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Mark Helfrich puts focus on players, leads from sidelines

by: COURTESY OF MICHAEL WORKMAN - First-year Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich has made sure to not make the football program more about him than the players and other coaches.EUGENE — Chip Kelly always entered Autzen Stadium the same way on game days. As The Duck road onto the field on the back of a motorcycle, there was Kelly, sprinting after him, out in front of the team; a general leading his troops into battle.

Mark Helfrich has abandoned that tradition.

As Helfrich’s Oregon players are charging out of the locker room, Kelly’s successor as coach is quietly slipping over to the sideline, all but unnoticed, almost invisible.

“I think this is all about our players,” Helfrich says. “(When we enter the stadium), we have a leadership group in the front and a leadership group in the back. Those guys run the show.”

And therein lies the major difference between the Ducks under Kelly and the Ducks under Helfrich. During the previous regime, it always felt like Kelly’s team. He was the mad scientist, the football savant, the face of the program. It was his brilliant offense against each opponent. Now, it feels like this is quarterback Marcus Mariota’s team, running back De’Anthony Thomas’ team, receiver Josh Huff’s team. And Helfrich is more than fine with that.

“He’s an extremely humble guy,” offensive line coach Steve Greatwood says. “There’s absolutely no ego to him at all.”

To some observers, Helfrich is an accidental head coach. The 40-year-old Coos Bay native had little in his résumé to indicate that he would make a good head man. He had worked only two high-profile jobs in his career, a three-year stint as offensive coordinator at Colorado, followed by four years working in the same position under Kelly. (He also had been quarterback coach for successful passing attacks at Arizona State and Boise State).

The biggest thing Helfrich had going for him was tradition. Kelly took over for Mike Bellotti after serving as offensive coordinator, just as Bellotti took over for Rich Brooks after being the offensive coordinator.

But Oregon secondary coach John Neal says the assistants were rooting for Helfrich to replace Kelly.

“When the powers-that-be hired Mark, they did it because they knew he was the right guy, and we (coaches) knew it, too,” Neal says. “We all were pulling for him. It was unanimous. It was his level-headedness and the way he deals with people. The things that sometimes you can’t see. The things you know when you work intimately with people.”

Helfrich was the players’ choice, as well.

“He got a standing ovation from the players when it was announced that it was him,” safety Brian Jackson says.

Helfrich took over a program with an embarrassment of riches. The Ducks moved into the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex — the Taj Mahal of football facilities. He had a talented group of assistants, some of whom had been in Eugene for a quarter-century or more. He also had Mariota, who could wind up winning the Heisman Trophy, and playmakers such as Thomas and Huff.

It would be easy not to give Helfrich full credit for the Ducks’ 8-0 record heading into tonight’s game against Stanford. However, he has found a way to seamlessly continue what Kelly had going. It starts by getting the most out of his staff.

“Mark is still one of us,” offensive line coach Steve Greatwood says. “Because you realize how much effort he puts into it, you want to do everything in your power to make sure he’s successful. He drives people to do their best for him because you know the sacrifices he’s making with his family to be here.”

Huff says Helfrich is more fun to play for than was Kelly.

“(Helfrich) is less serious,” Huff says. “Once we get on the field, he takes everything serious. But he’s more of a laid-back kind of serious. When he sees something wrong, he’ll correct you. If you mess up again, he’ll allow your position coach to correct you. With Coach Kelly, if you were to do something wrong, he would just jump on you, and you’d never hear the end of it.”

Linebacker Boseko Lokombo says Helfrich is “just as good” a coach as Kelly. “It’s hard to say if he’s better or the same,” Lokombo says.

Helfrich may never be able to step out from Kelly’s shadow. And he may never be the face of Oregon Ducks football. But Kelly never won a national championship at Oregon. If all goes right against Stanford, Helfrich has a chance to do that on his first try.

“All the great things we’ve done here with Chip, he’s maintained. And he’s been able to do it by being himself still,” Neal says. “That’s a hard transition for any leader. No two men are the same. But the bottom line is it’s about the results, and the results have been the same.”

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