Flores: Grading Mark Helfrich’s first year as Oregon’s head coach

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich cracks a smile as he faces the scrum of media and players along the sidelines. The Oregon Ducks practice for the Alamo Bowl at Alamo Heights High School on Dec. 26, 2013. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich cracks a smile as he faces the scrum of media and players along the sidelines. The Oregon Ducks practice for the Alamo Bowl at Alamo Heights High School on Dec. 26, 2013. (Michael Arellano/Emerald)

Posted by Victor Flores on Monday, Jan. 6 at 11:00 am.

It would have been hard for photographers at the Valero Alamo Bowl postgame press conference to snap a shot of Mark Helfrich without a smile on his face. Oregon’s first-year head coach sat between seniors Josh Huff and Avery Patterson with a bottle of Gatorade Propel Zero in his hands and seemed to enjoy answering every question.

Helfrich cracked a joke nearly every answer.

“We’re going to celebrate tonight with a Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, Powerade,” Helfrich said before looking down at his bottle. “Gatorade Propel Zero.”

Huff burst into laughter, as did most of the media. Helfrich was in a great mood and for good reason. His team just defeated Texas 30-7 for their 11th win of the season, likely cementing a top-10 ranking for the Ducks.

But Helfrich wasn’t so cheerful seconds before making the quip about the Gatorade. That’s because his answer was part of a response to the question many are asking: Was his first year a success?

“That’s for you to decide,” he said. “I don’t think in those terms. I think about how well we can prepare these guys and what’s next.”

Many people do think in those terms, though, and Helfrich’s evaluations are all over the map. The Oregonian asked readers to grade Helfrich’s first year, and almost 60 percent gave him a B (Almost 22 percent gave him an A, more than 15 percent gave him a C and about 3 percent gave him a D or F.)

Fans, at least based on The Oregonian’s nearly 5,000-person survey, seem to think Helfrich was successful but with reservations. It’s hard to quibble with that viewpoint. Even the most successful programs shouldn’t look at an 11-2 season as a failure, but the Ducks raised the bar so high over the previous four years that it only makes sense to be disappointed if expectations aren’t met.

The Stanford loss would be forgivable if the final score was indicative of how the game actually went. The Ducks got smoked that November night, trailing 26-0 in the fourth quarter before making a spirited comeback.

The Ducks trailed by 26 points in another game, too. That came against Arizona, of course. Oregon fans weren’t used to suffering huge deficits against the best teams before this past season, much less a 26-point deficit to a team they were expecting to bulldoze.

“I let them (players and coaches) down by not having a hyphen-zero at the end of our record,” Helfrich said.

Helfrich understands the expectations, but that doesn’t mean he should be on the hot seat for those two losses.

The Ducks were hobbled at the end of the season. Marcus Mariota basically played with a sprained MCL for the last five games. Byron Marshall missed two games. De’Anthony Thomas missed four. Derrick Malone practically fell apart.

“We need to do a psychological study on that kid because he’s welded together, packed, there was some sawdust in there,” Helfrich said regarding Malone.

With a healthier team, the Ducks might have reached a fourth-straight BCS bowl, but that doesn’t mean Helfrich should be given a free pass for those poor performances.

The Oregonian readers probably had it right. Helfrich deserves a B for 2013. He and the Ducks had a good season but, as Huff put it, “It wasn’t the season that we hoped for.”

Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415