Throughout his five-year tenure as Arizona State’s quarterbacks and passing game coach, Mark Helfrich earned a reputation as an open, affable and articulate man — the quintessential nice guy who often served as a stark contrast to his head coach, Dirk Koetter.
If Helfrich doesn’t conduct an about-face of epic proportions at Oregon this season, he’ll fall victim to that old adage about nice guys’ fates. Helfrich is on the hottest of seats for a 2-5 team that sat among the college football elite as recently as the 2014 season, when it played for the national championship.
Following a 70-21 whipping at the hands of No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8 in Eugene (the second-most points allowed in school history to Texas’ 71 in 1941), Ducks athletic director Rob Mullens gave Helfrich a vote of confidence by noting the season was just six games old.
“I understand the frustration. I absolutely appreciate the passion,” Mullens told the athletic department-run Duck Insider broadcast. “We’re six games into the season and not where anyone wants to be. But there’s still an opportunity to turn this a little bit and see some positive results. As I talk to Mark, they go right back to work and get right back in it.”
The task grew a little taller for Helfrich after a double-overtime loss at Cal on Oct. 21 after a bye week. The Ducks are 0-4 in conference play and in serious jeopardy of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Oregon hosts Arizona State (5-3) on Saturday, and then finishes at USC (4-3), at home against Stanford (4-3), at Utah (7-1) and versus Oregon State (2-5) in the Civil War.
The last time Oregon finished the season out of the AP Top 25 was 2006, and that is a near lock to happen this season.
“I think the biggest thing is being in that solution mode; that positive oriented mode,” Helfrich said recently on the weekly Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “The easiest thing in the world is to say ‘Hey, something is wrong.’ A lot of people don’t know what is wrong. We have to be in the business of solving that.”
Koetter was Helfrich’s head coach for three seasons at Boise State before spending five with Koetter at ASU. He is convinced Helfrich has the ability to turn things around if given the time.
“Mark’s a hell of a coach. He knows what he’s doing,” said Koetter, now the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Koetter called Helfrich a “fantastic” recruiter, “one of the best I’ve ever seen,” but he singled out Helfrich’s ability to communicate as one of his greatest strengths.
“He’s got an awesome personality. He’s fantastic with the kids,” Koetter said. “A great teacher, a great communicator. He’s enthusiastic, he’s positive.
“All those things (and he) knows what he’s doing scheme-wise. Shoot, he was a coach with me for a very long time. I trust to have him on my staff. Would I say anything bad about him?”
Helfrich understands there aren’t a whole lot of positive things being said about him in Oregon, and he is aware of the strife swirling around his program. Players are pointing fingers at one another, a spoiled fan base is calling for his head, and local media are questioning his recruiting and coaching ability.
“There is plenty of negativity on the outside,” he said. “We have to stick together and we have to fight through it.
“Nobody is more frustrated than the people inside this building. At the same time, we have to go about solving it. We’re concerned with right now, just as we would (be) if we were 6-0. We’re concerned with right now. You’re trying to keep everybody’s focus amidst a different set of variables; a different amount of noise.”
Helfrich insists that noise is not drowning out his message to his team.
“The same people that tell you you’re the greatest or the smartest or the best — which is probably not true — they also are the same people that tell you that you’re the bottom of the barrel or whatever other adjectives may be in there. That’s not true either,” Helfrich said.
“We absolutely have a plan in place from a coaching standpoint, a development standpoint and how we’re working through this phase to deal with where we are.”
There’s not much more Helfrich can say in his defense, but if a solution is not reached over the final five games of this season, it’s hard to envision his athletic director allowing him more time to execute the plan. There is too much money and too much potential in this program. Expectations are deservedly high at Oregon. There is no tolerance for even a single a losing record, or this stunningly fast fall from grace.
Today’s Pigskin’s Roy Cummings contributed to this report