On Mark Helfrich’s Tenuous Duck Dynasty

07.22.13 4 years ago

Words by Alec Bojalad | @alecbojalad

It may have seemed like Chip Kelly’s reign of terror in the Pac-12 lasted forever but in reality it was only four years.

Kelly arrived in Eugene as an offensive coordinator in 2007, fresh from the New Hampshire Wildcats. Two years later he was the head coach. In four years he compiled about as good a coaching record as a college coach can have without winning a National Championship but that’s it. Four years. He may loom larger in the Pac-12’s memory but contrary to popular legend he did not retrofit Dennis Dixon into a rocket-launcher to crush his enemies, drive a tank through the Rose Bowl Parade or order the execution of Ned Stark.

It’s always been assumed that Chip Kelly is a one-of-a-kind genius who revolutionized the college game with his simplified but brutally effective spread attack and who will revolutionize the pro game with his own version of Moneyball. This is undoubtedly true, but it’s also equally true that the Oregon Ducks program has put itself in a phenomenal position to win.

College football because of its “amateur” status has a much harder time with the concept of stability than its pro counterpart. Pro teams like the Steelers and Patriots have proven that finding the right guy* (or right handful of guys) and giving him job security is the key to winning. Conversely, any Browns fan can tell you (and we will, whether you want us to or not) that averaging a new coach every two years certainly doesn’t build a winning team**.

But the Oregon Ducks football program is one of the rare college exceptions in which stability is the norm. Including new head coach Mark Helfrich, Oregon has had four coaches since 1977. Prior to 1977, the Ducks were atrocious (they hadn’t had a winning season since 1969). Rich Brooks was brought in to right the ship and given an incredibly long leash%. He cranked out several losing seasons before achieving some semblance of success, continually trouncing Oregon State (Brooks had a 14-3-1 record in the series) and going to four bowl games. Then Brooks’ offensive coordinator, Mike Bellotti took over in 1995, amassing six bowl wins and two Pac-10 titles in 13 years. Kelly took over after that and now yet another Oregon offensive coordinator takes the helm in Helfrich.

In many ways, Oregon’s 2013 season can be seen as a referendum on the program over the mastermind coach. Does college football abide by the auteur theory? Is all any program needs a Francis Ford Coppola to achieve lasting success (in this analogy, the Ohio State tattoo scandal is Sofia Coppola’s acting in Godfather 3)? Or is it the system in place that produces results?

At the surface, it appears that we’ve already come down on one side. Oregon will be ranked second in both the AP and Coaches Polls to start the season and anything less than a National Championship will be considered a disappointment. It’s clear that at least in this case, trust in the institution exceeds our trust in the genius. In other words: yeah I know Chip Kelly’s now in Philly but that Nike money, though.

Ironically enough one of the chief reasons for Oregon’s generous preseason rankings is the success of their main Pac-12 competition, Stanford. Stanford under David Shaw has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that a Pac-12 program can survive and even thrive after the departure of a superstar coach… Unless of course that coach is replaced by Lane Kiffin.

* – The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969. Let that sink in.

** – That’s not hyperbole, by the way. If you count Terry Robiskie, the Browns have had 7 coaches since 1999.

% – This was before Twitter. Society didn’t understand that it should be pressuring institutions into making rash decisions just yet

Photos: Getty

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