— Sam Finley, Sports Editor EDN
Two years ago Mark Helfrich came home. The Coos Bay native jumped at the chance in 2009 to become Oregon’s offensive coordinator, and he’s enjoyed every minute of it.
“It’s been great to be around family and friends,” said Helfrich. “I’ve also liked being around the coaches who have been on staff for a lot of years because I’ve known a lot of those guys for a long time. Getting to work with them again has been awesome.”
This isn’t Helfrich’s first coaching stint in Eugene. In 1997, he was a graduate assistant under Mike Bellotti. While he wasn’t sure that the Ducks would reach their current great heights, he did see the possibilities.
“You honestly never know,” he claimed about the program’s success. “Washington was really good back then and USC was kind of up and down. But I think everyone always saw the potential here. Obviously, the influx and the support that we’ve had has been awesome, and the resulting fan support has been huge. So as a coach, you always try to create that vision.”
Of course, he also has the added perspective of having come to Oregon games as a kid. The differences between Autzen now and then are like night and day.
“I remember the days when you could play full-field football games outside Autzen,” Helfrich explained. “None of the current facilities around here existed, and it was all gravel parking lots. So people would literally play full-field games before kickoff. You couldn’t do that now.”
Helfrich will take the changes, especially at a time when Oregon has made unprecedented strides on the football field. Provided the Ducks win the Pac-12 Championship on Friday, they will make their second Rose Bowl appearance in the past three years (as well as their third consecutive trip to a BCS Bowl).
Even though he’s had an influential role in shaping one of the nation’s best offenses, his head coach, Chip Kelly, seems to get most of the credit. Helfrich isn’t bothered by not getting the accolades; he believes that he’s merely part of a collective effort.
“I think we all work together really well as coaches,” he said with a smile. “First and foremost, the players should get all the credit. Our entire coaching staff works together great, and obviously, winning is part of the lubrication to make that stuff work. But nobody around here cares who gets the credit.”
Moreover, Helfrich is having fun drawing up schemes for a high octane attack every week.
“We want to score,” laughed Helfrich about his offensive philosophy. “Whatever it takes, that’s our goal. Whether that means running the ball 99 times or throwing it 99 times, we’re going to try and score.”
And whether it is by running or throwing, Helfrich’s peers have been happy with his performance.
“Mark has done a great job,” said Kelly. “We brought him in a couple years ago when I became the head coach. I wanted a guy who could add something to our staff, and he’s done an unbelievable job for us.”
“He’s been outstanding,” explained defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “I mean think about our offense. They’re towards the top in scoring, total offense, and rushing. I always kid when I say this, but I seriously believe we play our best defense when our offense is on the field.”
Helfrich also clearly earns the utmost respect from his players.
“His play-calling during games is great,” said senior tight end David Paulson. “But he’s also really good in how he prepares us during the week. We’re definitely prepared for every team we go up against. Everything a defense throws at us is stuff we’ve seen in practice, so we’re ready for it.”
But Helfrich’s biggest fans probably come his immediate household.
“My wife and kids are awesome,” Helfrich said. “We have a son (Max) that’s almost 5, and our daughter, Maggie, is almost 2. My wife (Megan) has been incredibly supportive, and during the busy football season I know it’s tough on her with me not being around as much as I would like to be. But for most of the coaches who have that support, it’s great.”
Helfrich particularly likes being back in his native state after years of being away. When he ended his college career as a quarterback at Southern Oregon University in 1996, Helfrich came to Eugene for one year. But then, he spent a couple seasons as the quarterbacks’ coach at Boise State. A five-year stint at Arizona State followed that gig. Before returning to Oregon, Helfrich was the offensive coordinator at Colorado from 2006-2008.
“I’ve like having my kids close to other family members,” he said. “I’ve been a bit further east, for several years, from my home state. I was a Duck fan growing up, and my parents and my brother went to school here. There’s a lot of connections that way and that makes it special.”
As for his future plans, Helfrich is simply focused on getting prepared for a big game against UCLA.
“I want to have a great practice tomorrow and have a great performance on Friday night,” chuckled Helfrich.
The Ducks will need a great performance against the Bruins in order to assure themselves a trip to Pasadena. With that in mind, Helfrich has been encouraged by the way the team has prepared during a short week and he feels they’re up for the challenge.
“We just had an awesome practice today,” he said. “It was probably the best we’ve practiced all year. I think our guys get that formula and want to do that again. They want to have another couple great days of preparation, focus on the task at hand, and that’s all it really can be.”