Who is Mark Helfrich, and how did he get Oregon to the CFP title game?
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is largely known as the inheritor of Chip Kelly's revolutionary hyper-space football program. But he got to the CFP title game not by maintaining it, but perfecting it.
EUGENE, Ore. -- A young Mark Helfrich wandered to the middle of the field before a game in the mid-1990s, encountering a young Dan Hawkins.
That day 20 years ago, the future coaches at Oregon and Colorado had no idea they would be the future coaches at Oregon and Colorado.
At that point in his life, Helfrich -- who now has the Ducks on the brink of their first national championship -- had turned down offers to be a preferred walk-on at Stanford and Oregon.
Instead, he was on a pre-med track playing quarterback at Southern Oregon -- a small NAIA school in Ashland closer to his Coos Bay, Ore., home. If the major had played out, it would have led Helfrich to a career as an orthopedic surgeon.
As a player, Helfrich already had survived a freak eye injury suffered in practice that knocked him out half of the 1994 season.
Hawkins -- then coaching at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. -- was moved that day by the opposition's injured leader.
"He actually torched us the year before," Hawkins recalled. "He had a broken ankle this time. I went out there at midfield and started talking to him. I was just so struck by what a good guy he was.
"He was awesome, he was great. We talked the entire warmup."
Hawkins eventually hired Helfrich as his offensive coordinator at Colorado (2006-08). By then Helfrich had played football in Europe for the Vienna (Austria) Vikings. He had broken into coaching as a graduate assistant under Mike Bellotti at Oregon. Dirk Koetter brought him along to Boise State and Arizona State as his quarterbacks coach.
"This is the kind of guy you'd go the staff room and he'd be game planning with the BBC on," Hawkins recalled. "You'd be wrestling back and forth trying to decide what to do on the goal line. Then the next time I'd walk in he'd say, 'Hawk you've got to see this ... [Italy's] Amalfi Coast, you've got to go there.' "
OK, we've established Mark Helfrich the person is smarter than you think. It should also be established that in this first CFP title game, Helfrich is the other coach. Urban Meyer is already considered a mastermind. Helfrich is considered the guy who didn't screw it up -- so far -- post-Chip Kelly.
The nation wouldn't care about him if Oregon wasn't back to this pinnacle. But that's the point. That's why we want to know more about him now that a self-effacing 41-year-old son of a former Ducks lineman has Oregon in its second championship game in five years.
All the stuff you've read about the college football colossus that has been built up here? Helfrich would actually surpass Kelly if Oregon wins Monday night. Sure, he was smart to keep Kelly's foundation -- the Blur offense, the Win-The-Day philosophy. But there is something to be said for refining it, advancing it ... perfecting it.
Which all begs the question: Who is this guy?
"Chip Kelly was more business-focused, more operation focused," offensive tackle Jake Fisher said. "Helfrich kind of turned it more into a high school team. We bonded more. We had that camaraderie that a high school team had. There's no one on the team I wouldn't do anything for."
There is no tangible difference in how the Ducks operate two years removed from Kelly. The offense is still the calling card. Freshman tailback Royce Freeman brought more physicality to the unit, but that's dismissing LaMichael James. The former Heisman finalist in 2010 could lower his shoulder, too.
"We've really grown accustomed to being physical and grinding things out," Freeman said.
The Oregon brand still resonates throughout the shoe and football landscape. Maybe that's the further point -- it still resonates. Nike sales will go on with the Ducks. The Ducks needed to keep ascending after Kelly. Helfrich is 24-3 in his two seasons.
Hawkins said Helfrich taking over for Kelly was not "all that ominous."
"Mark had been there. He knew that program. I went over there several times when he was there with Chip. Mark was running the quarterback meetings, offensive staff meetings. He wasn't just a chauffeur-type guy. He had valuable input.
"Obviously, he was very much into ball but could flip the switch immediately and talk about the oil embargo or what's going on in the Middle East."
If anything Oregon is more deadly than in previous years. The offense averages an incredible 1.74 points per minute of possession. That's better than the 2010 team Kelly led to the BCS title game (1.68). Longtime linebackers coach Don Pellum was promoted to defensive coordinator. While the Ducks are 86th in total defense -- the worst ranking for a national champion since at least 1998 if Oregon wins -- they are opportunistic.
Oregon is No. 2 in turnover margin, having just converted five Florida State turnovers into touchdowns last week.
If he does little else, Helfrich gets huge props for landing Heisman winner Marcus Mariota out of Hawaii, then helping develop him.
In many ways, that has been enough this season. Mariota won the school's first Heisman taking that offense to a higher level despite injuries and youth.
"Coach Helfrich finds way to make you laugh," Mariota said. "Coach Kelly didn't do that but Coach Helfrich kind of has a knack for making fun of different situations. You'll know when Coach Helfrich is mad. His voice gets a little higher."
It hasn't happened in the public eye -- perhaps ever -- since being elevated to head coach less than two years ago. Helfrich loves to engage with subtle sarcasm. The phrase that emerged from his back-and-forth with a grade-school student "covering" an Oregon game, might as well be on the cover of the bowl guide.
Little Charlie Pape told the coach all his mates at a local Catholic school care about is "Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota."
"We've got a poster in the works," Helfrich said.
What Helfrich doesn't like to do is talk much about himself. His dad, "Big Mike," died in a Tucson hotel room four years ago shortly before the father would have watched his son coach against Arizona.
In the end, Helfrich's career hasn't taken him too far from home in Coos Bay. He calls the Bellotti hiring him 18 years ago "total luck." Getting a graduate assistant job in the summer, "never happens," he said. Maybe, but there is something to be said for Helfrich being the third straight Oregon offensive coordinator to take over the program.
We already know he is a leader. The former NAIA quarterback and valedictorian became Southern Oregon's student-body vice president at a time when the administration was questioning football's existence.
Southern Oregon's coach at the time, Jim Palazzolo, said that helped save the program from being cut. Student funding continued.
"We had a computer under center in Mark," Palazzolo said. "I'm not sure he ever got a B."
"For the longest time that was my goal to be a doctor," Helfrich said. "It was a total weird circumstance. I got hurt a couple of times."
What Palazzolo called a "severe corneal abrasion" occurred in the first practice of 1994. A teammate stuck a finger into Helfrich's eye. The quarterback became sensitive to light and had to wear a helmet shield, Palazzolo said.
"We had our sights set pretty high," he recalled. "We were kind of loaded around him."
Helfrich was never the same as a player. The Raiders finished 3-6.
Usually, all of it would be distant memories for a pre-med NAIA quarterback. Now they're bread crumbs, leading a trail to Mark Helfrich's climb to (almost) the top.
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