Keep the faith, Oregon: Why the Ducks would be foolish to fire Mark Helfrich
EUGENE, Ore. — Credit first to Pharaoh Brown, who saw this coming before any of us.
It was Brown, Oregon's senior tight end, who first told a Ducks reporter back in August that "that Justin kid"—Brown couldn't recall the local product's last name—was pretty good. He might be a player for Oregon, Brown said, and everyone should pay attention.
Boy, was he right.
The true freshman quarterback—full name, Justin Herbert—has emerged as a rising star for the Ducks, a once-championship-level program that has fallen on very hard times. Oregon is losing more than usual this season, normal for a program shortly after it graduates the best player in program history (we'll come back to that).
In keeping with the theme of college football overreaction, there's word that Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, in his fourth year, is likely to be fired. The Ducks (3–5, 1–4 Pac-12) are a long shot to get bowl eligible, so Helfrich's head coaching campaign could come to an abrupt end in Eugene just two seasons after leading Oregon to a national championship game appearance. This is possibly one of the more ridiculous outcomes of fall 2016 and given the current state of affairs, that's saying something.
Helfrich does not need to be fired. Yes, Oregon is faltering, big time, right now, but that happens from time to time at places not named "Alabama." Everyone wearing green and yellow (or whatever current color combo the Ducks are claiming) needs to stop panicking and take on the calm, cool demeanor of Herbert.
The rookie quarterback is a Eugene product who grew up rooting for the Ducks. A year ago he was leading Sheldon High to the state semifinals while throwing for 3,130 yards (66.5% completion rate) with 37 touchdowns and rushing for an additional 543 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he was playing high school football in Oregon which, in a good year, churns out one or two legit Power 5 products per signing class. No one expected anything of Herbert.
But Helfrich and his staff saw something in him, and now the 6'6", 225-pounder has taken over at starter, passing for 996 yards and 12 touchdowns in four games. Last week Herbert tied the single-game passing record with 489 yards, first set by Bill Musgrave in 1989. (In the postgame press conference, Herbert promptly admitted he, uh, didn't really know who Bill Musgrave was.)
After that record-setting performance—which, granted, came against a very banged-up Arizona State defense that allows an FBS-worst 398 passing yards per game—Brown said, almost apologetically, that Herbert is a lot like Marcus Mariota in that he's humble and doesn't really like to talk much. But why would anyone be sorry about a true freshman quarterback, the first to start for Oregon since 1983, drawing comparisons to the best player in program history, the guy who won a Heisman Trophy?
To put this all in perspective, I think the Ducks need to look north, and learn something from their not-so-affectionately nicknamed "little brother."
As a reporter for The Oregonian in 2011, I was assigned to cover Oregon. The Ducks were flying high after a national title appearance, a game they lost when Auburn kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired. It was both a devastating and thrilling moment. Who could have imagined that that Oregon, nestled away in the cozy Pacific Northwest, could compete with the big boys of the SEC? Back then the Ducks were the definition of cutting edge, with a snappy rotation of uniforms, glitzy, over-the-top facilities and an offensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach who was sure to lead them back to the promised land.
Forty miles up the road, veteran head coach Mike Riley and his Oregon State Beavers had dissolved into a puddle of problems, with a redshirt freshman quarterback unseating an incumbent and a rash of injuries depleting roster depth. While the Ducks raced to a 12–2 record and a Rose Bowl win, the Beavers quietly limped to 3–9. Beavers fans were furious with what looked like a giant step backwards for the program, and there were calls for Mike Riley's head.
The next season, I was back on the Oregon State beat in Corvallis and as surprised as anyone when the Beavers jumped out to a 6–0 start, climbing as high as No. 7 in the AP poll. They finished that season 9–4, a startling upswing for a program that a year before had allegedly been on the ropes. The next August, in 2013, I sat with Mike Riley in his office at the Valley Football Center as we talked about that disastrous 2011 season. I'll never forget what he told me.
