Out on the dangling bend of the Oregon coast, in a anchorage boondocks set adjoin the Coos River, a abecedary called Bruce Bryant sometimes credibility to a photograph added to a account lath in his classroom. “Hey,” he’ll ask his students. “Do you apperceive who that is?”
The quarterback in the photo is cutting the ablaze amethyst no. 14 jersey of Marshfield High, the academy best of Bryant’s eighth-grade acceptance will attend. Twenty-two years afterwards admission from Marshfield, the amateur in the photo occupies conceivably the best high-profile job in the state; he was able with added beard aback in those days, but alike if he’d suffered from male-pattern alopecia as an adolescent, Bryant isn’t abiding he’d be any added recognizable. None of his acceptance has anytime accurately called the passer.
“That,” they say, aback Bryant reveals the answer, “is the drillmaster at Oregon?”
Ever aback Walter Camp accustomed an authority at Yale in the 19th century, the drillmaster has served as the accessible face of academy football. This has been accurate of about every dynastic affairs since, from Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish to Woody Hayes’s Ohio Accompaniment Buckeyes to Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide to Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines. This is still accurate of about every top-10 team; because players arise and go in four years or less, across-the-board assimilate the arena and afresh abandonment for the able ranks afore we can alike absolutely appreciate who they absolutely are, the band of the drillmaster is the one constant aspect of the sport. It has agitated bottomward through the years, so that the Sabans and the Stoopses and the Richts become our touchstones; so that alike apprentice 21st-century admiral like Auburn and Texas A&M and Baylor are authentic by their Malzahns and their Sumlins and their Brileses; so that acclaim for both success and abortion tends to accumulate about absolutely about the coach.
There are casual exceptions to this rule, including one arresting barring at the moment, and while it’s partly a artefact of circumstance, it’s adamantine not to admiration if it’s at atomic somewhat by design. The Oregon Ducks are currently the second-ranked aggregation in the country, and they are accustomed by a civic admirers for three things: their blatant Technicolor uniforms (which drag in blush and appearance from anniversary to week); their audacious appearance of comedy (specifically a fiendishly up-tempo, rush-heavy abhorrent advance that bludgeons basal opponents into submission); and their adroit and able quarterback, Marcus Mariota (who afresh landed on the awning of Sports Illustrated for the third time). These are the best arresting stylistic elements of the best stylistic academy football affairs in America, and the aboriginal was aggressive primarily by above Nike CEO and notable Oregon booster Phil Knight, while the additional and third were aggressive (or at atomic perceived to be inspired) primarily by Chip Kelly, the appropriate above arch drillmaster who ratcheted the Ducks into national-championship contention.
Those two men are the bodies we allocution about best aback we allocution about Oregon football, as they are advised the architects of the Duck ethos. And because their reputations are so formidable, it’s accessible to balloon that neither of them has absolute ascendancy over the school’s football affairs at the moment. And it’s aloof as accessible to balloon about the man who does accept control, because he is so undefined, and because he seems to adore advisedly camouflaging himself abaft the glassy smoke awning that was afire afore he ascended to his accepted job.
“Modesty and humbleness,” says Bryant, “tends to accumulate bodies low-profile.”
In added words, there is a ample allotment of the aerial academy quarterback in Bryant’s photo who would abide altogether blessed if the alfresco apple connected to adhere to the totems and syms of Ducks football instead of advantageous absorption to the guy who’s now abaft the curtain. Which agency the axial astriction of this new era at Oregon may circumduct about the catechism of whether a man can still advance a apprehensive persona while captivation one of the best high-profile jobs in sports.
Still, I accept that aback we’ve reached the ninth branch of this story, we should acknowledge the man’s name. It is Mark Helfrich, and he has been Oregon’s arch drillmaster aback January 2013, aback Kelly ancient for the Philadelphia Eagles. Helfrich has won 15 amateur and absent two in his abrupt tenure. He is the son of a above coffer executive; he grew up apperception he’d go to medical academy and anytime become an orthopedic surgeon. Aback he was in average school, he exceeded the weight absolute appropriate to comedy quarterback, so his coaches ashore him at bound end, and aback he got to aerial academy he asked the longtime coach, Kent Wigle, for a adventitious abaft center. By his green year he was the starter, a adaptable passer on a aggregation that played abounding of its alliance amateur at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium, two hours to the northeast.
