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Trying to make sense of Helfrich, and what just happened, and what might happen next

JASON VONDERSMITH/ON OREGON DUCKS FOOTBALL


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mark Helfrich is interviewed before the Oregon Ducks' appearance in the 2015 national championship game against Ohio State. Oregon fired Helfrich on Tuesday after a 4-8 season in 2016.

Nice guy, smart fellow, good football coach, but I never quite understood Mark Helfrich — literally.

And I wasn’t alone. Many colleagues of mine from 16 years covering the Oregon football program had trouble understanding Helfrich — literally.

Which makes me wonder: Did his assistant coaches and staff and leaders and players and administration and boosters and anybody else have trouble understanding Helfrich?

I’ve met a lot of people in life, through three-plus decades in journalism and through travels and relationships and such, and I’ve communicated with countless coaches and managers and leader types in many different arenas. He doesn’t play in a league of his own, but Helfrich ranks among the upper echelon of folks who have seemingly perfected the art of going out of his way to not say much — like coach-speak on steroids.

It’s not a slam on Helfrich, it’s the way he is. The man ascended from offensive coordinator/right-hand man to head coach in 2013, in the wake of play caller/innovator Chip Kelly’s departure, and coached the Ducks to great heights and now great lows.

But, the guy had trouble winning press conferences.

Helfrich was king of the fragmented sentences, of thoughts leading down the proverbial happy trails (in journalism parlance), of professorial and anecdotal description of football mistakes right after his typical “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” of taking absolute blame for everything gone wrong on the field just to deflect criticism from anybody else — “It’s on me,” he would say, pretty much after every loss.

And, sporting a dry sense of humor, Helfrich used flippant remarks to shed questions as adeptly as Marcus Mariota shed would-be tacklers.

He was a master of the muddled message.

And, I’m just curious, on his termination day as UO coach, whether his communication skills had as much to do with his good-bye from the Ducks as his 4-8 record and the many blowouts and the really bad defense and the gradual decline of the program.

When athletic director Rob Mullens talked about culture waning under Helfrich, the “Win the Day” basically turning into “Survive the Next Game” and “Fast Hard Finish” essentially becoming “Trying Not To Be Blown Out,” I’m left to wonder whether Helfrich simply lost touch with his players and, thus, control of the program.

Knute Rockne made a famous locker-room speech a national treasure. But, I gotta believe the best coaches don’t have to be professorial and nice and always in “solution mode.” Rather, “Get out there and kick their ass!” and various other R-rated verbage might suffice at times.

I know Chip Kelly was a screamer; I heard it from outside the locker room at Boise State in 2009. I know Mike Bellotti got after his players; after losing four of five games in 2003, the Ducks spent an entire practice doing up-downs — standing up, falling down, standing up, falling down, etc. — and Bellotti credited the practice with helping turn around the season.

Because Helfrich kept practices closed — Kelly’s idea — I’m not sure how he conducted himself in practice. Not sure what his modus operandi was (or is). Royce Freeman says Helfrich kept things positive. Assistants such as Brady Hoke praised his handling of players and his resiliency. Helfrich says he and assistants needed to love his players during their troubles.

It all doesn’t matter now.

Mullens says, after his visit to the mountaintop, er, Dallas, that it was the losing and downward trajectory of the program and “not one thing” that made him fire Helfrich.

I’m also left to wonder whether Helfrich’s urgent desire not to change much of anything about the program after Kelly left ended up hurting him in the long run. Basically Kelly’s trusty assistant, Helfrich insisted on not putting his stamp on the program, which had long-tenured coaches and culture.

He kept practices closed, a standing that made little difference, competition-wise, in an eight-loss season.

Other Pac-12 teams improved (see: Washington and USC) and caught up to Oregon, which made its national impact with speed, athleticism, up-tempo offense and crisp execution. Teams prepared to play the Ducks better, negating UO’s advantages.

Oregon dominated the Pac-12 for several years while others teams struggled and rebuilt.

Mariota helped the Ducks go 24-4 in 2013-14, but things started to unravel last year. When Vernon Adams Jr. was healthy, the Ducks were pretty good. When he wasn’t healthy, they lost three games, including 62-20 at home to Utah and the Alamo Bowl after leading 31-0.

Not developing quarterbacks didn’t help Helfrich’s cause. Several QBs didn’t work out. Without Adams last year, the Ducks had to rely on ineffective Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie. New graduate transfer Dakota Prukop, redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen and true freshman Terry Wilson practiced in spring ball 2016 and entered training camp ahead of Justin Herbert, but the true freshman from Sheldon High ended up being the starter after five games.

Whether Kelly’s fault or Helfrich’s fault, recruiting fell down. The 2016 Ducks were stuck playing way too many young players. Injuries and transgressions, starting with Torrodney Prevot’s domestic violence case in the summer, exacerbated things.

Nobody took to losing well; teammates talked about a lack of caring and effort by other teammates — unheard of comments, publicly.

Oh, and the defense. Helfrich hired Don Pellum, who led a very good UO defense during the national title game season, but the Ducks ranked last in the Pac-12 in defense in 2015. Helfrich then hired Hoke, and the Ducks ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and gave up 70 points to Washington among the big scores against.

Oregon never went away from its quick-strike mentality, finishing last in the Pac-12 in time of possession, despite increasingly bad defenses sent out on the field — going from 37th in total defense to 126th this year, as UO’s news release points out.

An offense that doesn’t emphasize time of possession leaves the defense on the field too much ... and Oregon had suspect defensive players ... and the Ducks gave up lots of points and yards ... and you get the picture.

Similarly, how in the world does Oregon get itself into the second-half predicament after Adams’ Alamo Bowl injury, when Lockie had to take repeated bad snaps in the shotgun formation from backup center Doug Brenner? Helfrich says he never considered lining up Lockie under center. It’s seem to me they should have practiced under center snaps, uh, just in case.

Then there were the little things, such as Helfrich going for two-point conversions five times, succeeding once, at Nebraska, a game lost by three points — another bad turn of events pointed out by UO’s correspondence to news outlets.

Two other games ended with interceptions on the brink of scoring versus Colorado (pass by Prukop) and at Cal (pass by Herbert).

If UO beats Nebraska, Colorado and Cal, and then holds its fourth-quarter lead at Oregon State, maybe we’re probably not addressing Helfrich’s firing.

Clearly, fans were concerned, some from afar as the Ducks sold out only the UW game among six home contests this year. Oregon had entered the season on a 110-game consecutive sellout streak.

Helfrich doesn’t leave empty-handed. An $11.6 million buyout — a “mitigated” buyout, Mullens says — translates to generational money for his family. Although he would like to coach, probably, it’d be a hard call to give up almost $12 million.

And, Helfrich can always remember Jan. 10, 2011 and Jan. 12, 2015 — he’ll always have two national championship berths, one as offensive coordinator and one as head coach. The Ducks lost, but they made it to one step away from eternal glory.

Helfrich helped the Ducks reach unprecedented heights and ended up being a victim of his own success — and a convenient target for spoiled fans who have such high and oft-unrealistic expectations.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” he once said.

Helfrich had a 37-16 record. Rich Brooks had a losing record and has a field named after him.

I hope Helfrich leaves with his head held high, lives comfortably with his buyout money and watches along with all of us whether Oregon can do any better. Because it’s a legitimate question.

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