Don’t expect Oregon football to change much under Mark Helfrich.
The new head coach has already said “99.2 percent” of the operations will be run just as former head coach Chip Kelly ran them. Ostensibly that means more of the same — closed practices, sexy jerseys and, fans hope, wins. But the biggest difference Helfrich will bring to the job is a matter of Xs and Os — the exes haven’t been from the O.
Chip Kelly was an East Coast guy. His predecessor, Mike Bellotti, was born in Sacramento. In fact, Oregon’s last home-grown head coach was La Grande native John Warren, back in 1942. Unless, of course, you count Jerry Frei, who was born in a Wisconsin village called Oregon.
But that changes with the Medford-born Helfrich, whose hire warrants pride from an entire state used to seeing its football coaches as imported goods.
“The outpouring of support from Coos County, where I didn’t even know we had Internet … has been amazing,” Helfrich joked during his opening presser. Throughout his opening statement, Helfrich showed raw emotion, choking up while trying to explain what it all meant to him. Later, he cracked wise about a “life-time contract” he was trying to secure with the University of Oregon.
It all paints a picture of a man who isn’t here to leapfrog his way into the pros, a la Kelly.
The Ducks mean everything to Helfrich. He almost went to school here before deciding to play at Southern Oregon, and he served as a graduate assistant shortly thereafter. You think there’s some passion there?
According to the UO, campus enrollment is 55 percent Oregonian. Barely half. Oregon State, on the other hand, is 69.5 percent Oregonian. The influx of out-of-staters (especially Californians) is also reflected in the UO’s athletic recruiting — more than Oregon football’s last three recruiting classes, just eight of 57 recruits are from within the state.
Part of that can be attributed to the talent-rich prep football fields of California, but I think Eugene plays a larger role. It’s easy to move here, easy to fall in love with the lushness and a casual life.
But you can’t choose where you’re born, and the inherent passion and pride in where you’re from can’t be discounted. Helfrich’s hire infuses a program obsessed with nontradition with a state pride that’s been missing since Joey Harrington took off for the pros. Call it a cliché, but everyone wants to see the local boy do well.
Plus, with Aloha High School running back Thomas Tyner set to join the Ducks next year, native Oregon fans could see more of themselves on the field than at any point under Chip Kelly.
And you don’t need to be from Oregon to understand why that’s meaningful.