As a rule, Oregon doesn’t fire coaches. The last time they fired one was in 1976, instead choosing to promote from within. That’s a perfectly noble system to adhere to if you’re the sort of school that’s accepted lower expectations or manages to find a flawless in-house successor for every coach and time one coach’s ascendance to another’s departure (which never happens). Tonight, Oregon broke from that pattern and fired Mark Helfrich.
Helfrich succeeded Chip Kelly and looked like a worthy replacement for two seasons. He took the Ducks to a bowl win and a top-ten finish in the polls in 2013 then followed up his debut season with a National Championship game loss in 2014. His 9-4 campaign in 2015 was decent enough, but cracks were starting to appear. Oregon’s defense, which was consistently one of the best in the Pac-12 under Kelly, fell off to the bottom third of all FBS schools, per Football Outsiders.
Helfrich has always been an offensive coach, just like Kelly, but once he started recruiting for himself and putting together his own defenses, the team tanked. Longtime defensive coordinator Nick Alioti retired in 2013, and the unit started regressing immediately. This year, Oregon went 4-8, gave up over 50 points four times in conference play, and now ranks as the third-worst defense in FBS per those same Football Outsiders rankings.
But Helfrich didn’t just have trouble with the defense. The Ducks were led by Marcus Mariota when Helfrich took over, and after Mariota left, he was replaced by an FCS transfer in 2015. An underprepared freshman and a (worse) FCS transfer replaced him in 2016. Oregon never recruited like the perennial top-ten ranked team played like (according to Scout’s recruiting rankings, Helfrich didn’t recruit much worse than Kelly, even if he struggled to get quarterbacks and lost in-state tussles) but Helfrich apparently was not the same mad scientist that Kelly was.
His 37-16 record is more than respectable, Oregon simply conceives of itself as an elite program that expects Pac-12 titles and playoff appearances. It’s hard to judge Helfrich in a vacuum because of the long shadows that Chip Kelly and Phil Knight cast. Kelly shifted Oregon’s paradigm, and Knight has the money and power to try and make it permanent. He was reportedly okay with paying $10 million per year for a coach, a hypothetical salary figure which would be the highest in the nation. If they wanted to and avoid the bog of unpredictable Pac-12 mediocrity, and it’s clear they didn’t, Helfrich was not their guy.
Sometimes a firing can set back a program and undo precious continuity. However, Helfrich is somewhat of an anachronism for a team that’s trying to stabilize in a different era. No program wants to eat a huge buyout or have to desperately assuage recruits, but a team that thinks it should be among the nation’s elite shouldn’t be content with across-the-board regression and huge in-conference blowouts, especially if it has a golden goose to take the financial sting out of things.