Mark Helfrich’s qualities as a collegiate football coach are well-documented. He’s flawlessly transitioned Oregon football into a new era, making the coaching change positively inconspicuous. But who is he? A one-track minded football coach with an inflated ego?
Helfrich grew up in Coos Bay, Ore., a coastal town along the southwestern elbow of the state. With a population of less than 16,000, Coos Bay is home to a handful of notable sporting greats. Mel Counts, an NBA center drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1964, played professional basketball from 1964-1976 and won a gold medal for the United States in the ’64 summer games. Oregon track and field legend Steve Prefontaine’s life was tragically cut short at age 24, but he remains a highly decorated figure in the Oregon running community to this day.
Enter Helfrich, who now carries a title he never planned on having.
“My whole goal in life was to be a doctor,” Helfrich said. “I was a biology major in college and kind of a weird set of circumstances led to coaching. Part of it was wanting to play a little bit more football, be involved in athletics and it kind of worked itself out.”
Circumstances or not, Helfrich has always had a sophisticated football knowledge, even as a teenager at Marshfield High School.
“At lunch time he would come into the classroom and we would sit at the overhead and he would draw up goal line pass plays,” said Bruce Bryant, a teacher and former head baseball coach at Marshfield. “He would say, ‘look at this. This would be a great goal line pass play.’ He’d draw the whole thing up, offense and defense. He was always strategizing, always thinking.”
Helfrich got his first coaching gig in 1997 at Oregon as a graduate assistant — essentially a graduate teaching fellow of coaching. The next year he was hired as a quarterbacks coach at Boise State where he tutored Bart Hendricks, the Big West Conference Player of the Year in 1999 and 2000. Hendricks says there was more to Helfrich than a bright football mind.
“His ability to really walk that fine line where he could be serious when he needed to be, coach and say the right things … yet when he could be, there were times when he would joke around and have a good laugh. That I really respected,” Hendricks said.
From Boise State, Helfrich went on to serve the same position at Arizona State, where he coached Jeff Krohn, Andrew Walter and Rudy Carpenter, all of whom had very successful careers as collegiate quarterbacks. In 2006, Helfrich was named offensive coordinator at Colorado, becoming the third youngest such coach in the country. He then returned to Oregon in 2009, this time as the coordinator of Chip Kelly’s revolutionary offense. Certainly such a swift meteoric rise has to change someone, instill a sense of entitlement, or elitism.
But not for Helfrich.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I respect Mark so much, is because he hasn’t changed,” said Tom Osborne, Oregon’s special teams and tight ends coach who has worked with Helfrich at both Oregon and Arizona State. “He’s the same guy. A lot of guys, all of a sudden they move to the corner office, they’re the head guy and their personalities change. They forget what it’s like to be one of the workers on the floor … and he hasn’t forgot that. He hasn’t changed a bit.”
Osborne believes Helfrich’s humble upbringing played a huge role in shaping the man that not many Oregon fans know beyond spread options and press conferences.
“His humility comes from his parents,” Osborne said. “He was raised to be a guy that doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else.”
Mike Helfrich, or “Big Mike,” as friends knew him, was Helfrich’s father. He retired early after acting as the vice president of the local U.S. Bank and served as a proactive member of several Coos Bay boards and committees. A former Oregon lineman, he was active in local athletics, coaching football at Marshfield for several years. Linda Helfrich was a schoolteacher and both are well-known and respected members of the Coos Bay community.
“You’re not going to find two better people than Mike and Linda Helfrich,” said Mike George, Helfrich’s basketball and football coach at Marshfield High School. “Mark got his characteristics as being a great person from his mother and father.”
Big Mike was one of his son’s biggest fans, attending nearly all of Helfrich’s sporting events, both as a player and a coach.
“He and a couple friends, that became their deal,” Helfrich said of his father. “It was neat to see him having that much fun doing something that he loved.”
It was when Mike Helfrich was doing something he loved that he suddenly passed away. He was in Tucson, Ariz. for Oregon’s game against the Arizona Wildcats in 2011, a game the Ducks would eventually win 56-31. Unfortunately, one of their biggest fans wasn’t able to see them triumph. He was found dead in his hotel room prior to kickoff.
“He was a great man. He would not have done one single thing differently in his life,” Helfrich said of his father. “Knowing that is a very reassuring thought. The last time I saw him alive was here, at the Casanova Center. I literally walk by there everyday and it’s a great memory.”
While the memory of his father still weighs on Helfrich’s mind during games, he’s achieved success through four games at the helm, a success Oregon football fans have become accustomed to in recent years. He’s brought out the best in his players, team and those who surround him.
According to former Marshfield coach and teacher Tim Wall, he always has.
“He was just such a gregarious, friendly, open person,” Wall said . “Just the way he is now really. He’s the real deal, what you see is what you get. He’s just a genuine person.”
Despite the constant frenzy of coaching college football, Helfrich maintains strong personal connections with many friends, players and associates. Virginia Tech offensive line coach Jeff Grimes is a good friend of Helfrich. They worked together at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado. He said Helfrich will still respond to text messages almost instantly, and not because he feels obligated to.
“Not too long ago I joked with him and said, ‘now that you’re a big time head ball coach you can’t even text me back,’” Grimes said. “Ten seconds later I get a text back from him and later that afternoon he called me. He cares about people, and I have all the confidence in the world that will never change.”
The unlikely combination of boundless football knowledge and sincere kindness that Mark Helfrich embodies is, in a word, special. He won’t spark controversy or make many headlines out of negativity. The local boy from the small coastal town has quietly, seamlessly ascended the college football ranks and now finds himself sitting in a lavish corner office with inappropriately large windows and an awkward amount of empty floor space.
But those meeting him for the first time wouldn’t know his office sits atop a lavish football palace.
“There are very few people that get to the level that he’s gotten to. It’s not easy, because you have to be special,” Bruce Bryant said. “Mark’s special. He’s got a lot of talent, but the thing that makes him even more special is that he’s a special person. He cares about people. That’s the difference.”
Both Mel Counts and Steve Prefontaine made their mark after leaving Coos Bay and Helfrich may or may not live up to any expectations that precede him. But none of that will have mattered. To those who know him well, he’s already made his mark.