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Why Mark Helfrich was fired after 4 seasons at Oregon

The Chip Kelly disciple is out after a 4-8 season, giving the Ducks their first coaching search since 1976.

Virginia v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The Mark Helfrich era in Eugene, Ore., is coming to an end.

Helfrich compiled a coaching record of 37-16 over four seasons, which certainly doesn’t sound that bad. But on paper, Oregon was pretty justified in its decision. The Ducks lost to Oregon State on Saturday to wrap up a 4-8 season.

Before we get into this, let’s talk for a second about how significant this firing is. Oregon hasn’t fired a head coach in 40 years — the last time was the 1976 firing of Don Read. Much of that is because Oregon’s system of successfully promoting from within has, for the most part, worked out quite well for the program:

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.

Oregon’s last national title appearance was in 2014, after the Ducks slaughtered Florida State in the College Football Playoff’s Rose Bowl semifinal. The Ducks would lose to Ohio State in the national championship, 42-20.

In February 2015, Helfrich was awarded a five-year, $17.5 million extension, bumping up his annual salary to $3.5 million a year. The buyout figure that came with his ouster is indeed a pretty penny.

This is a costly firing for Oregon’s athletic program. Helfrich is now owed $11.6 million for the buyout of his contract. Had Oregon flopped again in 2017, it would've cost just $3.7 million to buy out Helfrich’s contract due to a clause stating the buyout would be cut in half if the Ducks won fewer than six games in consecutive seasons.

After the extension, things started to go downhill.

In the 2015 season, the Ducks finished 9-4, with losses to Michigan State, Utah, Washington State, and TCU in the Alamo Bowl after giving up a seemingly insurmountable 31-point lead.

Throughout his tenure, Helfrich was unable to consistently keep Oregon a contender inside the Pac-12 North. In 2015 losses to Utah and Washington State put the Ducks out of the Pac-12 title game. The Ducks failed to make the Pac-12 title game in 2013 as well, after losses to both Stanford and Arizona.

Oregon’s losing skid put the Ducks essentially put of Pac-12 title contention by Week 6 in 2016.

Defensively, things went south under Helfrich.

During the Chip Kelly era, Oregon defenses allowed as few as 4.61 (2013) and 4.67 (2010) yards per play, ranking among the nation’s leaders. In 2014, after longtime DC Nick Aliotti retired, Oregon allowed an average of 5.52 yards per play. That number has crept higher over the past two years, to above 6.

This, from early October, puts it into some context:

The bad start to the 2016 season didn’t do Helfrich any favors either. In Week 3, the Ducks began a five-game losing streak to drop them to 2-5 on the season. The Ducks managed to beat Arizona State to snap the streak, but back-to-back blowout losses to both USC and archrival Stanford in Week 11 was one of the last straws for Helfrich, with his team sitting at 3-7.

Helfrich and Oregon have struggled with recruiting, especially at the quarterback position.

After Heisman winner Marcus Mariota’s departure after 2014, the Ducks have primarily relied on FCS transfers to run the offense, failing to recruit quarterback prospects from the get-go.

The result has been mixed, to say the least. Former Ducks quarterback Vernon Adams was spectacular when he was healthy. Injuries hampered Adams’s 2015 season, causing him to miss three games, including an overtime loss to Washington State. He left Oregon’s Alamo Bowl game — which resulted in a loss — with an injury at the end of the year.

Former Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop was named the starter at the beginning of the season, but Helfrich switched to true freshman Justin Herbert midseason. Herbert showed some good signs but couldn’t turn around the season.

Oregon has lost out to rival schools for key recruits, including a four-star defensive back whose dad played for Oregon and works for Nike recently committing to Washington.

Nike CEO and founder Phil Knight’s influence within the Oregon athletic department also was certainly a big factor here. He’s so involved in the football program that he has his own personal headset inside the Ducks’ coaching staff box. A guy with that type of power and money had to add to the pressure placed on the football program to compete at a very high level.

In fact, it was reported earlier in November that Knight would be willing to shell out $10 million a year on a new Ducks head coach, if necessary.

Helfrich wasn’t able to keep Kelly’s success going for long.

Helfrich’s national title appearance at the end of the 2014 season made it easy to think Oregon would essentially pick up right where Kelly left off. But in the past two seasons, Oregon has been on the decline, both on the field and off with recruiting. The hiring-from-within system doesn’t always work, and Oregon learned that with Helfrich over the past two seasons. It was time to make a change.

This is a big decision for Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens. But when you have the money, facilities, and overall means to get a “home run hire,” there’s no reason to settle for something that’s not working. Just who that home run will be is something we’ll have to wait and see about. But intriguing names are in the mix to take the Ducks in a new direction.