There was a moment few saw before the kickoff Thursday night at Fiesta Bowl that summed up the last four BCS-laden years enjoyed by Oregon football.
Head coach Chip Kelly had taken advantage of the arrival of the stars of the TV comedy “Modern Family” to sneak back up the ramp toward the locker rooms. As he left the field, he ran into offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
“Well, Helfie, what do you think?” Kelly said with a smile.
“Lookin’ pretty good,” Helfrich said as they surveyed the field. Kelly threw his arm around the taller Helfrich, and they were gone up the tunnel.
The embrace comes at a cloudy moment for Oregon football. With another 12-win season and BCS win under his belt, Kelly is undoubtedly the hottest commodity for NFL head coaching vacancies. Helfrich is the heir apparent, already given the stamp of approval from Nike founder and Oregon booster Phil Knight, and the man Kelly hand-picked to coach his offense.
“I think Helf could succeed at anything he wanted to,” Kelly said after the game. “Intelligent, detail-oriented, great manager of people, great friend, one of the funniest guys I’ve met in my entire life, but knows how to be serious when he has to be serious. … I think he’s special and I love the guy.”
The chances of Kelly staying are hard to calculate. Supposing Kelly does leave for Philadelphia or Buffalo or Cleveland or anywhere else on the pro landscape, Helfrich taking the job would ensure Kelly’s connection to the program in years to come. But fans made it clear at the end of the Fiesta Bowl how they feel about the situation.
“We want Chip! We want Chip!” cascaded down during the trophy presentation. Kelly acknowledged the love in his press conference.
“I think it just, really of me, reaffirms what this place is all about,” Kelly said. “It’s a special place with special people. They accepted me six years ago when I was at New Hampshire. Not many people knew about me. Gave me an opportunity to come here. It really means a lot.”
Part of Oregon’s success this year had so much to do with the continuity in the coaching staff — since Kelly became head coach, the staff hasn’t changed at all. That’s unheard of in college football, and a Helfrich succession would ease the end of that streak. Still, Helfrich says, his ambition isn’t eating at him.
“I think everybody at some point thinks about (head coaching),” he said. “But I don’t sit up at night and go, ‘Man, I have to be a head coach. If I’m not the head coach, I’m going to start crying and pout in the corner.’ I love Chip, I hope he stays here forever. If that’s not his dream, that’s okay.”
“We’ve cooperated fully with the (NCAA),” Kelly said. “If they want to talk to us again, we’ll continue to cooperate fully. I feel confident in the situation.”
Regardless of who’s overseeing the program, the next few months will be dynamic for Oregon football. But like Kelly loves to say, nothing is guaranteed.
At least for tonight, Kelly and Helfrich can enjoy finishing the season as a top-five team together as colleagues.