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Staff changes loom over last Alamo Bowl press conference

Dec 29, 2013

by Rob MoseleyEditor,

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Two coaches whose lives are about to take wildly divergent paths participated in the final Alamo Bowl pregame press conference Sunday morning.

Seated at the front table were Mack Brown, who will coach Texas for the final time Monday, and Mark Helfrich of Oregon, who will jump headlong into not only recruiting but the search for a new defensive coordinator following the Alamo Bowl  (3:45 p.m. PT, ESPN).

On Sunday, each did his best to keep the focus on Monday's matchup, which pits the No. 10 Ducks (10-2) against the unranked Longhorns.

"Our priority, AAA, No. 1, is to beat Texas, and our focus is 100 percent on that," Helfrich said. "And we'll manage (the coordinator search) behind the scenes. We have some great coaches on our staff, and there are some great coaches we've either been around or been in contact with in the past, that will be in the mix in that regard."

Helfrich is looking to replace Nick Aliotti, Oregon's defensive coordinator since 1999, his third stint on the staff during a 37-year career. Aliotti announced his retirement Friday.

There's been much speculation among media and UO fans about possible targets to replace Aliotti. That prompted Helfrich to say Sunday that "I've read a lot of things that I've done over the last three or four days that I haven't done. So it's been exciting to see those developments."

Aliotti said this week he first intended to step down last season but stayed on to ease Helfrich's transition to head coach, and Helfrich said Sunday that was a decision entirely up to Aliotti. Helfrich said the announcement was made this week so that Aliotti could break the news to the staff and players personally, rather than risk having it leak out publicly.

Brown announced two weeks ago that he is stepping down after 16 seasons at UT. There's been much speculation about the nature of his departure, and whether he was forced out by Texas administration, but Brown deftly side-stepped questions on the subject Sunday.

"I can address that, after watching Oregon's video, we have been totally focused on Oregon, and nothing else," Brown said. "…. This is about (the players). It's about the seniors' last game. It's about the younger guys moving forward. So we have not talked about that all week."

On Saturday, UO linebackers coach Don Pellum was equally forceful in deflecting any interest on his part in replacing Aliotti. Likewise, Brown said Sunday he's asked his staff to avoid publicly discussing their futures as much as possible.

"This week, let's focus on the game; let's don't talk about other jobs," Brown said. "If you need me I will help you, but I'd rather do it after Monday night. I'd rather do it Tuesday. So let's do nothing but give Texas our best this last week, and let's give these young people our best.

"And it would have been impossible for us to ask (players) to focus, and give us respect and discipline and effort for the last week, unless we gave them the same.  So we think that's all worked out for both."

Brown also joked that Oregon announced Aliotti's departure "so our farewell party wouldn't be good. He's got that defense pumped now for that stage."

Indeed, each team appears to have a "win one for the Gipper" storyline to tap into, if it so chooses. Each also has the chance to shed the sour taste of multiple losses, which didn't set well with either fan base.

The Ducks lost at Stanford the week after quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a knee injury. Two weeks later, they fell behind at Arizona and could never muster a rally.

"That mentality of grinding out everything, earning everything, is something that has been our calling card for a long time, and especially our younger guys just need to realize that," Helfrich said. "I think the disappointment or whatever those emotions were, we handled as well as we possibly could in some regards. In some facets of our team, we didn't handle that so well.

"But these last couple weeks I think our guys have prepared well, one, out of respect for our opponent, and another, of playing Oregon football."

At that point in Sunday's press conference, Brown somewhat surprisingly jumped in and offered a defense of the Ducks.

"The expectation for both of these programs is to be playing in the last game at the end of the year, and neither one of us are doing that," Brown said. "But a lot of people would love to be in Oregon's situation, as a top-10 team that lost to a great team and then had a tough one on the road, and that's it, and have a lot of people back for next year.

"So those guys have been on a great run.  Their run, and I told their staff this the other night, their run as of late here has been like the run we had from '04 to '09 and it's been fun to watch them."

The exchange was one of many that illustrated the collegial relationship Brown and Helfrich have developed over the last few weeks. Referring to each staff's uncertainty, Brown joked that he had spoken with Helfrich about replacing Aliotti, but that they agreed to put off the conversation until after the game.

The best exchange was one after which Helfrich offered a tongue-in-cheek health update on Mariota, calling him "one percent" better than when he injured his knee.

"He's looked really good in practice," Brown offered.

"How do you know?" Helfrich asked with mock incredulity.

"We've been out there," Brown said with a sly smile.

"We are in Texas …" Helfrich said, with mock chagrin.

Each coach began the press conference by noting his respect for the other, and those exchanges did nothing to dispel the notion.

"I like to get a little anger going before the game, and when you're around him, it's just more impressive, more classy, just better than the high expectations that I had coming into this deal," Helfrich said.

"I've had a ton of conversations with him about things that I'll take with me forever, and will hopefully make me a better coach."