EUGENE, Ore. – Like the past several days, the Willamette Valley was shrouded Sunday in dense fog. From the stadium club at Autzen Stadium, the football field below was barely discernible. But inside, as he introduced Mark Helfrich as head coach, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens hailed a "clear vision" for the future, and forecast that Chip Kelly's successor would take Oregon football "to even greater heights." And when his turn came, Helfrich said all the right things, starting with this:
"Coaching at Oregon is the pinnacle for me."
In promoting their offensive coordinator, the Ducks hope to preserve the unique culture of an emerging power, while at the same time adding appreciation for the program's place in the state's cultural fabric. They expect – and this is the sticky part – the same results.
Helfrich, a personable 39-year-old native Oregonian, tossed shout-outs to small towns like Coos Bay and Heppner. When he described his goals, he sounded like his former boss: The Ducks "would attack in all phases; we'll embrace innovation."
He has been endorsed by bright football minds, including Kelly and Tony Dungy. Dan Hawkins, the former head coach at Colorado and Boise State, predicted Helfrich, who was his offensive coordinator at Colorado, "will be extremely successful." He called Helfrich, a former small-college quarterback who has a biology degree and speaks fluent German, "the full package … a rare find."
"He's a strong football coach who has a lot of humanity and a lot of intelligence," Hawkins said. "He could be anything, really, because of how smart he is and the kind of personality he has and how he cares about people."
Helfrich chose coaching. Oregon is his pinnacle. But as he takes over, Oregon is at the pinnacle – or at least, much closer than it ever has been. For years a nonfactor in college football, the program began to grow under Rich Brooks, kept building under Mike Bellotti – and then soared in four years under Kelly: 46-7, three conference championships, four consecutive BCS bowls, an appearance in a BCS national championship game. Suddenly, Oregon is a national power.
The Ducks will be ranked near the top of preseason polls next fall. But as Kelly departs, the question is: Can their unprecedented run continue under Helfrich?
"I think he'll be able to keep it going and enhance it," Hawkins said.
Helfrich said he would probably be "99.2 percent … in lockstep" with what Kelly would have done. "I won't wear a visor," he joked. "I'll eat more vegetables." But he also promised to try to soothe any disgruntled factions of fans, saying "We're gonna do our best to make everybody feel involved."
Kelly didn't do that. His way was insular and isolated. But if it occasionally rubbed people the wrong way, it worked – which is why Helfrich said not much will change in how the program operates. The countercultural Ducks will probably continue to practice in the mornings, almost exclusively indoors, with the accompaniment of loud music with a catchy beat. They'll continue to mix and match those flashy, fashion-forward uniforms, and to run the same style of spread option offense at something approaching warp speed.
The essential elements will remain the same. But in promoting Helfrich, the program becomes a Petri dish.
Amazingly, Helfrich is the third consecutive offensive coordinator promoted to head coach by Oregon. But will Helfrich get results like Bellotti and Kelly, who both took foundations and built more? Or like Boise State, where Dirk Koetter begat Hawkins who begat Chris Petersen?
Or could he be more like, say, West Virginia's Bill Stewart or Miami's Larry Coker or Washington State's Bill Doba – handpicked nice guys who didn't live up to their predecessors' success levels?
"Obviously, the expectations for this program are at a different place than they were four years ago," Mullens said. "I don't think anyone is going to lower the expectations because of a coaching change. That does make it a challenge."
And it makes replacing Kelly a risk, regardless. Although Mullens said he interviewed five candidates and received interest from several others, the school had planned to promote Helfrich for almost a year. When Kelly briefly took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job shortly before national signing day in 2012, Helfrich was the quick, but clear choice. Kelly's return for the 2012 season only delayed Helfrich's promotion to his pinnacle.
"I'm honored to be the caretaker of Oregon football," he said – but he seems to understand: Caretaking is not by a long shot easier than building.
"We have all of this incredible infrastructure of stuff," Helfrich said. "Whether it's a belief (system), the players, the facilities, the university. Then at the same time, there's the expectation about the results. Sure, that's different than going to a place where they're 0-12 in the previous year, where you win four games and they build a statue.
"I think maybe it's a harder challenge."
The challenge would be the same with any new coach. Despite Helfrich's credentials, it's hard to see what happens next. But on a foggy January afternoon, the new hire sounded good.