Forty years ago, former Oregon athletic director John Caine fired head football coach Don Read with these words:
“We want a different personality with a different background and a different approach,” Caine said. [He] said he made his decision to fire [Don Read] after listening “to the newspaper people, television commentators, alumni, campus people, custodians, the milk-man, and my druggist. I don’t mind. It shows people are concerned.”
For a program that hasn’t given a pink slip since the eight-track tape was en vogue, the 4-8 2016 campaign was finally the last straw.
Football Program Getting New Direction https://t.co/MgibLINKXY— Oregon Football (@WinTheDay) November 30, 2016
Oregon has staked its reputation on being a brand name. Oregon is Nike; Nike is Oregon. The Ducks have long had swag. They may still be the poster child for “Just Do It,” but you know what’s really cool? It’s not uniforms, it’s not space-age facilities, and it’s not even Marcus Mariota’s Heisman: it’s winning.
Phil Knight is 78 years old and expects returns from his hundreds of millions in donations to the school better than one of the country’s worst defenses. His contributions have helped the Ducks win, and they’ve also helped the Ducks keep their coaching staffs together.
Oregon’s insular culture has worked for a long time.
Rich Brooks took over for Read and got the program to a Rose Bowl by 1994, the third time the program had ever won nine games in a season and its first conference title since the 1950s.
Brooks dipped out for the NFL, and Mike Bellotti, who had been with the program since 1989 by that point, was promoted to head coach. He took the Ducks forward, as well. Bellotti won 10 or more game three times, and in 2001, got to No. 4 in the BCS standings.
Chip Kelly was promoted from within, too, and his tenure oozed innovation both on the field and off. He was able to remake the culture in his image, taking it from good to elite by his second year and reaching the 2010 BCS Championship.
Mark Helfrich, the third straight former Oregon offensive coordinator to be named head coach, is not that fast-talking Northeastern guy. He’s also reached a national championship game, but followed a 9-4 2015 with this rather underwhelming season.
Excluding the newcomers, DC Brady Hoke and QB coach David Yost, Oregon’s assistant coaches have a combined 126 years coaching at Oregon, with an average Ducks tenure of 18 years. Two, OL coach Steve Greatwood and RB coach Gary Campbell, have each been with the program for 30 years or more. LB coach Don Pellum is in his 24th.
A school so focused on moving the game forward remains anchored to a past that extends back even before Kelly. And it’s not like the past was particularly elite. The school had only been to one major bowl before 2001 and didn’t have a 10-win season before 2000.
Consistency and continuity can be good, but when the program starts going south, it’s perplexing. Helfrich sits in a precarious position, balancing the history of continuity and the expectations raised by his old boss.
Continuity for the sake of continuity doesn’t count for much. Oregon’s got clear problems.
The coaching across the conference has upgraded as more money has rolled in, and there’s a touch more parity in the Pac-12 for Helfrich than there was for Kelly. Over the last decade, some of the teams that would eventually form the Pac-12 North have added proven winners Jim Harbaugh (and then David Shaw), Chris Petersen, and Mike Leach.
As a result, Stanford is now an annual contender, Washington is finally on the rise, and Washington State can challenge anyone.
There is also the issue of personnel, mainly on defense — which was never as bad under Kelly as it was made out to be, if you look at per-play stats that better account for the speed of Oregon games — and at quarterback.
Thanks to transfers and players who simply didn’t pan out following the brilliance of Mariota, the FCS well turned up Vernon Adams and Dakota Prukop. When healthy, Adams was great, but Prukop is yet to amaze. If Helfrich can hold on, our Oregon blog, Addicted to Quack, is very high on the future of the position, at least.
But the defense does not have clear cause for optimism, to put it simply. It’s why Pellum was demoted from coordinator to linebackers coach after the bowl debacle against TCU. Hoke was brought in to fix things, but returns have not been good. The Ducks finished the season 126th (out of 128 teams) in total defense, giving up 518.4 yards per game. The unit is 114th in yards-per-play, allowing 6.41.
During Kelly’s tenure, his defenses never gave up more than 24.6 points per game, despite playing at one of the country’s fastest paces. This season, the Ducks are giving up 36.2, 109th in the country.
Here is where the Ducks have ranked in defensive S&P+ since two years before Kelly took over as head coach. Longtime DC Nick Aliotti retired after 2013.
The inability to stop teams is a weekly reality under Helfrich. Under Kelly, it was only an occasional fear, at worst.
But who will Oregon get if Helfrich is out?
The culture of the program limits the list of candidates, as do other complications.
Boise State’s Bryan Harsin? Then you’re just hiring the replacement of the guy who has rival Washington in the top 10. Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin? He’s an excellent coach, who also beefed with Oregon two years ago over Adams’ transfer. UCF’s Scott Frost? He comes from the same lineage as Helfrich and is less experienced.
A top Pac-12 assistant or someone focused on power and defense? Well, Oregon’s identity goes beyond creative uniforms — even Oregon fans are getting kind of tired of those — because speed in space and explosive offense are integral.
Oregon doesn’t just need an offensive guy to replace Helfrich, if he goes, and not just because it’s clear the Ducks need somebody who can hire a modern defensive staff.
The Ducks would need a guy who brings a similar up-tempo offense reliant on speed. Not only because it’s palatable, but because Oregon has a brand to uphold among younger players. SB Nation national recruiting analyst Bud Elliott:
Oregon is in a really tough spot because, west of the Rockies, only California produces elite talent on a regular basis. Oregon is one of the least talented football states in the country, so it does not have the option to rely on local talent. It's easier to recruit elite skill talent than elite big men, and Oregon does not really have a choice in the matter, so it must be smart where it does have a choice: its head coaching hire.
If you’re a 16-year-old in Southern California, what the heck do you know about Oregon? You know they’re really fast, you know you’re really fast, and that’s often been the only foot in the door the Ducks have needed.
To shift to any other philosophy would set the program back. Because of that equity, Oregon should uphold that frenetic identity, even if it changes all the people who are in charge of it.
For now, there seems to be a laundry list of home run hires that the Ducks will take their swing at.
So is this the end of Helfrich and thus the Oregon coaching dynasty?
Of course we can’t know that quite yet, but that list of names signal that the Ducks have both people who would keep Oregon on the track they’ve been going, and others who would likely take it a different direction. Helfrich certainly wasn’t doing the job, and now we’ll wait to see how the Ducks handle the uncharted waters of a coaching search. It’s been a while since they’ve done one, you see.