Mark Helfrich becomes victim of his own success as Oregon fires him amid downturn from Pac-12 power
EUGENE, Ore. — If there's anyone who can relate to Mark Helfrich today, it's probably Ernie Kent. The former Oregon Ducks basketball coach, now in his third season at Washington State, knows what it's like to be a victim of your own success.
Helfrich was fired Tuesday night, just two seasons removed from a national title game appearance and just six years after he discovered—and then helped develop—the best player in program history. The Ducks finished 4–8 overall and 2–7 in Pac-12 play this season, their first losing campaign since 2004, when Oregon went 5–6 under longtime coach Mike Bellotti. Helfrich is the first coach to be fired by Oregon football since 1976, when Don Read was let go following three seasons in which he compiled a 9–24 record.
The Ducks' season-ending 34–24 loss to Oregon State in the Civil War, their first in the last nine years of the rivalry, signaled the end for Helfrich. In his postgame press conference, he answered questions about the driving rain and Oregon State's running game (the Beavers, who had won just two games coming into last Saturday, rushed 53 times for 310 yards) before addressing the elephant in the room. Asked if he felt his job was secure, Helfrich said those decisions are made by someone else, adding that in college football "nobody's safe." (Nick Saban probably disagrees, but his point is valid.) Helfrich was also blunt when evaluating his own performance. "We didn't win enough games," he said. "That's a fact. We have to own that part of it."
It's been an astonishing fall from the top for the Ducks this season, as they were plagued by a lack of veteran talent and loads of undisciplined play. In his four-year tenure, Helfrich went 37–16 , including a Pac-12 title and a run to the national championship game in 2014. At most schools, a recent trip to the College Football Playoff would buy a coach some grace. Instead, it may have done the opposite for Helfrich. He works in a "what have you done for me lately?" business, and Oregon fancies itself one of the best programs in the nation. The Ducks don't have the patience to dwell in the Pac-12 basement.
Kent's downfall was remarkably similar. Hired in 1997, he led the Ducks' basketball program to unprecedented heights. Oregon won the 2002 Pac-10 title, its first since 1939, but Kent was most known for two trips to the Elite Eight, in 2002 and 2007. Oregon administrators and fans became used to that type of success, and when Kent went 8–23 and then 16–16, respectively, in the 2008–09 and 2009–10 seasons, the Ducks decided they couldn't let the decline last any longer and fired Kent. Oregon was about to open a new arena and worried about waning interest in a program the university had recently spent millions on.
Sound familiar? There have been threats from season-ticket holders that they'll stay away next season if a coaching change isn't made. Oregon football this year has become a laughingstock across the country, as outsiders make snide remarks about how money can't buy championships. With super booster and Nike co-founder Phil Knight behind them, the Ducks have become known for glitzy facilities that are close to unmatched in college football and a range of uniform combinations that inspire jealousy across the country. They've been to every top-tier bowl imaginable and played for the national championship twice since 2010. But they have no hardware to show for it, at least not hardware they want. Fans expect more in Eugene these days and decided Helfrich wasn't going to get it for them.
The spiral in 2016 started with a couple troubling losses: first to former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who for the last decade couldn't seem to beat the Ducks, until he went to Nebraska and won 35–32; and then to Colorado, which won 41–38 in Eugene with a backup quarterback. Then the beatdowns began—a 51–33 loss to Washington State on Oct. 1 was first—and questions about the Ducks' heart followed. Though there were a few brief rallies, including a stunning 30–28 upset of Utah in Salt Lake City, it wasn't enough.
For months, people in and around the program have made a case to keep Helfrich, pointing to the Ducks' young talent (starting quarterback Justin Herbert is a true freshman and looks like he might be a future star) and the fact that Oregon is on its third defensive coordinator in three years. The Ducks are also in their first season with Matt Lubick as offensive coordinator, after he was promoted to that position from receivers coach when Scott Frost left to become the head coach at UCF.
But for weeks on the field, there have been no signs of improvement. And the argument that Oregon is fine off the field—often used to show that coaches have control of their locker room—has taken a hit in the last month with the arrest and suspension of linebacker Eddie Heard and a Nov. 18 investigation by the Oregon Daily Emerald, the university's student newspaper, that alleges tight end Pharaoh Brown has committed three acts of violence since 2014, two involving teammates, and has not been punished by the school or the football program. Wide receiver Darren Carrington is under investigation for an alleged assault that occurred after the Arizona State game. Frustrated fans on social media have referred to Oregon as a dumpster fire for most of the season, and it looks like they were more right than anyone anticipated.
The question is, what happens next? When Oregon fired Kent, it became very clear very quickly that the Ducks did not have a succession plan in place. They publicly courted multiple big-name coaches, including Tom Izzo, Brad Stevens and Mark Few, all of whom took the interest and turned it into raises and contract extensions from their employers. The highest profile coach on this year's college football coaching carousel is already off the ride, with Tom Herman agreeing to a contract at Texas early Saturday. And former Ducks coach and current San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly is not coming back to Eugene.
In the post-Kent era, the basketball program stumbled into a good hire with former Creighton coach Dana Altman, an Xs and Os wizard who this season might be coaching the best and deepest basketball team in school history. The odds of Oregon falling into that type of luck twice are practically nonexistent.
One thing is for sure: A program that's boasted about its coaching continuity for decades—offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, an alum, has worked at Oregon for 25 years, and running backs coach Gary Campbell is the longest-tenured coach in FBS, having joined the Ducks in 1983—is sure to be split up. Unlike Helfrich's elevation to replace Kelly, there will be no promotion from within this time around.
Oregon is also a considerably better job now than the last time the Ducks went looking outside for a coach. Do you remember when Oregon last brought in new blood? It was a weird hire that year, the type that made you scratch your head. Who had ever even heard of Chip Kelly anyway?
Innovation paid off back then, and it might be wise to revisit it this time around. In the meantime, Helfrich can take comfort knowing Oregon is on the hook to pay him $11.6 million. Maybe he can use some of that money to go visit Ernie Kent in Pullman, where they can commiserate over being victims of their own success.