EUGENE, Ore. — At Oregon, the football news conferences are in a wood-paneled theater with leather seats for the media, three captain’s chairs at the podium, glass doors, and a shiny gold logo of the athletic department’s “winged-O” on the wall, bathed in light.
Then Mark Helfrich sits in the middle seat and starts making jokes.
The Oregon football coach depressurizes the atmosphere of a national championship week media session the same way he does it with his players — by relaxing, smiling and breathing.
“He finds ways to make you laugh, joke with you,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “He’ll find any little thing to kind of rib you and make you laugh.”
Helfirch, in his second-year as Ducks coach, does not fall prey to the pressure of the moment — no clipped answers, no suspicion, no nervous twitches. If a question stumps him, or he wants to be careful with an answer, it doesn’t show.
Asked whether other teams copy his team’s offense, he shrugs and says with a smile: “We steal stuff, too. We’re equal-opportunity thieves.”
Is it true that he and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talk weekly?
Another smile. “That’s not true.”
Does he believe Meyer’s postgame reaction to the Oregon score last week?
Again, can’t hold back a smile. “You don’t think he was selling that at all?”
Is it true that the national championship uniforms have no yellow or green on them?
“I have to take the fifth. I haven’t seen them.”
Running back Royce Freeman spilled the beans — he says they’re “icy.”
“I love Royce, so I’ll go with ‘icy,’ ” Helfrich said.
Nothing fazed him, a 41-year-old Oregon native. He enjoyed the moment, and it is the way he wants his team to continue playing when it reaches Arlington, Texas, next week for the College Football Playoff championship game against Ohio State.
“He kind of has a knack of making funny jokes out of different situations,” Mariota said.
Last month, Helfrich, who has a nickname for everyone, tried to go a whole day without nicknames.
“He went about two hours. He slipped,” said running backs coach Gary Campbell. “He said, ‘Aw, I couldn’t do it.’ He’s a really, really fun guy to work for. He doesn’t get uptight. He always has something funny to say. In those times when a lot of coaches would feel under pressure, he’s finding something funny.”
— Marcus Mariota
But, of course, this week is serious business at Oregon. There is a shot at a first national championship in football for the school.
The Ducks had a shot before, in 2010, under former coach Chip Kelly, and lost it to Auburn.
“It’s huge, huge for the state — huge, obviously, for our university, the community, everybody involved with that,” said Helfrich, a former offensive assistant under Kelly. “The best thing we can do is stay focused on our process and our mission. But being part of this has been a ton of fun for the last several years. We know what it means to the various constituencies around this. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much to Ohio State.”
Most conversations eventually came back around to Ohio State and there was no joking around about the Buckeyes.
But as the Ducks went to work on a week with a regular-season feel, they remembered to follow their coach’s lead.
“You know when coach Helfrich is mad — he turns a little red sometimes, his voice gets a little higher,” Mariota said.
“But his calmness and the way he’s able to stay pretty collected helps us. He always tells us to trust the process and enjoy the moment.”