Why Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is nation’s best bargain at $2 million
A few days before Oregon faced defending national champ Florida State in the Rose Bowl, three of the Ducks’ offensive stars sat on a stage in front of the media fielding questions. One of the first ones the Oregon players were asked was about the perception of coach Mark Helfrich as this “happy-go-lucky guy.”
"Do you think he’s the most under-appreciated coach in the playoff this year?" they were asked.
Duck O-lineman Jake Fisher had a blunt response: "The most underpaid, yes."
Seated next to Fisher, Oregon wideout Devon Allen added he was going to say that. Truth be told, the Duck players would be correct. The coach who Helfrich’s team proceeded to beat, Jimbo Fisher, just agreed to a deal that’ll pay him an average of $5.5 million per year. The two coaches in the other semifinal game, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban, combine to make over $11 million a year. Of course, the three of them have combined for seven national titles and this is just the 41-year-old Helfrich’s second season as the Ducks’ head coach.
Still, his 24-3 record is eye-catching, as is the fact that his teams are 7-1 against ranked opponents (at the time they played) and won by an average of 22 points per game. Perhaps what’s even more impressive about Helfrich’s record in his first two seasons is that it comes at a time when the Pac-12 has never been tougher. A decade ago, it was USC and then a big drop-off to Cal. Five years ago, it was even thinner. Oregon was the only team from the conference to finish in the final AP top 20, and the Ducks finished No. 11. This season, seven different conference teams were in the top 20 at one point.
Helfrich’s $2 million salary is hardly meager, but in the context of today’s coaching world, it may make him the best bargain in major college football since as of right now — just days before his team plays for its first national title — he’s actually the lowest-paid head coach in the entire Pac-12, just behind Cal’s Sonny Dykes.
Oregon’s 39-point dismantling of FSU, and the Noles’ 29-game win streak, in the Rose Bowl was a prime example of how Helfrich is thriving as the Ducks’ head man. He and OC Scott Frost adeptly set up plays that after an initial three-and-out series had Florida State’s athletic defense reeling, producing eight scoring drives — and seven TDs — on their next 10 series. Oregon piled up 639 yards of offense really in just a little more than three quarters of action before throttling down early in the fourth quarter. The Ducks also capitalized on just about every mistake their opponent made, something few teams seem to have the presence and poise to exploit the way Oregon does.
Frost attributes that focus to the notion the Ducks have an uncanny calm about them when they play.
"Our kids have five-star hearts, and our kids don’t get rattled, and they don’t get nervous," Frost said after the win over FSU. "Some of them are oblivious to pressure because we go so fast."
Much of the glow with these Ducks goes to QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon’s dynamic triggerman, but lost in that is what this team is working without. Consider this: The Ducks lost their stud left tackle (Tyler Johnstone) and their best wideout (Bralon Addison) before the season. Then before the playoff, they lost All-Pac-12 tight end Pharaoh Brown and All-American CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Then on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, they lost their fastest player and most consistent WR in Devon Allen. No matter, the Ducks keep rolling on.
"He’s gone a great job of keeping that group together," Chip Kelly said Sunday about Helfrich. Kelly is the old Ducks head coach Helfrich has followed in Eugene after Kelly headed to Philadelphia to coach the Eagles, leaving behind a very big shadow. Asked what impresses him most about Helfrich, Kelly praised how smart his former OC is, adding he is a "great person, good communicator. Very grounded."
As much as Mariota’s presence can overshadow a program, much in the same way Andrew Luck’s did when David Shaw first took over at Stanford after Jim Harbaugh moved onto the NFL, the two biggest reasons why Helfrich has flown under the radar to some degree are because of his low-key personality and because, well, he’s not Chip Kelly.
"The only thing I can relate it to is I took over for (Cornhusker legend) Tommie Frazier as a quarterback at Nebraska," explained Frost. "We could have won 52 games in a row, and it still wouldn’t have been as good as what Tommie did. Might have been a bad comparison, but Mark had a little bit of an uphill battle taking over for Chip just because of the perception."
In four seasons as the Ducks’ head coach, Kelly went 46-7 and 33-3 in the Pac-12. He also elevated what his predecessor — the man who hired him at UO — Mike Bellotti had built, transforming a good program into a ground-breaking program inspiring its cutting edge persona. Helfrich had a big role in what Kelly did, as his right-hand man on offense, but there is only one thing left for Oregon that hasn’t been accomplished: win a national title.
