Message for those fretting over the status of Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich: Chill out!
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens spent today working with the College Football Playoff selection committee in Texas while in the state of Oregon people who care about Ducks football were flipping out.
Fans, boosters and media are demanding immediate gratification and answers regarding Helfrich’s job status coming off of a 4-8 season, the program’s first losing record since 2004.
The problem for the impatient is that Mullens isn’t on their timetable. He’s on his.
Mullens is scheduled to return to Eugene on Tuesday. He could meet with Helfrich as soon as then, or later in the week.
Clearly, despite numerous reports and speculation, Mullens has not made a decision regarding Helfrich’s status. If Mullens had already decided to fire Helfrich it would have made much more sense to do so on Sunday following UO’s 34-24 loss at Oregon State in the Civil War, and before the head coach and the rest of the coaching staff had headed out to recruit that same day.
Firing the staff while it is scattered around the country recruiting would be a horrible look for Mullens and Oregon.
It’s difficult to believe Mullens could be that cold to a staff that included coaches who have been at Oregon for up to 33 years.
Even if Mullens were leaning toward firing Helfrich and the staff, but had yet to make a decision, he could have ordered that the group not to head out to recruit.
This week is not paramount to the recruiting cycle. If the team were in the Pac-12 championship game this weekend, the staff wouldn’t be out recruiting. Holding them back for a few days would not have made a bit of difference in recruiting, whereas firing the staff while they are out recruiting could have serious impacts on the current class.
The only logical reason to allow the staff to continue as usual would be if Mullens were leaning toward keeping Helfrich and company.
However, not reassuring Helfrich on Sunday at least means that Mullens has his doubts.
What has to happened during that meeting is Helfrich must convince Mullens that he has a plan to fix the issues that led to such a down turn just two years after the team reached the national championship game.
It’s a very complex decision being made that shouldn’t be rushed.
Here is a look at issues in play for Mullens to consider:
- $15 million price tag: Firing Helfrich would mean paying him an $11.6 million buyout on his five-year contract signed after the 2014 season. A new coach worth hiring is going to cost at least $15 million over five years. So, UO would essentially be paying about $27 million for a head coach over the next five years. That doesn’t include buying out the assistant coaches for about $3.4 million, paying new assistants and potentially paying the buyout to the school employing Oregon’s future new head coach. The idea that NIKE founder Phil Knight, or other big time boosters, are willing to post so much cash to get rid of Helfrich after one bad season doesn’t seem plausible. We shall see.
- Who would Mullens hire to replace Helfrich? It appears that those who want Helfrich gone haven’t thought this part through very clearly. Names have been tossed around with little regard to practicality. The only candidate that might have gotten UO to open up the checkbook and make a move could have been Tom Herman. But he was on the market for only a few hours before Texas hired him away from Houston. Note that he didn’t even give UO a real sniff. There are no other obvious choices out there that are slam-dunk upgrades over Helfrich, especially when factoring in the money involved. This staff has been to two national title games, won two Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl. What head coach and his staff available could boast such a resume? Former LSU coach Les Miles could. Would he go to Oregon? Maybe. Would the Ducks want him? Maybe. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, sources say, is not a viable option. But sources say a Miles-to-Oregon occurrence is not very likely. Beyond him, who else makes sense? Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is a possibility and a hot commodity. But he has been a head coach for just four years and it’s been at Western Michigan of the MAC. There is no guarantee or proven track record to suggest that Fleck would be an obvious upgrade, or ever get Oregon into national title contention. It would be a roll of the dice with, again, a $15 million price tag just to sit at the table. It is possible that in the past few days a search firm has been fleshing out candidates to provide for Mullens as he makes his decision.
- Unchartered territory: Oregon hasn’t fired a head football coach in 40 years. It didn’t fire Rich Brooks after he went 3-8 in 1991 following two 8-4 seasons. UO didn’t fire Mike Bellotti after he went 5-6 in 2004 and didn’t win a bowl game from 2002 through 2006. To pull the trigger now after the program’s first losing season in 12 years and two years removed from a trip to the national championship game appears to be a stretch, and something that should give Mullens great pause.
