Out on the dangling elbow of the Oregon coast, in a port town set against the Coos River, a teacher named Bruce Bryant sometimes points to a photograph affixed to a bulletin board in his classroom. “Hey,” he’ll ask his students. “Do you know who that is?”
The quarterback in the photo is wearing the bright purple no. 14 jersey of Marshfield High, the institution most of Bryant’s eighth-grade students will attend. Twenty-two years after graduating from Marshfield, the player in the photo occupies perhaps the most high-profile job in the state; he was endowed with more hair back in those days, but even if he’d suffered from male-pattern baldness as an adolescent, Bryant isn’t sure he’d be any more recognizable. None of his students has ever correctly named the passer.
“That,” they say, when Bryant reveals the answer, “is the coach at Oregon?”
Ever since Walter Camp established an empire at Yale in the 19th century, the coach has served as the public face of college football. This has been true of nearly every dynastic program since, from Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish to Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes to Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide to Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines. This is still true of virtually every top-10 team; because players come and go in four years or less, sweeping onto the scene and then vacating for the professional ranks before we can even fully comprehend who they really are, the cult of the coach is the one consistent element of the sport. It has carried down through the years, so that the Sabans and the Stoopses and the Richts become our touchstones; so that even fledgling 21st-century powers like Auburn and Texas A&M and Baylor are defined by their Malzahns and their Sumlins and their Brileses; so that credit for both success and failure tends to accrue almost entirely around the coach.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule, including one prominent exception at the moment, and while it’s partly a product of circumstance, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s at least somewhat by design. The Oregon Ducks are currently the second-ranked team in the country, and they are recognized by a national audience for three things: their garish Technicolor uniforms (which shuffle in color and style from week to week); their brash style of play (specifically a fiendishly up-tempo, rush-heavy offensive attack that bludgeons lesser opponents into submission); and their graceful and gifted quarterback, Marcus Mariota (who recently landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the third time). These are the most prominent stylistic elements of the most stylistic college football program in America, and the first was inspired primarily by former Nike CEO and notable Oregon booster Phil Knight, while the second and third were inspired (or at least perceived to be inspired) primarily by Chip Kelly, the idiosyncratic former head coach who ratcheted the Ducks into national-championship contention.
Those two men are the people we talk about most when we talk about Oregon football, as they are considered the architects of the Duck ethos. And because their reputations are so formidable, it’s easy to forget that neither of them has direct control over the school’s football program at the moment. And it’s just as easy to forget about the man who does have control, because he is so undefined, and because he seems to enjoy deliberately camouflaging himself behind the sleek smoke screen that was ignited before he ascended to his current job.
“Modesty and humbleness,” says Bryant, “tends to keep people low-profile.”
In other words, there is a considerable part of the high school quarterback in Bryant’s photo who would remain perfectly happy if the outside world continued to cling to the totems and symbols of Ducks football instead of paying attention to the guy who’s now behind the curtain. Which means the central tension of this new era at Oregon may revolve around the question of whether a man can still maintain a low-profile persona while holding one of the most high-profile jobs in sports.
Still, I suppose that since we’ve reached the ninth paragraph of this story, we should reveal the man’s name.1 It is Mark Helfrich, and he has been Oregon’s head coach since January 2013, when Kelly departed for the Philadelphia Eagles. Helfrich has won 15 games and lost two in his brief tenure. He is the son of a former bank executive; he grew up imagining he’d go to medical school and someday become an orthopedic surgeon. When he was in middle school, he exceeded the weight limit required to play quarterback, so his coaches stuck him at tight end, and when he got to high school he asked the longtime coach, Kent Wigle, for a chance behind center. By his sophomore year he was the starter, a mobile passer on a team that played many of its league games at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, two hours to the northeast.
Helfrich grew up idolizing the Ducks before they became a polished scoring machine, back when longtime coach Rich Brooks was just beginning to elevate the program from the perpetual purgatory of bottom-tier Pac-10 finishes. Sometimes in high school, Helfrich and his friend Floyd Montiel would mimic the voices of the stadium announcer and the play-by-play man, narrating an imaginary chronicle of quarterback Bill Musgrave’s passing success. Helfrich also fell hard for the cerebral aspects of the sport: At least once, he sat in Bryant’s classroom and used the projector to diagram goal-line plays he’d made up his head.2 On weekends during the season, he’d go to Wigle’s house to study film.
Helfrich graduated from Marshfield with stellar grades — “I remember his schoolwork was always very clean,” Montiel recalls. “It was all very easy for him.” — and without much of a recruiting profile. Still, Wigle was a respected and influential voice within the state, and amid his praise, word of Helfrich’s acuity trickled up to Ducks offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti, who offered him a walk-on slot. A number of other prestigious West Coast liberal-arts schools offered Helfrich a place, too, on the weight of his grades alone. But he wound up at Southern Oregon, playing for a coach named Jim Palazzolo. “Mark is just really brilliant,” Palazzolo says. “He’s beyond bright, brighter than bright.”
