Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is coaching for his job over the final six weeks of the season.
At least that's one way to interpret what athletic director Rob Mullens didn't say during his Monday interview on the in-house radio program, “Duck Insider."
The show's host, Joey McMurry, didn't directly ask Mullens if Helfrich's job is in jeopardy after a 2-4 start, which includes a 70-21 loss to No. 5 Washington on Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Instead, McMurry asked Mullens what he thought about some fans calling for coaching changes. Mullens, who has declined interview requests from multiple outlets including CSN, responded as such:
“I understand the frustration, absolutely appreciate the passion,” Mullens said. “We’re six games into the season and not where anyone wants to be. But there still is an opportunity to turn this a little bit and start to see some positive results. As I talked to Mark, they go right back to work and get right back in it. We have a wonderful group of student-athletes, and we need to do everything we can to support the coaches, the student-athletes, especially the seniors as they go this last go-round.”
McMurry attempted in other ways to get his boss to be more direct about Helfrich without coming out and asking, "is Helfrich's job in jeopardy?" Mullens, being very guarded with his words throughout, never provided any clear answers to the only question anyone listening wanted answered.
Instead, Mullens went on and on about the passion of the fans, the success many sports programs at Oregon have enjoyed, working hard and the disappointment over the football team's rough start.
“Yes, there’s a lot of frustrations, and no one wants to win more than I do, more than Coach Helfrich, more than the coaches and the student-athletes," Mullens said. "So we’ve got to get back to work and figure out how to turn these results around.”
The bottom line appears to be that if Helfrich doesn't turn things around, his tenure as Oregon's head coach could come to an end shortly after the Civil War. What it would take for Helfrich to lose or keep his job remains a mystery to all outside of Mullens' head.
There is really no other way to interpret the interview. At any point Mullens could have said, "Helfrich is our coach moving forward beyond this season."
That fact that Mullens did not volunteer such support doesn't mean Helfrich is all but done. But it certainly doesn't mean Helfrich's job is safe. Helfrich himself played this game prior to last season's Alamo Bowl when asked if then-defensive coordinator Don Pellum's job was in jeopardy.
"Everybody has to get better," Helfrich said on Jan. 1 in San Antonio, Texas. "Somebody asked me a similar question the other day. I'm never gonna...I could get fired tomorrow. My boss [Mullens] is right over there. He could fire me after this press conference. I don't know....We all have to improve. Every single one of us. We've learned that around the world for a long, long time."
The Ducks lost to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, 47-41 in triple overtime, Pellum got demoted back to linebackers coach, Oregon hired Brady Hoke as the new defensive coordinator and UO's defense is statistically worse than it was last season.
Now Helfrich finds himself on the other end of ambiguous words from his boss.
“When you’re a coach in any sport, your results are very transparent,” Mullens said. “People watch it on the field, and in football it’s 12 Saturdays and it’s there for everybody to see. There's a lot of things that happen Monday through Friday or Sunday through Friday that you’re also evaluating. It’s just a continuous process of what can we do today to help support the coaches, support the student-athletes to meet these lofty expectations."
(Insert confused-looking Emoji face here).
Helfrich is 35-12 as a head coach at Oregon. He went 11-2 his first season in 2013 taking over for Chip Kelly. The following season, Helfrich went 13-2 while guiding the Ducks to their greatest season, which included a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl win over defending national champion Florida State, a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Marcus Mariota and a loss in the national title game to Ohio State.
Last year the team dipped to 9-4 in large part due to a horrible defense and lack of a backup quarterback. Those problems persist this season, especially on defense, and the Ducks are getting pounded.
Some players claim teammates have mentally checked out, and/or aren't giving maximum effort. There are rumors that some players have quit and do not like playing for Helfrich.
"We're here working every single day to produce the results that we all want," Mullens said.
For him, working sometimes includes hiring and firing coaches. Mullens faces by far his biggest challenge as athletic director in that regard.
So what must Helfrich do to keep his job?
If the Ducks go 4-2 over the second half to finish 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game, one could assume that Helfrich's job would be safe. Anything short of that: all bets are off.
One could surmise based on Mullens' lack of outwardly, steadfast support of Helfrich that if the Ducks continue to play poorly a coaching change will be made. A 4-8 record, or worse, could be difficult for Mullens to overlook if he is already not fully standing behind Helfrich at the moment.
However, if the Ducks were to finish poorly, but Mullens is convinced the ingredients exist to turn things around next season, maybe that would be enough to earn Helfrich one season to right the ship.
Other factors Mullens will have to consider involve player support for Helfrich and the staff and if the AD is ready to see the entire coaching staff dismissed. Hiring a new coach would mean going after someone accomplished, and that person would likely want to assemble his own staff.
Assistant coaches John Neal, Gary Campbell, Pellum, Steve Greatwood and Jim Radcliffe, have been with the Ducks seemingly forever. Do they deserve to lose their jobs after one bad season when they were integral parts of program reaching such lofty heights?
Also, there is not-so-small matter of the $11 million remaining on Helfrich's contract, signed following the 2014 season. Is Oregon willing to eat that money, and pay a new coach a contract that probably would amount to about $15-$25 million over five years?
Maybe disgruntled boosters would pick up Helfrich's tab? Could Phil Knight pressure Mullens to fire Helfrich and offer to pick up the $11 million check? Or, maybe Knight pressures Mullens to give Helfrich another year.
Finally, whom is Oregon going to hire to replace Helfrich? What coach more accomplished than Helfrich would be available? And if he is available, is it because he recently got fired? If so, how is he then a better option? If a strong candidate already has a job and is winning, why would he leave his current situation for Oregon? Would the Ducks have to overpay to pry away such a coach?
Could Oregon even upgrade at head coach or would a move simply prove to be costly and lateral?
Would a new coach and his staff be as loyal to Oregon as this staff has been? Helfrich is an Oregonian, born and raised in Coos Bay. This is his dream job. Would a new coach merely view Oregon as stepping stone to the NFL or to a bigger collegiate program? Yes, there are numerous programs bigger than Oregon's.
Mullens job isn't an easy one. He must ponder all of the above and an untold number of other factors.
But it all starts with Oregon's final six games. All are winnable. Helfrich probably needs at least four wins to remain safe.
Only Mullens knows for sure. That's the scary part for Helfrich.