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Helfrich a real Man of Oregon

On Sports


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - New Oregon Ducks football coach Mark HelfrichPardon if I point out the striking similarities between Oregon’s new head football coach and his counterpart at Oregon State.

After a recent 20-minute interview with UO’s Mark Helfrich, I’m thinking he and OSU’s Mike Riley are peas of a pod.

Oregon natives — Riley from Corvallis, Helfrich from Coos Bay. Quarterbacks — Riley guiding Corvallis High to a state championship, Helfrich the man at Marshfield High and later leading the nation in total offense at NAIA Southern Oregon.

Sons of football coaches? Affirmative, though at distinctly different levels. Riley’s father coached at the major-college level, including OSU, and in the Canadian Football League; Helfrich’s dad was a volunteer assistant at Marshfield for 15 years. (Each lost his father recently. Mike Helfrich died in September 2011; Bud Riley passed in August 2012.)

Pleasant personalities? Both. Family men? Check. Each is devoted to a wife, a son and a daughter. Follicularly challenged? Double check. Hair Club for Men, tender an offer.

They even use the same noun (“We don’t have a ton of depth; I have a ton of respect ...”) in conversation over and over again. Jeepers, fellas, you can’t mix in “plethora” on occasion?

So this works out well for the media, who will ostensibly have more access than they did when Chip Kelly was in command at Oregon, at least the last couple of campaigns. And for the boosters, who have a shot at Helfrich actually showing his face at some events now and then.

For Oregon football? That remains to be determined.

Helfrich — at 39, the second-youngest head coach in the Pac-12 to Southern Cal’s Lane Kiffin (37) — has never before been a head coach at any level.

You have to start somewhere, though most wouldn’t get an opportunity at the highest college level, as is Helfrich in Eugene.

Helfrich will tell you he is up for the challenge, especially surrounded by one of the best staffs in the country. Only defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro chose to fly the coop to Philadelphia with Kelly.

“I’m very fortunate all the assistants have elected to stay here,” Helfich says. “A lot of these guys could be at a lot of different places. That means a ton.”

Helfrich has worked under Mike Bellotti and Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins and Kelly. He was 32 when he took over as offensive coordinator at Colorado in 2006 and 35 when he assumed that position under Kelly at UO in 2009.

That he is the first Oregon-bred Duck head football coach since John Warren served a year in 1942 is not lost on Helfrich, whose green-and-yellow roots run deep. His father played for the UO Frosh, uncle Pat played for the Oregon varsity in 1965 and ‘66 and his mother and brother attended the university as well.

“Growing up in Oregon, I knew what this place means to a lot of people — or doesn’t mean to a lot of Beaver faithful,” Helfrich says. “I was part of a split community in terms of Ducks and Beavers. It’s a great source of pride to have a ton of family history at the school and growing up a Duck fan — yeah, it means a lot.”

As a youngster, he recalls waking early on Saturdays to get to the games at Autzen Stadium as early as possible.

“That tie with Notre Dame in 1982 — a huge game,” he says. “I remember the Washington crowds overtaking Autzen a couple of times, which was an eye-opener.

“I was so mesmerized by the idea of college football and being here, it was a long time before I thought about the quote-unquote ‘big-time’ nature of it all.”

Rich Brooks gave Helfrich the opportunity to walk on at Oregon out of high school in 1992. He chose to play at a lower level at Southern Oregon.

“I don’t have any regrets in my life, but that’s one thing I’ve thought about — that ‘what if’, " he says. “But not in a negative sense. I had a great college career. I had a lot of fun (at SOC). I made a ton of friends. Things tend to work out as they’re supposed to, I guess.”

Helfrich spent a year as a graduate assistant at Oregon under Bellotti before beginning a career that took him from Boise State to Arizona State to Colorado. Was it a goal to one day get back to Oregon, or did it just happen?

“A little of both,” he says. “It was always in the back of my mind that this is a special place.

“I’ve never been one of those guys to sit down and write down, ‘I have to do this and that.’ But knowing the landscape of college football and how special this place is for a lot of reasons — whether it’s the support or the facilities or the institution or the fans or the family part of it — sure, that was always somewhere in there. But to be a necessity for my career? Not really.”

Over the past two years, Helfrich wasn’t oblivious to the idea that Kelly probably didn’t regard Oregon as a destination job and might leave for the NFL. And that if it happened, Helfrich would be the guy to take over.

