The Oregon football program sold its soul on Tuesday. It went from being a program that succeeded with a lineage of coaches stretching back four decades to just another school so desperate to win that it gutted out the very essence that made the program successful to begin with.
No matter where you stand on UO athletic director Rob Mullens’ decision (likely made far before Tuesday) to fire coach Mark Helfrich after a 4-8 season, there is no denying that it was fundamentally messed up the way it all went down.
- First losing season in 12 years.
- Two years removed from going to the national title game and producing a Heisman Trophy winner.
- A team filled with young talent and marred by injuries.
These are not the scenarios that generally lead programs to fire a head coach and likely his entire staff.
But there Mullens sat on Tuesday night at Matthew Knight Arena attempting to justify the move after an ugly season that certainly warranted examination but not wholesale changes. Mullens essentially pushed the panic button.
His move sends the message that the program has outgrown the men who helped make it what it is. Although, he denied that’s the case.
“I’m saying that we’re very grateful for all that‘s been done here,” he said. “We need a change of direction.”
The country is littered with college football programs that hastily changed directions right into the gutter.
As for being “grateful,” let’s examine the little matter of how Mullens went about handling this decision. Some sources say he had made up his mind to fire Helfrich weeks ago. He said he decided on Tuesday.
The belief here is that Mullens was pretty much sure he would fire Helfrich at the very latest on Saturday following the team's 34-24 loss at Oregon State. Yet on Sunday morning he left for Texas for a couple of days to be a part of the College Football Playoff committee after telling Helfrich and his staff to continue with recruiting plans while not knowing their job status.
Oregon's coaches literally met with players and high school coaches over the next two days while recruiting to Oregon with no idea that they even had jobs.
Early Tuesday evening, assistants received a call from Helfrich telling them that he had been fired and to come on home.
Shameful. Classless. Disrespectful.
Worse things have happened to coaching staffs? It's a cutthroat field. But Oregon hadn’t fired a head coach in 40 years. Some coaches have been on Oregon’s staff since Mullens was in high school.
To treat them that way after all they had accomplished at Oregon was flat out doggish.
Now, the jaded out there will say this is “show business” and not “show friends.” They do so knowing damn well that if their employers treated them like that they would be livid.
Don’t be a hypocrite. Call this what it was. A panic move handled very poorly.
Mullens laid out his reasons for making the move. He believes the program needs a new direction. He stated that the winning culture had eroded. The team didn’t win enough games, etc.
That’s all fine and good, but there is no guarantee that a new coach is going to fix any of that in greater fashion than the current coaching staff that has already proven it could win big at Oregon.
Mullens is trading the known for the unknown, and doing so following one bad season. The chances of him hiring a coach that has been to a national title game, or won a major conference championship, or produced a Heisman Trophy winner are minimal.
The Ducks could be good again as early as next season. Any good coach could win at Oregon moving forward with the young talent on this roster. But is there a coach out there willing to come to Oregon that would never have a down season? To separate themselves from this staff, a new coach must be able to consistently land recruiting classes that rank in the top 10. Otherwise, the Ducks will have a hard time contending for national titles given that the overall impact of the no-huddle spread that carried the program for the past decade has waned.
If Oregon finds that guy, then this move could lead to equaled success. If not, UO is going to have its ups and downs. No way around it.
The bar has been set. Having one losing season at Oregon, regardless of prior success, and your head could be on the chopping block.
If you cling to the notion that the losing came because of poor recruiting under Helfrich, you simply lack elementary math skills. Problems on defense began with the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes under Kelly (13 of 19 recruits in the 2013 class committed under Kelly before he left for the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 16 with signing day weeks away).
Helfrich failed to fix things with the 2014 class, but the 2015 and 2016 classes have already produced defensive players who have shown great potential, including freshman linebacker Troy Dye.
Also, Helfrich found the answer at quarterback with freshman Justin Herbert, who could very well become the second greatest passer in program history behind 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, also recruited and developed by Helfrich.
The irony in all of this is that if a new coach wins in the next three seasons, he would have done so with the players recruited by the current coaches. Gone would be the false narrative that these coaches failed in recruiting despite a track record of success in that area.
Sometimes tough decisions can’t be handled cleanly. There’s no real good way to breakup with someone in any circumstance.
But one of the charms of the Oregon program was that it had such a grand lineage. It's one that former players adored.
Many are not very happy right now. In fact, those I've spoken to are disgusted. Do their opinion’s matter in the long run? Probably not. At least not within the new culture at Oregon that shifted from “family and history” to a belief that the facilities and the money-men behind the grand buildings are more important than the actual people in the building or on the field.
That brings us to a last point: The string of coaches from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly to Mark Helfrich has been broken.
An athletic director has decided to destroy that 40-year connection, despite a $15 million buyout ($11.6 million just for Helfrich) to do so. Now, the direction of the program is entirely on Mullens and the boosters.
For the first time, they will be solely responsible for what happens on the field. They can no longer blame the coaches because they will be solely responsible for demolishing what existed in order to hire their own guy.
Mullens had better get this hire correct. Now, the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations falls squarely on his shoulders.