- What does Oregon want to become? Clearly some fans, boosters and media believe that UO should be a perennial national contender through all eternity since it just had a great six-year run of success. However, that success was due to a great offense that has since been duplicated to death making it less unique to Oregon. That doesn’t mean UO can’t win big again. It simply means that in a deep Pac-12 loaded with other good coaches, the Ducks are going to have their share of ups and downs based on the level of experienced star talent in place during a given year, and how it matches up against the rest of the conference. It will all be cyclical whether anyone wants to admit that or not. Chasing a delusion by beginning a cycle of hiring and firing coaches if they don’t meet unrealistic expectations would send the program down a rabbit hole after something unattainable. Does Mullens want to push the panic button after one bad year and essentially tell the next coach that he had better win the national title soon, and never have a bad season or he would be gone next? That’s the message firing Helfrich now would send to a new coach. The leash is short and we have unrealistic expectations.
- Can Helfrich turn this around? Oregon played this season with a very young but talented team that was hit hard by injuries. There is ample reason to believe that things will turn around in a hurry, especially with freshman quarterback Justin Herbert appearing to be a budding superstar. If Mullens believes this staff, a group he has seen win at a national level, can right the ship then it makes no sense to jettison them. He should take a peak at how TCU has handled Gary Patterson, rumored to have been contacted by Oregon. Patterson took over TCU in 2001 and went from 6-6 to 10-2 and then 11-2 over his first three seasons. Then TCU went 5-6 in 2004. Patterson wasn’t fired. He responded with 10 wins or more in six of the next seven seasons before going 7-6 in 2012 and then 4-8 in 2013. Again, TCU didn’t’ fire him. Patterson rewarded the loyalty by going 12-1 and then 11-2. This year TCU went 6-5. That’s three times Patterson has had a dip at TCU and three times he has rebounded. All three times TCU didn’t panic and fire him. Oregon should take note.
- People matter: This isn’t simply about Helfrich. A new coach would likely want to bring in his own staff. How does Mullens easily pull the trigger on essentially also terminating Steve Greatwood, John Neal, Don Pellum, Gary Campbell, Tom Osborne and Jimmy Radcliffe, coaches who have been at UO from between 14 to 33 years? This staff as a whole has more than earned the chance to fix this mess. Most have done it before. Why can’t they do it again?
- Will season tickets really be impacted by keeping Helfrich: One thing Mullens can’t do is allow the irrational feelings of some fans impact his decision. There aren’t many more irrational groups in our society than fans. Think about it: What compels anyone to allow the performance of people they do not know impact their emotions or trigger anger to the levels of venom and hate being hurled at an Oregon native like Helfrich who two years ago guided the Ducks to their greatest season ever, and recruited, developed and coached the greatest player in program history, Marcus Mariota? Some fans are threatening to not renew season tickets. Yeah, right! After all of the winning they’ve witnessed at Autzen are they really going to jump off the bandwagon after one losing season if Helfrich returns? I’m calling B.S. They will pout for a few weeks then get over the irrational pain they feel, realize that the team could be very good next year and then renew their tickets. If not, someone else will scoop them up.
- Does Helfrich have a solid plan? This should be an easy sell for Helfrich considering how young and banged up this team was, and that the roster holds a glut of elite-level talent that simply needs time to develop. Helfrich also must sell Mullens on how he is going to raise the level of discipline within the team. Things have become a bit too lackadaisical in some areas, sources say, leading to an erosion of discipline. That must change. Mullens might have some demands that include staff changes. If so, Helfrich must be willing to meet those demands.
In an ideal world this entire situation would be resolved by now. But the complexities that lead to such a decision even being made at this time are certainly going to impact the final decision and must be weighed carefully.
So, be patient. It will all be over soon.