IN DEFENSE OF HELFRICH
It might seem somewhat unfathomable in such times as these that a coach whose team has seen their performance demonstrably deteriorate over the course of the last two seasons might have the kind of redeeming qualities on which to write an affirmative response to his possible retention – and yet it is a task to which I endeavor today.
First, I revert back to an earlier article in which I referenced a term I coined a dozen or so years ago: Arkansas Syndrome. Essentially, this is a (false) belief that you are higher in the pecking order of college football than reality would otherwise suggest. Oregon made it to national elite through sheer force of will, determination, schematic advantages, improved facilities, branding and a ‘cool’ vibe which transcended much of college football. None of those things has really changed. And yet the results on the field have changed? What could be the factors?
So, it is pretty clear that, based on just about any measure, recruiting has not been quite as good as it was under Helfrich’s predecessor. The anti-Helfrich crowd is quick to point the finger of blame squarely into the forehead of the current head coach.
But, wait, maybe it is not all Helfrich’s fault that his recruiting efforts have not bore the fruit of the ghosts of recruiting past. You see, when Chip Kelly left, while leaving behind the keys to a Ferrari, what he also left behind was a high performance car that had been filled with subpar gasoline. How’s that?
Chip Kelly also left behind sanctions – sanctions which would neuter many of the Ducks efforts on the recruiting trail. The one recruit per class that could not be signed had virtually no impact; but the visitation and evaluation restrictions had a significant impact on Helfrich’s recruiting efforts. The Ducks were down to only 37 allowable visits. Think about that – the team was going to sign anywhere from 20-24 players per class and could only bring in 37 on official visits. In a location like Eugene, a place that is expensive to visit unofficially, this is a difficult circumstance. That means your success rate, traditionally a 25% number, has to be better than 50%!
Add to this that such restrictions on visits makes it impossible to ‘take a chance’ on a kid who is a low percentage to get to sign a National Letter of Intent, and you can see that the vetting system Helfrich used to be absolutely sure that he was using his extremely limited resources wisely was critical.
The inability to evaluate as many players during recruiting also hampers a coach; he often relies on in-person evaluations to make offers. Remember Marcus Mariota? Imagine if Helfrich’s evaluation options had been limited then, would he have discovered Mariota? Chances are much less likely, all things considered. Could this be a reason why the quarterback position has seen a lack of talent over the last few seasons? Absolutely.
When Chip Kelly left, he took most of his own hires with him with one exception – Scott Frost. Frost came to Oregon with no experience on the offensive side of the ball (as a coach). He was the defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa, but he was one of the sharpest minds in all of football. Having learned under legendary coaches like Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne, he had absorbed information like a sponge. A football junkie, Frost brought immediate results to a wide receiver group that had underperformed under his predecessor.
When Kelly left, it was a pretty popular choice to have Frost take over as offensive coordinator and QB coach. The problem is, that Frost had never coached quarterbacks before and had a somewhat acerbic personality.
Look at this very telling quote from Steve Greatwood last year:
"We have a lot more conversation. We're a lot more detailed in what we're doing right now. I appreciate that," Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said. "Things aren't as quite fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants. Things are coming together."
While new coordinator Matt Lubick uses the ‘seat of the pants’ comment as a compliment to Frost, the bigger issue is the first sentence; a lack of communication. With Frost there was a coordinator who was very much like Chip and the staff did not seem to gel as well with his non-communicative style. But he has only had Lubick in place for five games – hardly a decent sample size on which to judge his coaching acumen. The change means that we are really only five games into the Mark Helfrich ultimate vision of the offense.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
On the defensive side of the ball, many times I have been told by those that were close to the situation, that Helfrich was advised that the best hire at defensive coordinator after Aliotti left was Pellum. He did not initially buy into it, but ultimately signed off on the hire. Look, Mark Helfrich is never going to demean Don Pellum; Pellum has been an extremely loyal Duck coach.
But Helfrich also knew when it was time to pull the plug; and did so. Since Helfrich took over in 2013 the team is now on its third defensive coordinator; hardly the kind of stability the program has tried to sell.
But, this is exactly why this season, a season almost everyone knew was going to be some level of a rebuilding year, cannot be his last season.
A new offensive coordinator. A new defensive coordinator. A new quarterbacks coach. His first season with a full allotment of official visits and evaluation days. Right now, we only know that Mark Helfrich took over a Ferrari with some bad fuel in the tank. Now that the car has sputtered and emptied the fuel tank of all the garbage from the bottom of the tank, can he get the right fuel into the tank and get the car humming like it should? If he is fired, there is no way to know.
In this respect, he deserves the opportunity to build this program in the vision he set forth. At the very least, a season. One more. One more year to show his vision is not flawed. Otherwise, we are starting from scratch and likely to be looking at a three or four year stretch of mediocrity. Remember what happened to Nebraska, Tennessee, and even the hated Huskies? A string of 'snap decisions' which led them to an abyss.
Tomorrow: A look at the case against the retention of Helfrich