Firing Mark Helfrich leaves Oregon with little margin for error

Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

The Oregon athletic department’s decision to fire head coach Mark Helfrich, announced Tuesday night, puts Ducks football in the most tenuous place it’s been in four decades — if not ever.

To call Oregon’s dismissal of Helfrich the end of an era would not adequately describe the gravity of the situation.

Helfrich’s time as head coach lasted only four seasons, but his tenure continued a line of succession through Ducks football dating back to 1977, to when the University of Oregon hired Rich Brooks to replace Don Read.

Brooks was the program’s last outside head-coaching hire, and it proved successful enough that Oregon athletic brass opted to continue a direct line through each of its subsequent three hires.

Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Helfrich all ascended from Oregon offensive coordinator to head coach. The formula yielded four conference championships, two Rose and two Fiesta Bowl titles, and a couple of national championship game appearances between 1995 and 2014.

Before the Ducks’ appearance in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game — a stepping stone en route to the first College Football Playoff title round — I asked Helfrich about the program’s consistency.

“The bedrock foundation of our program has remained the same,” he said. “We have the longest-tenured coaching staff in the country.”

Another bedrock Helfrich touted: “The philosophy [is] to…constantly evolve.”

Oregon didn’t just remain relevant through four coaching changes, an exceedingly rare feat in college football. The Ducks made marked improvements consistently amid their stability.

Regression to 4-8 — the program’s worst mark since 1991 — with evident deficiencies even in a nine-win 2015 campaign suggest Oregon football had stopped evolving. A part of Darwin’s philosophy, of which evolution is a key component, is survival of the fittest.

Those that fail to evolve go extinct. The fear emanating from Oregon with this sudden dip is the fear of going extinct in an increasingly competitive football ecosystem.

Oregon’s next move will either evolve the program in such a way it staves off extinction, or accelerate the process.

A departure too drastic from the last 40 years could force out tenured and proven assistant coaches like John Neal and Steve Greatwood, key cogs in the Oregon machine. A complete rebuild would likely ensue, and Oregon’s not designed for reconstruction from the ground up.

Between the end of the Len Casanova era — which concluded in a fashion similar to that of the Brooks-Bellotti-Kelly-Helfrich dynasty, with a successful stretch petering out — and before Brooks’ breakout, 1989 campaign, Oregon languished in the doldrums of Western football.

The Ducks went 26 years between bowl bids, and had just six winning seasons in that time.

Much has changed since that quarter-century stretch. The influx of Nike money pumped into the University of Oregon as a whole, and Ducks athletics specifically, put UO on a national stage. However, Oregon’s no longer an outlier in the swag or facilities arms races.

College football also features far more quality programs now than it did decades ago. With Pac-12 counterparts like Washington and USC back on the ascent, Stanford parlaying its prestige into winning football, and Colorado/Arizona/Arizona State all demonstrating flashes of excellence at varying times in the last half-decade, upward mobility now is far more limited than 40 or even 15 years ago.

Oregon needs a new direction, yes, but not a wildly new direction. Oregon needs a coach who will help quarterback Justin Herbert, a Heisman-caliber talent, reach his full potential; a coach who will continue to coax greatness from Tony Brooks-James, and oversee an offensive line that produces NFL draft picks.

But in remedying Helfrich’s greatest failing, the newcomer must construct a staff that can address glaring weaknesses — most notably defensive play.

Part of that starts in recruiting. Oregon no longer enjoys a considerable gap in swag or style, so establishing an identity beyond the superficial is essential. To that end, Lane Kiffin isn’t the answer. His inability to give USC a clear identity was his downfall there, and Oregon is a program without the built-in advantage of local recruiting hotbeds.

Boise State’s Bryan Harsin has recruiting ties in Texas, an area that supplemented the most prosperous time in Ducks history. But Harsin’s head-coaching resume is thin — ditto Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck.

Either could be the next superstar head coach, the kind of leader needed to inject energy suddenly missing from the program. But either could be the next Flavor of the Week who struggles to make the leap from Group of Five competition to national championship expectations.

No matter where Oregon administrators go, the move comes with high risk — a level of risk this program hasn’t seen in four decades.

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