By Rob Moseley
The 32nd head coach in Oregon football history exited the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex into a bright sun Saturday morning, the pageantry of an Autzen Stadium game day crescendoing around him.
It might have been a moment for Mark Helfrich to pause and reflect. To take a deep breath, and recall the journey that brought him to this moment.
His roots in Coos Bay (acknowledged with a photo of Steve Prefontaine on the offense’s laminated play sheet). The dad who helped teach him the game (remembered with a photo Helfrich taped to a schedule for the day). The playing career at Southern Oregon University, and in Europe. Earlier coaching stops, and the men there who mentored him.
In short, it might have been a chance for Helfrich to soak up the historic moment when he first took the field as CEO of Oregon football. Instead, he started barking orders.
“Five lines,” Helfrich said to the defensive backs milling around in front of him, preparing to walk the few yards from the H-D complex to Autzen.
A couple of shirt tails then caught his attention. “Everybody tuck in,” Helfrich added.
If there would be time to reflect, it would have to come later. There were too many details for Helfrich to consider as the No. 3 Ducks prepared to face Nicholls on Saturday in his head coaching debut.
“There’s so much stuff, you don’t really have time for that,” Helfrich said later, as he leaned against a wall outside Oregon’s locker room following the Ducks’ 66-3 victory. “Maybe on a vacation or something, you take a couple minutes to kind of go, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ But then you’re on to something else – somebody missed a class or something.”
Helfrich’s attention to detail was on display throughout the week leading up to Saturday’s 2013 season opener.
At practice Wednesday, the day ended with the Ducks going through their pre-practice stretch again; Helfrich had been unimpressed with their precision to start the morning. On Friday, his talk in the post-practice huddle included mention of an ejection for targeting in a college game played the night before, making the ejection of Oregon’s Terrance Mitchell on Saturday all the more disappointing.
“He, like the rest of us, is just consumed by getting these guys ready to play,” said UO tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Tom Osborne, whose career has intersected with Helfrich’s at three different stops over the years. “I mean, it’s still hard for us to realize we went to the Rose Bowl, because we went right out recruiting.”
That’s not to say, however, that Helfrich has let the job change him.
After a recent meeting, Osborne said, Helfrich lingered a moment to pick up water bottles that had been left behind. Saturday morning, as the Ducks left the H-D Complex for their “March to Victory,” the guy standing at the building entrance, holding the doors as the players exited, was their unassuming head coach. He shook hands with security staff before the game, and some Nicholls players on the field afterward.
One more anecdote: During lunch Friday in the facility’s dining hall, a support staff member was seated at a table chatting with co-workers. As Helfrich walked by, the staffer said hello. Oregon’s head football coach, a guy making around $2 million annually, stopped and smiled … then leaned down, picked up the empty tray from in front of the staff member and walked off.
“I’m totally confused why you did that,” the staffer said later with bewilderment.
“Well, you were done, weren’t you?” Helfrich said.
Typical, according to Osborne.
“Some guys, they switch the switch, they’re the head coach and their personality changes,” Osborne said. “Mark has done a very good job. Mark’s still Mark. He hasn’t changed.
“Now, we haven’t lost a game, either. So you don’t know how that’s going to affect him. And we haven’t won a lot; sometimes that can change people. But I haven’t seen that yet.”
An Oregon kid from a football background who grew up cheering for the Ducks – in some ways, it seems Mark Helfrich was made for this job. Maybe that’s why he seemed so comfortable the week of his debut as head coach.
“He just been so confident, so calm,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “It’s like he’s been doing this for 20 years.”
Helfrich had the confidence and conviction to put his own stamp on elements of the program, if subtly, despite what was most certainly a winning formula under predecessor Chip Kelly.
In Friday night’s team meeting, Helfrich – a scholar who one dreamed of being a doctor – gave a talk that hit on elements of history (Henry V), sociology (Jackie Robinson) and poetry (Shakespeare).
When the Ducks took the field to the roar of the Autzen Stadium crowd Saturday, bursting from the tunnel in the west end zone, the torrent of men flooding the field notably lacked one face – Helfrich. Unlike Kelly, Helfrich lingered at the tunnel’s mouth as team leaders led the Ducks onto the field. Once everyone had rushed past, Helfrich unassumingly lowered his head and strolled to the sideline.
“Any time things are player-driven, they’re better,” he said later.
“And,” he added, “I think it looks cool.”
Over the course of the game, there was indeed one moment when Helfrich mentally stepped out of the coaching bubble and soaked in the atmosphere. But even then, it wasn’t to reflect on the monumental occasion of his first game as UO head coach.
It happened between the third and fourth quarters, during the traditional playing of “Shout” on the stadium video board.
“I was looking around going, ‘It would be fun to be a fan right now,’” Helfrich said. “But not in terms of me, no.”
Ultimately, there was one time Helfrich wasn’t able to ignore the weight of the occasion. In the locker room after the game, quarterback Marcus Mariota stepped through a mass of teammates, stood on a couch to reach Helfrich and handed him the game ball.
“You want to give a head coach something memorable,” Mariota said. “I think that was the right way to do it.”
For all the time Helfrich had blocked out the little piece of history he was making, for himself and the program, here finally was a moment in the spotlight.
The Ducks pressed forward around their new head coach in the locker room, yelling out.
“Speech, speech!” they shouted with rising volume.
Suddenly they went quiet, as Helfrich indicated he had something to say. Perhaps he’d finally embrace the emotion of the moment, acknowledge the accomplishment.
Finally, he spoke.
“Chief,” Helfrich yelled to Oregon’s head athletic trainer, Kevin Steil. “What time’s treatment tomorrow?”