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Riley learned to coach from his dad, Bud Riley, a longtime Oregon State assistant who told his son the most important thing to remember as a coach was to be yourself. Riley took that advice to heart in '11, making a conscious choice to be upbeat even while the Beavers piled up the losses. He knew that a dramatic change in attitude and demeanor would signal panic to his players.
Coaching his coaches was just as important that season. In almost every staff meeting, Riley reassured his assistants that the redshirts they were forced to burn—10 true freshmen played in '11—would eventually develop into seasoned veterans. Trusting in the system, and each other, was imperative. And that's exactly why they finished with nine wins the following season.
This is the perfect opportunity for the Ducks to do the same. Herbert isn't the only young talent on the roster; four of the five offensive linemen are redshirt freshmen. The leading running back, Tony Brooks-James, is a sophomore. (First stringer Royce Freeman, who came into the year touted as one of the country's best backs, has been banged up and isn't playing like himself.) A true freshman, Troy Dye, leads the team in tackles and is arguably the most talented player on the entire defense. Other young guys, like true freshman safety Brenden Schooler, will also get better.
So … can everyone please calm down?
In talking with people in and around the Oregon program, it seems Helfrich is calm. But in 2016 no coach can expect to completely shield his players from outside chatter; the Ducks have obviously heard their coach is fighting for his job, which might explain the way they banded together and clawed their way back into the game at Cal two weeks ago. It didn't work in terms of the final result—Oregon closed a 34–14 second-half deficit but lost 52–49 in double overtime—but it laid to rest concerns that players had quit on Helfrich.
Freeman, a junior, says it's up to the leaders in the locker room to help shut out the noise. Matt Lubick, the Ducks' first-year offensive coordinator, says that for a head coach that's still young and relatively new to being the leader—Helfrich still has fewer than 50 games under his belt as head coach—he is remarkably good at staying upbeat and delivering pep talks to his coaches and players.
After Oregon finally got a Pac-12 win against Arizona State last week, I asked Helfrich whom he was relying on for motivation in this spiral? Who gave him pep talks? After all, it's not just players who are new to all this losing; a handful of Oregon coaches, up until this year, have only experienced an enviable amount of success. Helfrich is at the top of that list.
"Gandhi," Helfrich deadpanned. "Tremendous motivator."
Helfrich didn't give any actual specifics of whom he's been leaning on, but he did poke fun at the situation. "When things are rough," he said, "you find out a lot about who your real friends are and who sticks by you. And that team does, no question. But this is one game. We don't need to anoint the quarterback. Nobody's smart again. We're still all idiots, myself at the top of that list."
The thing is, Helfrich isn't an idiot. Fans can't complain about what they view as a downturn in recruiting and blame it on Helfrich while simultaneously saying he had nothing to do with developing Mariota. Helfrich is the one who found Mariota and told Kelly the Ducks should take a chance on the unknown signal caller from Hawaii. That worked out pretty well. People should trust Helfrich's evaluation of Herbert, too, and trust that he'll turn into a player.
It would also be wise for Oregon decision-makers to remember that while the Ducks were on their ascension to the top, Texas and USC, two juggernaut programs, were floundering. That made Oregon and its flashy uniforms that much more appealing to kids from the Lone Star and Golden states, respectively. Neither the Longhorns nor the Trojans have returned to the pinnacle of the sport, but both have shown the promise that recruits crave.
Firing Helfrich in an off-season when LSU, Texas and possibly USC will have open head-coaching jobs is asking to take a step backwards. Sticking with the young kids though, could very well be the key to a 2018 conference championship.
Last week in Autzen Stadium, as the clock ticked down in the Ducks' 54–35 win over Arizona State and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief, Oregon's Tyree Robison picked off a Sun Devils pass with just over two minutes to play, returning it 84 yards to the Arizona State 15-yard line. The Ducks were hit with an unsportsmanlike penalty in the celebration, pushing the ball back 15 yards. One Oregon fan shook his head as he headed for the exit. "Excessive celebration?" he said to his buddy. "I'll take it. After the last few weeks, we need something to celebrate."
Choose to be patient with Helfrich & Co., and the Ducks could once again have a whole lot more to celebrate in the coming years.