BOULDER — When Mark Helfrich left Dan Hawkins’ football staff at the University of Colorado following the 2008 season to join Chip Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon, there was speculation he was frustrated by a bad offense he was powerless to change.
Nobody said anything on the record, of course, because this dance is well-rehearsed by now and it’s all agreed: Every former employer was awesome and every future employer is providing a cherished opportunity.
Like many of the issues surrounding the CU program at the time, this one had to do with Hawkins and his desire to have his son, Cody, play quarterback. Helfrich knew where major college football offenses were going, and Cody Hawkins, a wonderful kid and mediocre football player, was not it.
Three years earlier, Hawkins made Helfrich the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I football. (I don’t use the initials that replaced the divisions because I don’t know what they mean and you don’t either.) Helfrich was 32 when Hawkins persuaded him to leave Arizona State, where he was quarterbacks coach, to become CU’s offensive coordinator.
Helfrich was a protege of Dirk Koetter, who had been offensive coordinator at Oregon when Helfrich was a graduate assistant. When Koetter got the head job at Boise State, he brought Helfrich with him to coach quarterbacks. When Koetter moved on to Arizona State, again Helfrich moved with him. But the opportunity to be a coordinator in a major conference at 32 was quite rare, and Hawkins had followed Koetter at Boise State, so it was all in the family.
Unfortunately, it was a little too all in the family during the Hawkins era at CU. It was probably true that the younger Hawkins was the best quarterback on the roster, but that was a sad rationale. A coach looking for a bigger, stronger, faster or more athletic quarterback would have been more aggressive than the elder Hawkins in recruiting competition.
Helfrich had already worked with some pretty good quarterbacks — Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter at Arizona State — and it is not hard to believe that he could see, like most people, how limited the upside was on Cody Hawkins and any offense built around him.
In fact, it’s possible Helfrich saw something of himself in the younger Hawkins, and that this insight helped him see Cody was in over his head. An Oregon native, Helfrich was a small but accomplished high school quarterback who chose Southern Oregon and a prodigious NAIA career over an offer to walk on at Oregon, where he knew he probably would have spent his career on the bench.
So Helfrich’s choice in 2009 was to continue coordinating a bad Colorado offense that was hard to improve given the limitations at the most important position, or move back to Oregon and work under Kelly, an offensive coordinator of such repute that Oregon reportedly kicked head coach Mike Bellotti upstairs to create the head coaching vacancy Kelly craved.
As a newly-minted head coach, Kelly wanted Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. And he wanted to do lots of interesting, innovative things. For Helfrich, it probably wasn’t that tough a call. He thanked Hawkins, packed his bags and went home.
Kelly moved on to the NFL this season. He’s the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were just pulverized by the Broncos to drop to 1-3, but that’s another story. Kelly reportedly lobbied for Helfrich to succeed him. He may not have needed to. The OC moving up is an Oregon tradition, dating back to Bellotti under Rich Brooks.
So, in the year he turns 40 (later this month), Helfrich ascended to one of the best jobs in college football — head coach at Oregon. He is in charge of a program that will have no financial restraints so long as Phil Knight is alive. He is part of a tradition of innovative offensive football. Each of the Ducks’ last three coaches — Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich — was the offensive coordinator under his predecessor.
A year ago, Helfrich was in his fourth and final season as Kelly’s coordinator when the Ducks beat CU 70-14 in Eugene, a game not as close as the score might indicate. It was 56-0 at halftime.
Saturday, the Ducks came to Boulder and beat the Buffs 57-16. From a purely arithmetic point of view, that’s about 15 points of progress for the Buffs. They even led for a minute. Actually, a minute and 49 seconds on the game clock the first time, a minute and 34 seconds the second and final time. Oregon does everything fast.
The Ducks demonstrated yet again how important the whole quarterback thing is. Helfrich called his guy, sophomore Marcus Mariota, “a stud,” which is exactly right. If you were going to build an elite college quarterback from scratch, you would build a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound athlete with a rocket arm, runner’s legs and a brain that figures out really fast when it’s time for which. Oh, and you might give him some Samoan blood, given the disproportionate number of great football players that tiny island and its descendants have produced.
