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Despite Ducks’ Win at UCLA, Helfrich Still Needs To Prove Himself

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Coach Mark Helfrich, via Wikimedia Commons

Oregon’s huge rebound road win last week at UCLA bought coach Mark Helfrich … another week to prove he is the man for the Ducks job.  

Unfair? Sure. Heading into this Saturday’s home game against Washington, the Ducks are 16-3 under Helfrich in his first season and a half. Project that 16-3 out in an admittedly imperfect effort to gauge Helfrich’s record against predecessor Chip Kelly’s 46-7 record, and Helfrich’s 48-9 would compare favorably.

And of course for those fans whose memories and loyalties stretch back to the dismal 1970s when Norval “The Sitting Duck” Turner played quarterback and Washington regularly beat Oregon like a conga drum, a 48-9 record would in those days gone by have caused unbridled celebration.

But Ducks fans – both those oldtimers and those who jumped on the bandwagon for the groundbreaking Kelly years  – have new and irreversible expectations. And like Kelly’s hurry-up offense, those expectations have a momentum of their own that Helfrich must maintain.

A win is not enough 

Helfrich has yet to prove that ability.

Yes, the Pac-12 is tougher now than when Kelly started his run of Rose Bowl, national championship game, Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. And yes, the Ducks’ offensive line has suffered serious injuries this season.

But Helfrich inherited a program that prided itself on its “Win the day,” “no-whining”  mystique and that has three first-day draft picks in quarterback Marcus Mariota, cornerback Ifo Expre-Olumu  and center Hroniss Grasu. Like a millionaire who inherits their millions, it’s not enough to say “I’m still a millionaire.” The question is how are you building on your inheritance?

Going 11-2 last season with a second-tier bowl victory didn’t build on the inheritance. And last week’s win against UCLA only means Helfrich’s Ducks must beat Washington and continue to get back in the national playoff picture.

We’ll say it again – it’s not fair or reasonable. But that’s the way it is. 

Just as easily as the Ducks mystique came to life under Kelly, an 8-4 or 9-3 season this year could send it into a spiral. Doubters only need look at the recent history of this week’s Oregon opponent to remember how even the mighty can collapse.

Demise of the Huskies 

In 2000, Washington capped an 11-1 season with a Rose Bowl win. Then despite a much longer tradition of winning football than Oregon has amassed in the past two decades (not to mention beating Oregon 17 out of 20 times from 1974 through 1993 and winning a national championship), the Huskies fell to 8-4 in 2001 and completely collapsed three years later to 1-10. The slide of this once-powerhouse program bottomed out in a winless season in 2008.

And now more than a decade after the Huskies’ demise began, Washington --  with a stadium larger than Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, equally well-heeled donors (with the notable exception of Phil Knight) and rich football history – is still struggling for relevance in the national college football discussion, not to mention the fact that Oregon has beaten Washington 10 straight times.

So what would Helfrich need to do to breathe easily? A victory this week over Washington would be a good start. That would buy him another week, followed by another week, followed by another week.

Nobody said Helfrich’s life would be easy or fair.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

Banner Photo Credit: James Wellington via Compfight cc


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