Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich knew the comparisons would be inevitable – how do you replace arguably the most successful football coach in school history? His answer was simple – by being Mark Helfrich.
There is no question the formula has proven to be widely successful. In guiding the Ducks to a first-year mark of 11-2 and a 30-7 Alamo Bowl triumph over Texas in 2013, the number of wins equaled three others for the conference record for success by a rookie head coach as well as surpassed his predecessor Chip Kelly’s previous Oregon pinnacle for most wins by a first-year mentor. In addition, Helfrich joined Ducks’ alum John Robinson as the league’s only other coach to win a bowl games in his inaugural season (USC in 1976).
But 2014 resulted in an entirely different standard of success. While becoming only the school’s second football coach ever to lead the program to a National Championship appearance, he guided Oregon to more single-season victories (13) than any other school in conference history. In the process he elevated his Pac-12 record to 15-3, avenged his only regular-season loss of the year to Arizona with a convincing 51-13 win in the conference championship game, handed defending national champion Florida State its only setback in two seasons, and benefitted from the play of the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner ever.
Only one other squad in school history had ever won as many as 11 football games in a single season (2001) prior to his arrival as offensive coordinator in 2009 – Helfrich now has been a part of five teams to do so – three as an Oregon assistant (2010, 2011, 2012) and two others in a head coaching capacity.
Stability of the Oregon football program has certainly played a major role in the continued success of an operation that has won more games (147-45) than any of its conference counterparts since the turn of the century. Six of the assistant coaches who have played key roles in the program’s quartet of conference championships in the past six years remain, as do three of the assistants who have called Eugene home for more than two decades. But Helfrich has certainly put his own stamp on the school’s success. Only one other football head coach in conference history (Pappy Waldorf, California, 26-2, 1947-49) has won more games in his first 28 outings than the Southern Oregon native.
Following last season, the Ducks’ former graduate assistant coach (1997) was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach-of-the-Year Award as well as the Maxwell Football Club Coach-of-the-Year honors.
He helped orchestrate the continuation of the program’s offensive firepower a year ago as the Ducks led the league in total offense (3rd in the country) for the fifth year in a row, in scoring offense (4th in the nation) for the eighth straight season, and in rushing (20th nationally) for the ninth time in many years.
Under Helfrich’s tutelage, Oregon eclipsed no fewer than 20 team and individual season records in 2014 while equaling or surpassing more than 35 single-game and season individual and team standards over the course of his two-year heading coaching tenure.
The 41-year-old Helfrich was appointed the school’s 32nd head football coach on Jan. 20, 2013, following a quartet of seasons as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the program’s most prolific era in school history. Oregon tallied a 46-7 ledger and four BCS bowl appearances from 2009-12.
He had accumulated three seasons as an offensive coordinator and 11 years coaching quarterbacks prior to his return to Eugene.
The first native Oregonian to head the university’s football program in 71 years was named the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach following three seasons in the same capacity at Colorado (2006-08), five years as quarterbacks coach at Arizona State (2001-05) - which included his final three campaigns in Tempe, Ariz., as passing game coordinator - and three seasons as quarterbacks coach at Boise State (1998-2000).
It didn’t take long for Helfrich to be recognized for his impact on the Ducks’ offensive success as he was named by FootballScoop as its National Quarterbacks Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2012, in addition to being one of three finalists as its national offensive coordinator of the year honor.
He played a significant role in the development of Darron Thomas, who went on to lead Oregon to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game as a first-year starter, as well as the 2012 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Thomas became the school’s first signal-caller ever to complete more than 30 touchdowns in a single season on two separate occasions, finishing his collegiate career with a school-record 66 scoring strikes.
Helfrich then tutored Pac-12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and three-time first-team all-conference choice Marcus Mariota, who not only quarterbacked the Ducks to a 35-17 win over Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl but became the circuit’s first freshman to earn first-team all-league honors since 1989. Mariota completed his first collegiate season throwing for a freshman school and conference record 32 TDs, and found himself two scoring passes short of Oregon’ s one-season ledger.
But that was only the beginning as Mariota completed his collegiate career as the Ducks’ third unanimous first-team All-American in school history as well as their first Heisman Trophy winner ever. He proceeded to become the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and the most decorated football player in the program’s annals.
Over the course of his last 15 seasons, Helfrich has played a role with offenses that have ranked among the nation’s top-eight teams in scoring offense eight times, the upper seven contingents in passing efficiency in five instances, the top six in rushing on four occasions, and the elite five in total offense six times.
Mariota established the Ducks’ freshman record for passing efficiency in 2012 (163.23), finishing seventh in the country as the Pac-12’s leader in each of his first two seasons (167.7 in 2013), while Thomas was 11th nationally in 2011 and second in the league in 2010. The Hawaiian junior became the second Helfrich-coached quarterback to lead the country in passing efficiency in 2014, joining Arizona State’s Rudy Carpenter, who led the nation in passing efficiency in 2005 after the Sun Devils’ Andrew Walter was second in the Pac-10 in total offense and third in passing efficiency in 2004.
Walter completed 2002 third in the conference in total offense and passing efficiency while Jeff Krohn led the league in passing efficiency in 2001.
Walter set Arizona State records for both career (85) and single-season touchdowns (30) in addition to shattering the previous Pac-10 record for career TD passes, previously set by Stanford’s John Elway (77). The third-round NFL draft pick finished his collegiate career as the school’s career record holder in nearly every passing category.
Ranking as the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation at a BCS school at Colorado in 2006, Helfrich’s offenses were marked by improvement each of his first two seasons in Boulder.
During his five-year Arizona State stint, the program blossomed into one of the top passing teams in the country. In his final season there, the Sun Devils finished third in the NCAA and led the Pac-10 in passing yards per game (373.9 avg.) as well as second in the country in passing efficiency. ASU posted a school-record 4,481 yards passing that season to elevate its five-year total to 18,686 yards (306.3 avg.).
While at Boise State, Helfrich tutored one of school’s all-time greats in Bart Hendricks, the 1999 and 2000 Big West Conference Player of the Year. In 2000, the Broncos led the country in scoring (44.9 ppg) and passing efficiency (168.9) while finishing fifth in passing offense (321.6 avg.).
Born in Medford, Ore., the 1992 Marshfield (Coos Bay) High School graduate turned down an opportunity to walk on at Oregon in favor of attending Southern Oregon University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1996. The NAIA Scholar-Athlete (1993) led the nation in total offense while earning NAIA honorable mention All-America accolades and first-team Columbia Football Association honors as a senior. That season, he accumulated single-season school records in passing yards (2,712), total offense (3,196) and touchdown passes (23), topping the 400-yard mark in single-game total offense three times.
He was inducted into his alma mater’s Athletics Hall of Fame in the fall of 2012.
He began his coaching career as running backs coach at his alma mater in 1996 before playing and coaching (offensive coordinator) in Europe with the Vienna (Austria) Vikings in the winter of 1997.
Mark and his wife, Megan, are the parents of one son, Max (8), and one daughter, Maggie (4).