“He’s such a great person, first and foremost, and then he’s, oh, by the way, an incredible football player,” Helfrich said. “The stuff he does in practice, we look at each other and kind of shake our head. And that shows up in games. That’s the neat part about him, about (running back) De’Anthony (Thomas), about some of our best defensive players, is they’re great practice players. Not good practice players, but great practice players. And that’s infectious.
“Physically, he’s very gifted. Obviously, his size, his speed, his release, his timing, his knowledge, he’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy. Is that enough? He’s a superlative machine.”
The Buffs, on the other hand, are trying to preserve yet another redshirt year. Last year, you might remember, it was not worth burning Shane Dillon’s redshirt year on a lost season. Dillon is no longer with the program. In fact, his experience at CU so turned him off to football he now wants to play basketball. In retrospect, it might have been worth burning his redshirt year to see if he could improve on the most dreadful season CU football has seen.
This year, it is not worth burning Sefo Liufau’s redshirt year. Liufau is the prized first-year recruit of CU coach Mike MacIntyre, a 6-4, 215-pound high school star of, yes, Samoan descent.
For a minute there, before CU began its conference schedule, it looked as if junior Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas during the short-lived Jon Embree era, could bridge the gap adequately.
But Wood was not good Saturday, and he suffered in comparison to Mariota, who was sensational. The respective stat lines are a close enough approximation. Mariota completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried seven times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. His afternoon was finished before the fourth quarter began. Wood completed 11 of 33 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His net rushing yardage was minus 8.
Granted, there are talent gaps between these rosters at many positions, but in Paul Richardson the Buffs have one of the most talented receivers in the country, so it’s not as if Wood has no weapons. At some point, the excuses have to stop.
The performance at quarterback was the key difference in the game, and allowed Oregon to turn it into a blowout as quickly as it did. The Buffs’ defense gave them a chance even after MacIntyre elected to begin the game with an onside kick. Granted, you need some wrinkles if you’re going to beat the Ducks, but giving Mariota the ball at midfield to start the game might be out-thinking yourself.
Nevertheless, CU forced a three-and-out and Wood drove the offense into field goal range — the big play a 55-yard pass to Richardson — and a short-lived 3-0 lead. One minute, 49 seconds later by the game clock, Mariota scored the first of his seven touchdowns — two rushing, five passing. The Buffs responded with a beautifully conceived option pass off a reverse, in which Richardson, split wide left, came in motion to the right, took a pitch from running back Michael Adkins and lofted a pass to a wide-open D.D. Goodson in the right flat, who rambled 75 yards to give CU a 10-8 lead.
This was the first time this season an opponent led Oregon twice. So that’s something. But not much. By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks led 29-10. At halftime, it was 43-16. In the Oregon locker room, they were not happy.
“We kind of challenged them at halftime,” Helfrich said. “Other than the scoreboard, we didn’t play our way in the first half, and who knows (why) that is. I don’t know if it’s altitude or thinking about something else or whatever it may have been, we responded well, and that’s encouraging.”
Oregon shut down the CU offense in the second half, and for the first time this season, MacIntyre’s team looked nearly as helpless as Embree’s team of a year ago. MacIntyre said he saw improvement in Wood from the week before at Oregon State and you can only hope he said that because he has to. If Wood doesn’t improve a lot more, and soon, CU will have to decide whether it is willing to be the Pac-12’s punch line for yet another season in the interest of some prospective four-year career that may or may not work out as planned.
Meanwhile, Oregon is rolling, averaging almost 60 points a game, giving up fewer than 12. I asked Helfrich if his team is where he wants it to be.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re 5-0, and that’s our best statistic. We haven’t played remotely to what we can in any phase in any game. So that’s encouraging. The guys that we have on this team know that. They’re excited to get better and excited to come to work and get ready on Monday.”
If anybody in the CU administration really wants to know what has happened to the program since Hawkins was hired in 2006, he or she should place a call to Helfrich and find out how the program lost one of the most impressive young coaches in the game today.
Maybe he would have gone home anyway. That would certainly be the movie-of-the-week narrative. But Helfrich had already demonstrated a coach’s nomadic instinct for the best way forward, moving from Eugene to Boise to Tempe to Boulder. Maybe Hawkins’ nepotism is part of the answer. Maybe there were other factors.
Helfrich’s decision to go back to Oregon and Saturday’s game have one thing in common: The Ducks had a much better quarterback than the Buffs both times. So long as CU is willing to live with this, its football program will not appear on any map.