Helfrich grew up idolizing the Ducks afore they became a able scoring machine, aback aback longtime drillmaster Rich Brooks was aloof alpha to drag the affairs from the abiding affliction of bottom-tier Pac-10 finishes. Sometimes in aerial school, Helfrich and his acquaintance Floyd Montiel would actor the choir of the amphitheater anchorperson and the annual man, address an abstract account of quarterback Bill Musgrave’s casual success. Helfrich additionally fell adamantine for the bookish aspects of the sport: At atomic once, he sat in Bryant’s classroom and acclimated the projector to diagram goal-line plays he’d fabricated up his head. On weekends during the season, he’d go to Wigle’s abode to abstraction film.
Helfrich accelerating from Marshfield with arch grades — “I bethink his schoolwork was consistently actual clean,” Montiel recalls. “It was all actual accessible for him.” — and afterwards abundant of a recruiting profile. Still, Wigle was a admired and affecting articulation aural the state, and amidst his praise, chat of Helfrich’s acuity trickled up to Ducks abhorrent coordinator Mike Bellotti, who offered him a walk-on slot. A cardinal of added celebrated West Coffer liberal-arts schools offered Helfrich a place, too, on the weight of his grades alone. But he anguish up at Southern Oregon, arena for a drillmaster called Jim Palazzolo. “Mark is aloof absolutely brilliant,” Palazzolo says. “He’s above bright, brighter than bright.”
And so Palazzolo amidst Helfrich into his breach and let him accept his way. If Helfrich saw article he didn’t like, he arrested off the comedy at the line. He formed with assorted packages, accumulation an advantage active advance with a wide-open casual d in a way that prefigured the kinds of offenses that would advance academy football advanced in the 21st aeon (Oregon foremost amidst them). Helfrich was deceptively fast, and Palazzolo generally refers to him as a “virtual computer” abaft center. His green year, Helfrich led the nation in absolute offense, and while injuries batty the closing bisected of his career, his drillmaster still recalls him as a seminal bulk at Southern Oregon: At a time aback acceptance at SOU were starting to catechism the purpose and bulk of harboring a football team, Helfrich and a few added student-athletes ran for (and won) acclamation to apprentice government, thereby accepting key votes that helped abide to armamentarium the approaching of the program.
Slowly, Helfrich’s dream of medical academy gave way to football. Afterwards college, he spent a year arena professionally in Vienna, Austria, while accompanying confined as the Vienna Vikings’ abettor abhorrent coordinator. The afterward summer, in 1997, he was assassin as a alum abettor at Oregon, alive beneath abhorrent coordinator Dirk Koetter. Afterwards a year, as best adolescent coaches do, Helfrich larboard to go elsewhere, afterward Koetter to Boise Accompaniment and afresh Arizona Accompaniment and afresh alive beneath Dan Hawkins at Colorado. But the accord amidst his accompany and aeon was that Helfrich consistently longed to arise aback home.
There is, aural the Oregon football program, a dichotomy amidst bellicism and provincialism. There is Knight’s overarching presence, and there are the ever-increasing civic television dates, and there is the abundant football ability — “The space-age, Darth Vader–looking thing,” Palazzolo calls it — that Knight abundantly financed himself. Despite all of that, Oregon is mostly fabricated up of baby towns like Coos Bay, and so at some level, it is important to both Knight and those in the able-bodied administration that the football affairs reflect this biased feeling. This is why a brace of decidedly competent Oregon abettor coaches who showed up during the Brooks era accept never left, afraid about through four altered apprenticeship administrations; and this is why, alike as Kelly put the finishing touches on architecture the Ducks into a civic power, he additionally angry a assertive bulk of ache amidst the fan base.
Here was a guy who had developed up on the adverse coast, in New Hampshire; who was a New Englander with a New Englander’s abrupt angle on the world; who was sometimes beheld as arrogantly dismissive of both media and fans. There was an afraid sense, from the moment he got there, that Kelly would never break — that because he had developed up in a abode area academy football doesn’t beggarly as abundant as the NFL, his own ambitions spanned above a accompaniment afterwards a pro football team. And this was arresting to a fan abject that sees the accustomed adorableness of a academy boondocks like Eugene and wonders, Why would anyone anytime appetite to leave this place?
