LOS ANGELES — A few weeks back, the four head coaches who have guided their teams to the College Football Playoff posed for pictures with the championship trophy.
Alabama’s Nick Saban. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher.
“And some other guy,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said about himself.
The 40-year-old Helfrich — an Oregon native in his second season leading the Ducks — doesn’t take himself too seriously. And he’s fine being the other guy in an all-star lineup of championship coaches. Helfrich’s second-seeded Ducks (12-1) face Fisher’s third-seeded Seminoles (13-0) on Thursday in the playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
Saban (four), Meyer (two) and Fisher (one) have combined to win seven national titles. They are all among the 14 highest-paid coaches in college football this season, according to USA Today’s database, with a combined salary of more than $15.3 million.
Helfrich, who made $2 million this season to rank 51st among FBS coaches, right behind Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre and just ahead of Illinois’ Tim Beckman, knows he has a long way to go to match the résumés of his playoff counterparts.
“But I think certainly from a confidence standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, from a who we are standpoint, I have a ton of confidence in every guy in this room and every guy in our program,” he said this week.
Yes, Helfrich turned the question about himself into an answer about the program. In a sense, it’s appropriate. Saban is synonymous with Alabama. Meyer is Ohio State’s biggest star. At Oregon, Helfrich is just the next guy in line, the coach who took over after Chip Kelly left for the NFL. At this point Helfrich’s greatest accomplishment as head coach seems to be keeping a good thing going.
Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said Helfrich is more than just a caretaker.
“He was sitting there with three Hall of Fame guys,” Aliotti said. “Someday he might be in that same group.”
Helfrich grew up in Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, a city of about 16,000. His mother and father went to Oregon and he could have walked on to the football team. Instead, he went to Southern Oregon, an NAIA school, and became one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history.
He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Oregon, then bounced to Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, working his way up to offensive coordinator.
Former Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan, who was the running backs coach for the Buffaloes when Helfrich was offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins, said Helfrich’s humility and self-deprecating sense of humor hides a fierce competitor, brimming with confidence — whether he was calling football plays or playing pickup basketball.
“You pass him the ball, very seldom are you going to get it back,” said Hagan, who is now director of player development at Colorado.
Hagan said Helfrich’s greatest strength as a leader is making everyone feel like a vital member of the program.
“He’s a guy when he walks into a space, he’s not afraid to say hi to the janitor,” Hagan said.
Helfrich joined Kelly’s staff in 2009 as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Being Kelly’s offensive coordinator is like being Paul Prudhomme’s sous chef — you’re not getting much credit for the final product.
But it was Helfrich who discovered Marcus Mariota when he was a second-string high school quarterback in Honolulu.
“Without coach Helfrich my growth as a football player wouldn’t be where it is right now,” Mariota said. “When I first got in coach Helfrich was huge with little things. Understanding what we do as an offense and why we do it.”
When Kelly jumped to the NFL and became the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Helfrich was promoted, continuing an Oregon tradition.
Oregon has not hired a head coach from outside the staff since Rich Brooks came from UCLA in 1977. Brooks handed off to Mike Bellotti and Bellotti to Kelly as Oregon grew into a national powerhouse.
Under Kelly, the Ducks went to four consecutive BCS games, played for the national championship after the 2010 season and became synonymous with cutting-edge football from their uniforms to their up-tempo offense.
What Helfrich has added is a personal touch.
“One was more business focused. More operational focused,” senior offensive tackle Jake Fisher said of Kelly. “Helfrich kind of turned it more into a high school team. We bonded more.”
On Tuesday during the last interview session Oregon players will have before playing in the biggest game of Helfrich’s short career as head coach, Fisher was asked if his coach was the most under-appreciated in the playoff.
“The most underpaid, yes,” he said.
With two more wins, that could change, too.