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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
New Oregon coach has familiar task

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- "We've won 65 games in six years," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said the other morning. He sat at the head of the factory-issue long conference table in the defensive staff room.

"I don't know if that's the best in the last six years of anybody in the country," Aliotti said. "That's almost an 11-win average. We might be the best. You get my point."

Oregon is third behind Boise State (71) and Alabama (68) in victories from 2007 to present, but let's not quibble. Oregon dethroned Pete Carroll and USC as the titan of the West Coast. The Ducks won the Pac-12 championship for three straight seasons before falling short last year. As a consolation prize, the Ducks finished second in the nation. That is all the more impressive when you consider that USC's run was a return to greatness. Oregon had never been there before.

Mark Helfrich
Mark Helfrich takes over an Oregon team that's used to winning a lot each season.

Aliotti has worked for four Ducks head coaches. That includes Mark Helfrich, who has been in the job for four months. Helfrich had been the offensive coordinator here, just as Chip Kelly had been before him, just as Mike Bellotti had been before Kelly. Oregon promotes from within, and the new guy does better than the old. That has been the recipe.

It has seemed simple, until now. How in the world does Helfrich improve on what Kelly achieved?

"It's kind of, like, not fair," Aliotti said.

To raise the bar, Helfrich has to raise the crystal football above his head. That would be a tall order for any head coach, much less a guy who has never run a program. And just weeks into Helfrich's tenure, the university copped to committing a major NCAA violation in the Willie Lyles recruiting case.

The NCAA has yet to mete out a punishment. But it's hard to win the national championship if you're ineligible for postseason play.

"Control what we can control," Helfrich said. "That's one of our mantras."

As personalities go, Helfrich is different from Kelly, who brought a New England, no-nonsense attitude to the Pacific Northwest. With no wife and no family, Kelly focused on football alone. He made it clear he wanted things done his way, often with a sarcasm chaser. With the Ducks' unprecedented success, Kelly became more sure of himself and less open to challenge, be it from ideas within the staff or questions from the media.

Helfrich kept all seven assistants whom Kelly didn't take to Philadelphia. In addition to Aliotti, three other assistants have been there at least 20 years. They are loathe to say anything that would sound detrimental. They loved working for Kelly.

"We had all fallen into such a pattern with Chip that we all knew our role," said Scott Frost, who has moved up from receivers coach to offensive coordinator under Helfrich. "… I think there's people who feel free to step out of the box they've been living in for four years and try to do even more. Which we kind of need because everybody needs to fill the shoes that Chip left."

That's fine with Helfrich. He grew up in Oregon, a high school quarterback whom, "Coach [Rich] Brooks made the very important and smart decision not to recruit … as a player," he said. "I've always admired his eye for talent."

His wit is martini-dry. He deflects attention as if employing a martial art. He is a master practitioner of irony. Asked if enjoyed talking to the media more often, Helfrich, with perfect deadpan, said, "Do I have to answer honestly?"

Those softer edges, however, surround a hawk's stare. Helfrich takes in a lot. There is his own eye for talent -- Helfrich championed a high school junior backup quarterback from Hawaii. Oregon signed him a year later, and Marcus Mariota, as a redshirt freshman, became the 2012 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.

Helfrich knows the enormity of his task.

"It would be easy to take over an 0-12 place where you go .500 and they build a statue and [you] get your next job," Helfrich said. "Coach Brooks, Coach Bellotti and Chip have done an incredible job in building this place. The steep slope of success is slippery. We have to keep working together to stay where we are and get better."

Oregon rode to success on the back of Kelly's up-tempo spread offense. And it was Kelly's offense. Most offensive coordinators are considered to be the boss of their side of the ball. No one ever mislabeled Helfrich in that regard. He developed the game plan during the week and served as Kelly's eyes in the press box on Saturday. But Kelly called the plays.

The offense now belongs to Helfrich, and the coordinator title belongs to Frost. They spent the spring trying to figure out what that meant. Helfrich said he used more unscripted offensive sessions to help them determine how to divide up their duties. They plan to sit down soon and hash it out.

"Second and long," Helfrich said, "you gain five yards, then it's third-and-5, or it's an incomplete pass, it's third-and-10. We did it to have him [Frost] fit into that role, to have everybody play the situation, rather than, 'OK, it's first-and-10 on the left hash and run 20 plays."

The players profess that they see no difference in the offense.

"It's the same tempo-wise," offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone said, "and all of our mentality is the same: you know, we're 'Fast Hard Finish.' That's the motto we live by every day. If I was even going to go further, I would say, this spring has been more difficult than the last one we had. We've been getting more plays done in practice."

Helfrich and the staff want to prove that Oregon can play at the same level as it did under Kelly. There's also the business left undone last season. The overtime loss at home to Stanford in mid-November cost the Ducks the Pac-12 North title, a shot at their fourth straight conference championship and, in all likelihood, a chance to play Notre Dame for the BCS Championship.

So now, with a veteran staff, and a veteran team, Helfrich is in charge. He dismissed the notion of the Ducks' success putting pressure on him.

"If you worry about the pressure to win, then you're not preparing to win," Helfrich said. "I would put pressure on myself, if I was a gardener, to be the best gardener in the world. We want to be great here and to be a part of that, there's a responsibility, there's a pressure, all that. I know that I'm going to give this thing everything I have and I know our guys are going to do the same. Whatever happens, happens."

There is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise, especially if the NCAA comes down hard. Helfrich is taking over a team used to winning 11 games a year. As Aliotti said, it may not be fair, but the Ducks' ability to maintain the status quo will be nothing less than riveting.