After having been to four BCS bowls in a row and achieving top-4 finishes the past three seasons, it wasn't a stretch to think Oregon saw Mark Helfrich as a viable next head coaching candidate because he offered the best chance for continuity in Chip Kelly's system. But upon closer examination, Oregon AD Rob Mullens believed Helfrich, the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Kelly, would bring so much more.
Mullens told CBSSports.com on Sunday morning, a few hours before the hiring of Helfrich as the Ducks' new coach would become official, that the 39-year-old's presence "jumped out" at the AD from observing him the past few years.
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"Seeing how Mark conducts himself and how people around him respond to him at practice, in the locker room, in the office really was impressive," Mullens said. "I've had a chance to see him working with the football staff. I've seen him in development situations. Seen him with the media. He really exemplifies excellence in his leadership and character."
In addition, Mullens said so many people around the program had given Helfrich a ringing endorsement. Most notably, former Super Bowl-winning NFL coach Tony Dungy, now an NBC analyst, was effusive in his praise of Helfrich. Dungy, whose son Eric is a wide receiver for Oregon, has been to many Ducks workouts and has had a closeup perspective on the program the past two years. "He's around a lot of practices in the spring and fall, and he was very complimentary of Mark and he saw many of the same things that I saw and that was re-assuring."
Those things echo what Nate Costa, the former Ducks QB whose career at Oregon started before Kelly came to Eugene, told me last fall when I asked him what was the most misunderstood aspect about the team's system.
"The biggest misconception would have to be the involvement of the OC, Mark Helfrich," said Costa, the captain of the 2010 Ducks team that came within a last-second field goal of beating Auburn for the BCS title. "This is CK's system, people know this, so they automatically think Helfrich has little input on what happens on Saturdays. This is simply not true. Helfrich doesn't get half the credit he deserves. He is one of the smartest people in the college football world and has a great football mind. He has a large amount of involvement in the game-planning, scripting and coaching on a weekly basis. He may not call all the plays on game day, but he has a high amount of input in what plays are called and why they are called."
At his introductory press conference, Helfrich says that things with the program will be very similar to how they operated under the fast-talking new Eagles coach:
"I bet 99.2 percent of the time, we're in lock-step," Helfrich said. "It's going to be that 0.8 percent where you go, 'Oh, that's totally different.' I won't wear a visor, I'll eat more vegetables."
And then Helfrich sounded very Nick Sabanish talking about "the process" and clearly the new head coach is well-versed in the Oregon process because he had such a big role in establishing it.
Keeping things in house, especially for latter-day college football powerhouses, has proven to be a shrewd move, and I think it will be for Oregon. At Boise State, the Broncos have gone from Dirk Koetter (a former Ducks assistant and an old mentor to Helfrich, by the way) to Dan Hawkins to Chris Petersen and have only gotten better with each move. Same thing in Eugene where Rich Brooks handed things off to Mike Bellotti, which led to Kelly as the Ducks went from trendy upstart to the national elite.
When Mullens talks about the Ducks having a unique culture in how they prepare, practice and play, it's not just PR talk. He's right. That has become more a part of the Oregon football brand than flashy uniforms. The Ducks have become famous in football circles for being a frenetic offensive machine. In 2012, they went 12-1 and averaged 50 points per game, ranking No. 2 in the nation in scoring. In 2011, they were No. 3 in scoring. In 2010, they were No. 1. In '09, they were No. 8. There Ducks are no fluke. Only thing is, as their system has evolved, the talent base has been upgraded -- on both sides of the football.
Last season, I remember talking to Kelly about how much different the program has become. As Kelly noted, these Ducks are taller and longer and more athletic than any of the previous Oregon defenses.
"We're built to play in space on defense,” he said. "We don't have those short, squatty guys [anymore]."
Those longer, more athletic, more explosive guys are the nucleus of the program going forward. Same for Marcus Mariota, who just completed a stellar freshman season. Better still, is how the news of the Helfrich hire is playing with recruits like blue-chip running back recruit Thomas Tyner:
@adamgorney Five-star #Oregon commit Thomas Tyner said it's like "nothing has changed" with Helfrich hire.
More good news? No doubt, but something more had to happen to take this program from very good to great.
"This [Oregon football] is more than just an offense," Mullens said, adding that outsiders are so wowed by the up-tempo style that they don't fully grasp the program's philosophy and the "horizontal leadership" that has taken root, which the AD says means "taking care of the man to the right and that we're all going in the same direction."
Stuff that is easier said than achieved.
In the wake of the news last Wednesday that Kelly was jumping to the NFL to take the Philadelphia Eagles job was word that long-time Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti had turned down an opportunity, likely for more money, to become the new defensive coordinator at USC. That, along with the Ducks retaining rising coaching star Scott Frost, also bodes well for the transition to Helfrich.
Those who know Helfrich, the son of a former Ducks offensive lineman, are convinced he's up to the task. According to Mullens, when he broke the news to the players Saturday night that Helfrich was becoming the Ducks' next head coach, the team cheered.
Having been around Kelly some before he was promoted to the head coaching job in 2009, I figured he'd be a home-run hire for Oregon, and after a very, very rocky debut at Boise State, he was. In fact, at this point the only way to take this program any higher is for Helfrich to lead Oregon to a national title.
Could Helfrich do that? It sure sounds like everyone around the guy thinks he will.