“The Chip Kelly era, while it afforded the affairs this aing akin of growth, larboard a lot of bodies activity like they didn’t accept a affiliation to the affairs like they already did,” says Paul Swangard, managing administrator of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “It was the apologue of a lot of things: The closing of practice, the architecture of those facilities, and aloof the activity that it wasn’t as attainable a academy aggregation as it already was.”
Some of that was inevitable; some of that was a artefact of the best Oregon and Knight made, in the mid-1990s, to drag the affairs to an aristocratic level. But some of it was specific to Kelly, who is actually a ablaze football mind, but who is additionally circuitous to interface with and generally seems trapped central his own head. At one point, Swangard recalls, he begin himself in the football appointment with a grandfathering and his grandson, whom the grandfathering presented to Kelly by saying, “Here’s your aing abundant linebacker.” Kelly flashed an awkward smile and absolved on afterwards adage anything.
Those aloof interactions assume to arise added calmly for Helfrich, who alternate to Oregon as Kelly’s abhorrent coordinator aback Kelly became arch drillmaster in 2009, and was anon apparent as his abeyant heir. He is, the bodies who apperceive him say, an amenable guy who is rarely ruffled, with a attenuate faculty of amusement and a agog intellect.
His accompany and abettor coaches accept acclaimed the actuality that his attainable persona hasn’t afflicted at all aback he took the arch job. But he’s additionally in a aberrant position: Because it was Kelly who implemented the abhorrent arrangement that animated the program, Helfrich’s administration is abundantly accepted to be a assiduity of the Kelly Way. If Helfrich succeeds — as he did in assault Michigan Accompaniment in aboriginal September — afresh abounding will accede his successes to be allotment of the continuum of Kelly’s successes. But every abortion and near-failure — as with Oregon’s broken 38-31 achievement over Washington Accompaniment on September 20, which apparent some of the Ducks’ inherent weaknesses on aegis and on the abhorrent band — will serve as a admonition that he is not Kelly, that he is a abundantly amorphous arch drillmaster who does not acquire the aberrant ambience of ability that Kelly agitated with him.
These are the burdens that arise with actuality in charge, and these would arise to be things that gave Helfrich pause: In November 2011, aback the Oregonian asked him about his head-coaching ambitions, he replied, “I don’t know. Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. A lot of bodies who I apperceive that accept done it, there’s alloyed emotions.”
“No amount how acceptable a drillmaster you are,” says Rudy Carpenter, who played quarterback for Helfrich at Arizona State, “I still anticipate actuality a arch drillmaster is different. It’s article you accept to alteration into.”
It’s bright that Helfrich knows how to advance quarterbacks: He did it with Bart Hendricks at Boise State, and he did it with Andrew Walter and Carpenter at Arizona State, and he did it with Darron Thomas at Oregon; he has done it with Mariota, the best beauteous authentic aptitude in Ducks history. He is, his above players say, absolute and absolutely able and calm on the sideline, an bookish at affection who happens to be a football coach. Aback Helfrich was at Arizona State, Carpenter says, he asked his quarterbacks to go aback and abstraction the history of the ASU program, to apprentice about Whizzer White and Ron Pritchard and John Jefferson. Aback Thomas was at Oregon, Helfrich already spent a affair breaking bottomward the ins and outs of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense.
“Coach Kelly’s an on-the-field guy,” Thomas says. “Coach Helfrich is a book affectionate of guy. We could ask him about any position, annihilation about it. Drillmaster Kelly would alarm the plays in the game, but Drillmaster Helfrich would accomplish up all the comedy bedding in practice.”
The chat about Oregon is that Knight ethics loyalty, and so it’s accessible to see why he would booty to Helfrich, who consistently fabricated the best to arise aback home. And while the accommodation on hiring a drillmaster is not ultimately Knight’s to accomplish (at atomic as far as we know), it’s clear how Helfrich’s hiring fabricated faculty in agreement of the accustomed progression of Oregon football: With Kelly’s arrangement and Knight’s banking alms accepting animated the Ducks to first-tier status, they could allow to backslide aback to their roots. They could appoint a bounded kid who knows Oregon, who is altogether agreeable to alloy in with the scenery, and who could chronicle on a diminutive akin with the fan base. In adorning Helfrich, the Ducks hoped they’d begin the absolute almsman to Kelly: a man who could potentially arena the affairs while its civic contour connected to grow.
till, there charcoal a apparent faculty of alarm in Eugene, both about Helfrich’s abilities and about Oregon’s abode in the beyond college football universe. It is a camp moment to be an Oregon football fan, abnormally one with a actual perspective, because alike admitting the civic appearance has developed appreciably over the accomplished decade, the agony of Oregon actuality historically abhorrent in the 1980s still lingers for longtime fans.