“That was bantered about,” he says. “But if you spend all your time worried about it or hopeful for it, it may or may not happen.

“I just try to do the best job I can at whatever my station in life. I had a pretty good station at life. I was very happy. If Chip would have stayed here forever, that would have been great for me.”

When I suggest to Helfrich that surely at some point he would have desired to be a head coach, he smiles.

“I read a newspaper article that said I said this has always been my goal,” he says. “That’s never been my goal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited and hopefully competent enough to carry this thing through.

“But it’s never one of those things I had to do to be complete. I’ve had great jobs, I’ve been working with great people, and that could have continued for a long time.”

There is going to be plenty of pressure on Helfrich to keep the Duck machine rolling.

“I guess pressure is a word,” he says. “Someone was joking with me the other day about a coach — can’t remember who it was — who got a contract extension and his team was 4-8. That won’t happen here. But you want to be in a place with high expectations. When you match the resources with the expectations, that’s when great things can happen. That’s what has happened here.

“We’ve been really good, we’ve been lucky staying healthy, Chip did an incredible job — all those things you have to have happen to be on the run we’re on.”

Kelly and Helfrich are “very similar” in terms of football philosophy, Helfrich says. Don’t expect a lot of changes next season.

“We believe in the exact same things offensively,” he says. “Our defense is going to stay the same. Our special teams are going to stay the same. We’re different people. We’ll approach things a little bit differently that way, but philosophically, there isn’t much difference at all.

“Eight of the 10 coaches carry over. Our strength coach, Jim Radcliffe, is still here. We’ll do the same things and hopefully get a little bit better in that regard. We’ll try to get a little bit better academically, to get a little bit better at everything — like you try to do every year.”

Kelly called plays during his time at Oregon. Helfrich isn’t sure whether he or new offensive coordinator Scott Frost will call plays this fall.

“We’ll work that out this spring,” Helfrich says. “Frosty is a very bright guy. We work together really well along with Steve Greatwood, Gary Campbell, Tom Osborne and the rest of the offensive staff. We’ll cross that bridge.

“(Play-calling) can be done every which way. The biggest thing is if our players believe in what we’re doing, and they do. And the belief in the preparation that goes into game day and the confidence to go in and play and execute — those are the most important things. We’ll get (the plays) called in there fast.”

Helfrich likes the nucleus of talent returning.

“We’re still young, especially offensively,” he says. “We have a lot of guys at tailback and wideout who still need to develop. We have almost everybody back defensively but have to replace three main cogs — Kiko (Alonso), Michael (Clay) and Dion (Jordan). That’s a huge void. We got a lot of tackles out of those guys.

“But that’s the exciting part of it. We’re in a position for guys to ratchet their game up, whether it’s Marcus Mariota or D’Anthony Thomas or those guys. And then Byron Marshall or B.J. Kelly or Tyler Johnstone or James Euscher — those guys who just need to take the next step, it’s there for them.”

Helfrich says the Ducks addressed their biggest needs with the 19-player recruiting class.

“We signed five high-quality offensive linemen and three linebackers,” he says. “The biggest thing that came out of this class is a bunch of great kids who are versatile.

“Look at a guy like (Jesuit’s Doug) Brenner. He can play a lot of different roles — we visualize him at center, but he can play other positions. We got a lot of skill guys who are multi-sport, multi-position, dynamic guys. That’s what we love — guys who are competitive and versatile and get it from a big-picture standpoint, who we can plug into a lot of roles.”

What does Helfrich think about Aloha running back Thomas Tyner?

“I think he’s fast,” he says with a grin. “We don’t have a ton of depth there. The faster those great kids from great families are, the better.”

Helfrich hasn’t had a bit of down time since his hiring in January.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” he says.

Since letter-of-intent day, the coaches have watched a lot of game video from last season, continued the recruiting process with the class of '14 and “done a lot of stuff programmatically,” he says.

Soon members of the offensive and defensive staffs will each get a week off before they begin full bore on spring practice. Helfrich, even, will get a little time to sit back and breathe.

What will he do? Relax and enjoy the company of his wife, Megan, and children Max, 6, and Maggie, 2.

“That’s how I unwind,” he says. “My thing is my family. They’re awesome. My wife is an incredible person. I used to be a golfer, but (family time) pretty much fills it up right now. Hanging out with them is the most fun thing I can do.”

That, of course, and serving as coach of the Ducks.

“It’s been great,” he says. “The support has been overwhelming. Now we just have to win every game and keep it up.”

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