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Mark Helfrich contract means validation, higher standards

2/10/2015
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Mark Helfrich Gets Contract Extension

ESPN Pac-12 reporter Chantel Jennings breaks down Oregon's decision to give head coach a five-year contract extension.

Apologies for paying too much attention to the fine print, but what stuck out about Oregon coach Mark Helfrich receiving a contract extension and substantial raise was this from the news release: "The new agreement ensures an automatic one-year rollover for Helfrich for winning a minimum of 11 games in any one year, with one of those victories in one of the New Year's Six bowl games (consisting of the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, and Sugar bowls). "

Oh, times have changed in Eugene.

The funny thing is winning 11 games and a New Year's Six bowl is no longer something that will automatically inspire Ducks fans to leap into the air and click their heels together. While many veteran Oregon fans continue to enjoy these glory days with a twinkling eye and a nudge-nudge of "Can you believe it?" others of a bit younger cast have become all-or-nothing freaks. As in: What the heck does a fan have to do to see his team win a national title?

While Helfrich, a lifelong Oregon fan himself, knows the history as well as anyone, he also knows what he inherited from Chip Kelly: a nouveau-riche superpower, one that is wisely managed and backed by super-booster bucks, courtesy of Nike founder Phil Knight. While making $3.5 million next year doesn't rank Helfrich among the super-elite of college football coaches, it does push him into the top 25. The raise and extension also announce on a national, Pac-12 and local level that the powers that be at Oregon, who start with Knight but also include several savvy decision-makers, believe Helfrich can maintain and even eclipse what Oregon has accomplished over the past six years.

By the way, if you know Helfrich more than a little, you probably are imagining him thinking, "I have no idea how to spend that much money."

The deal runs through 2020, at which point Helfrich would be a bargain at $3.8 million. We say bargain because, while this is a major, post-Kelly validation for Helfrich, who is an impressive 24-4 in two seasons, one wonders if he'd still be embraced if the Ducks haven't finished No. 1 over the course of the next six seasons. No way he gets to 2020 at $3.8 million if he's going to still be in Eugene in 2021. The way salaries are going these days, that number might be doubled.

There is no other program like Oregon in the nation right now. Baylor is the only one that has an argument, but not a great one. Every other team that enters the 2015 season with a chance of winning the second College Football Playoff has won a national title. Oregon has not. It has become a contender with unprecedented flash and it has played for two national titles, falling short twice.

Helfrich has been given a prime directive. He knows it. Win a national title. He could win 32 games over the next three years and get fired. He could also, by the way, win 28 and a national title and he'd be about as secure as a big-time college football coach can be.

While this contract is freighted with positive symbolic value for Helfrich, that goes only so far. A major question will linger around him before and perhaps during the 2015 season: Can he win without Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota, the best player in the history of Ducks football?

On the same day the school announced Helfrich's new contract, news broke that Eastern Washington QB Vernon Adams Jr. would transfer to Oregon to play out his final season of eligibility. Ducks fans should feel good about the juxtaposition.

The luring of Adams represents a bold and proactive move with no downside. Either Adams becomes the Ducks' starting QB or he gets beaten out by a guy who's better than someone who torched Pac-12 competition in his two games against it. Adams joining the QB competition only makes Oregon better, and it shows that Helfrich and his staff are being aggressive while eyeballing the future, immediate and otherwise.

That's what separates the guys like Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer, and it's even what former USC coach Pete Carroll made trite poetry about: Always compete ... Win forever.

Helfrich's job is not done. It won't be until he wins a national title, and even that won't automatically make him Oregon's Bobby Bowden. Memories are much shorter these days.

But the powers that be at Oregon told him something very important Monday: "So far, so good."