And so Palazzolo inserted Helfrich into his offense and let him have his way. If Helfrich saw something he didn’t like, he checked off the play at the line. He worked with multiple packages, combining an option running attack with a wide-open passing game in a way that prefigured the kinds of offenses that would push college football forward in the 21st century (Oregon foremost among them). Helfrich was deceptively fast, and Palazzolo often refers to him as a “virtual computer” behind center. His sophomore year, Helfrich led the nation in total offense, and while injuries derailed the latter half of his career, his coach still recalls him as a seminal figure at Southern Oregon: At a time when students at SOU were starting to question the purpose and cost of harboring a football team, Helfrich and a few other student-athletes ran for (and won) election to student government, thereby securing key votes that helped continue to fund the future of the program.
Slowly, Helfrich’s dream of medical school gave way to football. After college, he spent a year playing professionally in Vienna, Austria, while simultaneously serving as the Vienna Vikings’ assistant offensive coordinator. The following summer, in 1997, he was hired as a graduate assistant at Oregon, working under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. After a year, as most young coaches do, Helfrich left to go elsewhere, following Koetter to Boise State and then Arizona State and then working under Dan Hawkins at Colorado. But the consensus among his friends and peers was that Helfrich always longed to come back home.
There is, within the Oregon football program, a dichotomy between nationalism and provincialism. There is Knight’s overarching presence, and there are the ever-increasing national television dates, and there is the opulent football facility — “The space-age, Darth Vader–looking thing,” Palazzolo calls it — that Knight largely financed himself. Despite all of that, Oregon is mostly made up of small towns like Coos Bay, and so at some level, it is important to both Knight and those in the athletic department that the football program reflect this parochial feeling. This is why a couple of particularly competent Oregon assistant coaches who showed up during the Brooks era have never left, sticking around through four different coaching administrations; and this is why, even as Kelly put the finishing touches on building the Ducks into a national power, he also aroused a certain amount of discomfort among the fan base.
Here was a guy who had grown up on the opposite coast, in New Hampshire; who was a New Englander with a New Englander’s brusque perspective on the world; who was sometimes viewed as arrogantly dismissive of both media and fans. There was an uneasy sense, from the moment he got there, that Kelly would never stay — that because he had grown up in a place where college football doesn’t mean as much as the NFL, his own ambitions spanned beyond a state without a pro football team. And this was frustrating to a fan base that sees the natural beauty of a college town like Eugene and wonders, Why would anyone ever want to leave this place?
“The Chip Kelly era, while it afforded the program this next level of growth, left a lot of people feeling like they didn’t have a connection to the program like they once did,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It was the symbolism of a lot of things: The closing of practice, the building of those facilities, and just the feeling that it wasn’t as approachable a college team as it once was.”
Some of that was inevitable; some of that was a product of the choice Oregon and Knight made, in the mid-1990s, to elevate the program to an elite level. But some of it was specific to Kelly, who is unquestionably a brilliant football mind, but who is also complex to interface with and often seems trapped inside his own head. At one point, Swangard recalls, he found himself in the football office with a grandfather and his grandson, whom the grandfather presented to Kelly by saying, “Here’s your next great linebacker.” Kelly flashed an awkward smile and walked on without saying anything.
Those folksy interactions seem to come more easily for Helfrich, who returned to Oregon as Kelly’s offensive coordinator when Kelly became head coach in 2009, and was immediately seen as his potential heir. He is, the people who know him say, an easygoing guy who is rarely ruffled, with a subtle sense of humor3 and a keen intellect.4
His friends and assistant coaches have lauded the fact that his approachable persona hasn’t changed at all since he took the head job. But he’s also in a strange position: Because it was Kelly who implemented the offensive system that elevated the program, Helfrich’s tenure is largely expected to be a continuation of the Kelly Way. If Helfrich succeeds — as he did in beating Michigan State in early September — then many will consider his successes to be part of the continuum of Kelly’s successes. But every failure and near-failure — as with Oregon’s rickety 38-31 victory over Washington State on September 20, which exposed some of the Ducks’ inherent weaknesses on defense and on the offensive line — will serve as a reminder that he is not Kelly, that he is a largely inchoate head coach who does not possess the eccentric aura of genius that Kelly carried with him.
These are the burdens that come with being in charge, and these would appear to be things that gave Helfrich pause: In November 2011, when the Oregonian asked him about his head-coaching ambitions, he replied, “I don’t know. Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. A lot of people who I know that have done it, there’s mixed emotions.”
“No matter how good a coach you are,” says Rudy Carpenter, who played quarterback for Helfrich at Arizona State, “I still think being a head coach is different. It’s something you have to transition into.”
It’s clear that Helfrich knows how to develop quarterbacks: He did it with Bart Hendricks at Boise State, and he did it with Andrew Walter and Carpenter at Arizona State, and he did it with Darron Thomas at Oregon; he has done it with Mariota, the most stunning pure talent in Ducks history. He is, his former players say, thorough and utterly prepared and calm on the sideline, an intellectual at heart who happens to be a football coach. When Helfrich was at Arizona State, Carpenter says, he asked his quarterbacks to go back and study the history of the ASU program, to learn about Whizzer White and Ron Pritchard and John Jefferson. When Thomas was at Oregon, Helfrich once spent a session breaking down the ins and outs of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense.
