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FISCHER: Helfrich perfect fit as Oregon moves on from Chip Kelly

Jan 20, 2013

New Oregon coach Mark Helfrich made it very clear that while he will be continuing 99 percent of the things that his predecessor Chip Kelly did in turning the Ducks into an elite national program, there would be a few differences between the two. "I won't wear a visor. I will eat more vegetables," Helfrich joked at his introductory press conference. The line drew more than a few laughs but it gave insight about the new leader of college football's flashiest program. Clearly some of Kelly's trademark wit rubbed off on Helfrich, who is as down to earth as they come at the highest levels of coaching. But he's also his own man, a Southern Oregon native that is in many ways a perfect fit for the team as it looks to continue the most successful run in school history on the field. "We were looking for a coach who exemplifies excellence, leadership and character and who would embrace what our winning football culture is all about," athletic director Rob Mullens said. "We found that person in Mark Helfrich." As is readily apparent, at Oregon and other places, the program is bigger than one man. The players believe it. The coaches believe it. The staff believe it. The fans should believe it as well. The Ducks are more than Chip Kelly. As the school has proven from Rich Brooks to Mike Belotti to Kelly, the ‘next man in’ mantra in Eugene has worked out well. Most of the assistants have been around for years and know the drill. There may be a new face at press conferences but the system will stay the same. "We were very aware a year ago that this was a possibility," Mullens said, referring to Kelly's flirtation with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "The wheels are always spinning, you don't start the clock when you get the official resignation. While people want to say it took X number of days, there's a process." Mullens knows that better than most. He nearly pulled the trigger on hiring Helfrich twice in the past year before the third time ended up being the charm. Before the BCS national championship game, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott joked that Kelly was running the read option with his coaching future and opted to keep the football and stay at Oregon. As it turns out, Kelly kept the ball alright. Only his keeper fooled everyone as he scampered around the end to a new destination with the Philadelphia Eagles. In terms of timing, it certainly was an earthquake on the college football landscape. In terms of shock however, especially in Eugene, it was anything but. Kelly listened to NFL offers like he said he would. He entertained the NFL teams like everybody thought he would. He said no before saying yes. What happened the first three weeks of 2013 fit perfectly with the quirky New Englander’s personality. He may do most things fast but slow-playing everybody on taking an NFL job was simply part of Kelly’s playbook. That Fiesta Bowl we all thought was Kelly’s swan song actually turned out to be one. He wrapped up his tenure leading the Ducks to a 46-7 record and more BCS bowl appearances than conference losses in four seasons. Though he may not be considered the most impactful coach at Oregon, there’s little doubt he leaves town as the most successful. That leaves big shoes to step into for Helfrich. But from Mullens to Nike's Phil Knight and all the way down to the players, there was only one person who everyone wearing a shade of green had the confidence in to keep things going. "I completely agree that that's who we wanted to step in," defensive back Brian Jackson said. "Mark's a great football coach and that's why he was named the head football coach," Mullens added. "Continuity is a bonus. The fact that he has deep roots in Oregon is a bonus. But it was not the driving factor, we wanted an outstanding leader to continue the tradition." After the Ducks second straight BCS bowl win, probably the apex of the program’s history, most players seemed confident about the future of Oregon regardless of who was in charge. Mullens often repeated the program has a plan in case Kelly left for greener pastures and that has always meant promoting Helfrich to the top job much like Kelly was elevated when Belotti moved on. This is nothing new for Oregon, which is as much about developing and maintaining a winning culture as it running a top tier football team. "This is about us and we and our," said Helfrich. "We're worried about the process, how we go about our business and all that other stuff will take care of itself." There’s a talented team coming back for the upcoming season to ease the transition as well. Marcus Mariota and speedster De’Anthony Thomas will form a dangerous duo and 2013 might be defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s best unit of the past few years. A new football facility is opening during the summer with every bell and whistle imaginable. A few other impact freshman should be on the way in too, something Helfrich noted as he was itching to get out recruiting after his press conference. "(A recruit) is coming to Oregon to be an Oregon Duck and all that encompasses," he said. "We are 100 percent the same philosophically. We're going to recruit character, attitude, toughness and hopefully those guys are... fast." At this point the only uncertainty surrounds an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing but, as many around the program like to say, the Ducks can only control what they can control. And when it comes to the NCAA, things are most certainly out of their hands. Oregon should be thankful to Kelly for elevating the program from a regional brand into a national power. He won and won big. The Ducks are better off now than they were four years ago. Now it's time for Helfrich to take the baton and elevate the Ducks just as his predecessors did before him. If anyone can take the program to an elusive national championship or win another Pac-12 championship, the native son is as good as anybody. "'Win the Day' and all that doesn't really change for us," said quarterback Marcus Mariota. "We're going to continue that way and continue to have that mentality." Today is a new era for Oregon football and the Ducks are still going to try and win it just like they have in the past.