but they are those that must be answered over time. Not with knee-jerk reactions to failures that are bound to come.
“I have a great supporting cast of assistant coaches and obviously our administration and our support and our players have made things a lot easier.”
Hopefully that continues when unrealistic expectations collide with reality.