“Coach Kelly’s an on-the-field guy,” Thomas says. “Coach Helfrich is a book kind of guy. We could ask him about any position, anything about it. Coach Kelly would call the plays in the game, but Coach Helfrich would make up all the play sheets in practice.”
The word around Oregon is that Knight values loyalty, and so it’s easy to see why he would take to Helfrich, who consistently made the choice to come back home.5 And while the decision on hiring a coach is not ultimately Knight’s to make (at least as far as we know), it’s clear how Helfrich’s hiring made sense in terms of the natural progression of Oregon football: With Kelly’s system and Knight’s financial largesse having elevated the Ducks to first-tier status, they could afford to revert back to their roots. They could hire a local kid who knows Oregon, who is perfectly content to blend in with the scenery, and who could relate on a granular level with the fan base. In elevating Helfrich, the Ducks hoped they’d found the perfect successor to Kelly: a man who could potentially ground the program while its national profile continued to grow.
till, there remains a palpable sense of apprehension in Eugene, both about Helfrich’s abilities and about Oregon’s place in the larger college football universe. It is a bizarre moment to be an Oregon football fan, especially one with a historical perspective, because even though the national bandwagon has grown considerably over the past decade, the trauma of Oregon being historically terrible in the 1980s still lingers for longtime fans.
“It’s not a house of cards,” Swangard says. “But it’s still a fan base that feels uncomfortable in their own skin. No one here is saying we’re destined for a major step back. But with the expectations come the questions of whether it’s sustainable.”
And that feeds into doubts about Helfrich, who, like Kelly, failed to beat Stanford in his first season, and then lost a disappointing game to Arizona (in part because Mariota was not at full strength after suffering a knee injury). All of which raised concerns, once more, about whether the Ducks’ offensive system is inherently unable to hold up against a stout defensive front, and about whether Oregon’s defense will ever be formidable enough to slow the nation’s best, and about whether something ineffable remains missing amid this glimmering revival. The Michigan State win, while it helped assuage some of those concerns, also succeeded in raising the bar for this year’s team. Yet to those who witnessed the Ducks’ ignominious Toilet Bowl years and suffered through decades of mediocrity and frustration and daffy yellow helmets, the notion that an 11-2 season is somehow a disappointment feels almost like a cruel joke. (Among the people I spoke to, the word “fickle” was used more than once to describe the Ducks’ current fan base.)
“I hear people on the golf course say, ‘Mark’s no Chip Kelly,’” Palazzolo tells me. “I want to say, ‘Do you realize Chip Kelly’s not here anymore? Do you know he’s in Philadelphia?’ These people are spoiled. People say we had a bad year last year? We beat Texas [in the Alamo Bowl], for goodness sake.”
And yet this is the kind of angst that could take down Helfrich if he doesn’t handle it properly, and if he doesn’t maintain a certain level of success (if, say, he loses to Stanford again, in what’s almost certainly Mariota’s final college season). Kelly was insulated from failure by the perceived genius of his system, and by the fact that Oregon was only just beginning to emerge into its place as a national contender; Helfrich, though he may be even more of a pure intellectual than Kelly, is a blank slate who was retained, in part, with the expectation that he’d maintain Kelly’s system. That could mean he’ll be measured by the bottom line in ways even Kelly wasn’t. And that could mean the relative anonymity he enjoys will soon be shattered, either by success or failure.
Over the summer, Helfrich came back home for Montiel’s 40th-birthday party. It was, to Montiel, the kind of modest surprise that distances his friend from his occupation. They talked a little bit about football, but as usual, they talked mostly about other things: about fishing and family and the happenings in Coos Bay, a town that, until now, was best known for producing a distance runner named Steve Prefontaine, who trained by sprinting up Coos Bay’s steep hills, and then went on to Eugene and became a legend. The students at Marshfield who can never recognize Helfrich in the bulletin board photo can identify Prefontaine without any prompting, Montiel says.
“I know Mark’s proud of where he came from,” Montiel tells me. “It’s a weird deal, him living under the shadow of what Chip Kelly did. He’s just such a humble guy. He doesn’t demand a lot of attention.”
A few weeks ago, Montiel drove up to Eugene for the Michigan State game. Afterward, he and Helfrich hung out in Helfrich’s office; there were, as always, football questions Montiel wanted to ask, but again, they talked mostly about other topics. And then on the way home, Montiel stopped at a local gas station to fill up his tank, and he did something he never thought he’d do: He purchased a bobblehead doll of his longtime friend. It was only a small thing. But it was also one of the first concrete signs that, whether he wants it or not, Mark Helfrich is on the verge of becoming a symbol, too.
Michael Weinreb (@) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.