Helfrich, though, did know the proverbial secret sauce, having worked with Kelly, learning his unique schemes on the field and advanced theories about training and preparation off the field.
Helfrich calls Kelly one of his biggest coaching influences, along with current NFL assistant Dirk Koetter, the OC at Oregon when he was a graduate assistant. Like Kelly, Helfrich also has a very underrated and quick sense of humor, which anyone who has been at one of his postgame press conferences can attest.
"One of the things I really appreciate about working for Mark is he’s the same guy every day when you come to work," said Frost. "We have an environment that I think is unique that we take our job seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think there’s more enjoyment and laughing in our football building than almost any football building in the country."
Helfrich, an Oregon native, grew up a big Ducks fan and was a standout quarterback in Coos Bay. Both his parents attended Oregon, but he went to college and played QB at Southern Oregon rather than try to walk on in Eugene. When Kelly opted to jump to the NFL, Helfrich seemed like a sensible option to build on what has been going on at UO the past dozen years or so. He knew the system — and the place — better than anyone. He also helped find and develop Mariota, who, when Helfrich showed up in Hawaii, wasn’t even his high school’s starting QB.
“When I first got here, coach Helfrich was (a huge key) — little things like learning the offense and understanding what we do as an offense and why we do it,” Mariota said.
Helfrich’s transition into the big chair has had a few rocky moments — like in his debut season when Stanford mauled the Ducks (for the second consecutive season), something that gave wings to the notion that Oregon might not be tough enough to win a national title. Or like earlier this fall when upstart Arizona swarmed the Ducks and upset Oregon on a Thursday night — in Eugene, no less. However, the Ducks avenged both defeats in resounding fashion. And their self-effacing leader has started to emerge as a star in his own right, taking on Kelly’s style.
"They are very different personalities," Jake Fisher said, comparing Kelly and Helfrich. "One was more business-focused, more operation-focused, and Helfrich has kind of turned it into more of a high school team where we bonded more. Not necessarily built more trust, but we had that camaraderie where a high school team would have — I think you see that with everything we do. We’ve all bought in, all been able to come together. We all hang out together."
Said safety Erick Dargan, "He really cares about our bodies and makes sure we’re getting the right treatment and making the right steps. He’s always getting input from the players, how can we make it better? And that’s something we always approve, because it’s not just the coach’s standpoint; he wants the players’ standpoint, how can we improve? And it helps. It really does."
Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher knows about as well as anyone what it’s like to replace a coach who left some huge shoes behind. Fisher replaced the legendary Bobby Bowden, a man he worked under before taking over the Noles’ program, his first job as a head coach. Fisher said he’s most impressed by Helfrich’s authenticity.
"I don’t see him trying to be Chip Kelly or Mike Bellotti or anything else," said the Noles’ head coach. "I see him trying to be Mark. That’s why he is such a successful coach, and he’s having success, because he’s being himself. To have that consistency and block it off and keep pushing the heights in their pursuit of the first national championship has been tremendous."
Inside the Ducks’ program, you keep hearing how Helfrich treats his players like men.
"It’s really neat the way he does it," said defensive coordinator Don Pellum, one of several long-time assistants who go back to the Bellotti era at UO. "But the kids, these young men respond. I think a big part of our success is due to the leadership of Coach Helfrich, and it’s not just with the players, it’s with the administrative staff. It’s with the coaches. He empowers us to do our job and gives us the resources, and he says go."
Asked about his rep as not being much of a yeller, Helfrich says, "The music’s too loud to yell at them anyway. So they wouldn’t be able to hear us. But especially in the meeting rooms and all that stuff, it’s teaching. It’s not who can scream the loudest. That’s for the movies.”
If there’s been one significant change in Helfrich’s approach from last season to this year, Frost said it’s been in knowing when to throttle back a little.
"I think probably the biggest thing that’s been altered other than evolving offenses and defenses is Coach Helfrich has done a good job this year making sure the guys are rested," said Frost. "We practice really hard and really fast, and I think in years past we might have worked them a little too hard and had a tired team at the end of the year. We really focused on trying to give them a break and keeping them fresh this year."
It’s a subtle tweak for a program that, contrary to popular belief, has been substance over style for quite some time now.
"The ascension probably started a little bit with the helmets and the uniforms and all that kind of stuff, but hopefully we’ve moved beyond that," says Helfrich. "We talk constantly about the guys in the uniforms. The uniforms don’t give you points. If they do, we’d love that, if we could look into that. But being around there on a daily basis, it’s all about the people."
And it all starts with the local guy from Coos Bay.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.