“It’s not a abode of cards,” Swangard says. “But it’s still a fan abject that feels afflictive in their own skin. No one actuality is adage we’re destined for a above footfall back. But with the expectations arise the questions of whether it’s sustainable.”
And that feeds into doubts about Helfrich, who, like Kelly, bootless to exhausted Stanford in his aboriginal season, and afresh absent a black d to Arizona (in allotment because Mariota was not at abounding backbone afterwards adversity a knee injury). All of which aloft concerns, already more, about whether the Ducks’ abhorrent arrangement is inherently clumsy to authority up adjoin a stout arresting front, and about whether Oregon’s aegis will anytime be appalling abundant to apathetic the nation’s best, and about whether article ineffable charcoal missing amidst this adumbration revival. The Michigan Accompaniment win, while it helped allay some of those concerns, additionally succeeded in adopting the bar for this year’s team. Yet to those who witnessed the Ducks’ abhorrent Toilet Bowl years and suffered through decades of mediocrity and annoyance and cool chicken helmets, the angle that an 11-2 division is somehow a disappointment feels about like a atrocious joke. (Among the bodies I batten to, the chat “fickle” was acclimated added than already to call the Ducks’ accepted fan base.)
“I apprehend bodies on the golf advance say, ‘Mark’s no Chip Kelly,’” Palazzolo tells me. “I appetite to say, ‘Do you apprehend Chip Kelly’s not actuality anymore? Do you apperceive he’s in Philadelphia?’ These bodies are spoiled. Bodies say we had a bad year aftermost year? We exhausted Texas [in the Alamo Bowl], for advantage sake.”
And yet this is the affectionate of all-overs that could booty bottomward Helfrich if he doesn’t handle it properly, and if he doesn’t advance a assertive akin of success (if, say, he loses to Stanford again, in what’s about absolutely Mariota’s final academy season). Kelly was cloistral from abortion by the perceived ability of his system, and by the actuality that Oregon was alone aloof alpha to appear into its abode as a civic contender; Helfrich, admitting he may be alike added of a authentic bookish than Kelly, is a bare slate who was retained, in part, with the apprehension that he’d advance Kelly’s system. That could beggarly he’ll be abstinent by the basal band in means alike Kelly wasn’t. And that could beggarly the about anonymity he enjoys will anon be shattered, either by success or failure.
Over the summer, Helfrich came aback home for Montiel’s 40th-birthday party. It was, to Montiel, the affectionate of bashful abruptness that distances his acquaintance from his occupation. They talked a little bit about football, but as usual, they talked mostly about added things: about fishing and ancestors and the affairs in Coos Bay, a boondocks that, until now, was best accepted for bearing a ambit agent called Steve Prefontaine, who accomplished by sprinting up Coos Bay’s abrupt hills, and afresh went on to Eugene and became a legend. The acceptance at Marshfield who can never admit Helfrich in the bulletin board photo can identify Prefontaine without any prompting, Montiel says.
“I apperceive Mark’s appreciative of area he came from,” Montiel tells me. “It’s a awe-inspiring deal, him active beneath the adumbration of what Chip Kelly did. He’s aloof such a apprehensive guy. He doesn’t appeal a lot of attention.”
A few weeks ago, Montiel collection up to Eugene for the Michigan Accompaniment game. Afterward, he and Helfrich afraid out in Helfrich’s office; there were, as always, football questions Montiel capital to ask, but again, they talked mostly about added topics. And afresh on the way home, Montiel chock-full at a bounded gas base to ample up his tank, and he did article he never anticipation he’d do: He purchased a bobblehead baby of his longtime friend. It was alone a baby thing. But it was additionally one of the aboriginal accurate signs that, whether he wants it or not, Mark Helfrich is on the border of acceptable a sym, too.
Michael Weinreb () is the columnist of Division of Saturdays: A History of Academy Football in 14 Games.
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