DALLAS — When Chip Kelly left Oregon to take over the Philadelphia Eagles, the next head coach couldn’t just step into an old pair of Nike sneakers in Eugene.
These were giant shoes to fill.
An offensive system installed by Kelly called on the “next man up.” And all of those men had speed rarely seen at the collegiate level — at least concentrated on one sideline.
In his four seasons, Kelly never lost more than three games in a single year, won three conference titles and took the Ducks to a BCS bowl game every season — including a loss in the national title game following a 12-0 regular season in 2010.
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Ezekiel Elliott broke his left hand in training camp before the season, forcing him to carry the ball exclusively with his right. Elliott then became the first Ohio State player in program history to record two consecutive 200-yard games.
These were more like a pair of giant Timberland construction boots to fill when Kelly left two years ago. But there was only one man for the job.
A native Oregonian. A guy who, as a kid, dreamed about playing quarterback for the Oregon Ducks by running on the Autzen Stadium turf and tossing a football after games. A guy who grew up only two hours from Eugene in Coos Bay.
That guy was offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
See, at Oregon, they stay in the family. He was the third consecutive Oregon offensive coordinator promoted to head coach. First it was Mike Bellotti who succeeded Rich Brooks in 1995. Then it was Kelly who replaced Bellotti in 2009. Helfrich is only the fourth head coach in Eugene since Brooks took over in 1977.
Helfrich helped Kelly run one of the most prolific offenses college football had ever seen. Even though it was Kelly who would call the plays, it was Helfrich who, at least a majority of the time, drew up the game plan each week.
That game plan was speed, speed, and more speed.
“I never ever once sat there and said we have to do this kind of thing in those terms at all,” Helfrich said. “I never have viewed this program as Chip’s program. I never have viewed this program as my program. It’s all these guys, it’s obviously a combination of the assistant coaches, the administration, the support, the fans, all those things that go into it, and we’re just kind of on a train that’s trying to get more efficient, better, faster, all those things.”
In 2012, the Ducks’ offense was given the moniker as the best of all time, as it averaged 49.6 points and 315.2 rushing yards per game.
Helfrich could’ve landed in Eugene a lot earlier, but he decided to play quarterback at Southern Oregon — where he was an NAIA All-American and broke numerous school records — instead of accepting an offer to walk on to the Oregon football team.
His only non-West Coast stop in his career came after college when he played and coached for one of Europe’s most dominant American football teams, the Vienna Austria Vikings.
Stops at Oregon (as a graduate assistant), Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado — where he was the youngest offensive coordinator for any BCS team — followed.
He was finally home in 2009 when he replaced Kelly — who had been promoted to head coach – as offensive coordinator at Oregon. And now, he’s leading the Ducks against one of the best head coaches the sport has ever seen, Urban Meyer, for a national championship.
“Obviously whatever the highest distinction is, it’s Hall of Fame, it’s icon, whatever those words are, the two names that you just mentioned [Nick Saban and Urban Meyer] absolutely qualify for that, and that’s why it’s been a great experience for me to be a part of it and see in preparing for Ohio State and all the challenges they present,” Helfrich said. “I don’t know if there’s too many Nick Sabans and Urban Meyers just sitting around, but there’s a lot of talented coaches in our profession for sure.”
A lot of people still call it the “Chip Kelly” offense, but two years removed from it, it’s Helfrich’s.
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The two are still close. So close, in fact, Helfrich changed professional football team allegiances in a direction not too many locals would be pleased with in Dallas.
“I think hopefully Chip is happy that our guys are in this game, and we’re certainly happy for their success,” Helfrich said. “It’s unbelievable that he can’t get in the playoffs at 10-6, but we root like heck for the Philadelphia Eagles, and I’m a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan, and I flipped. We just don’t sit around and go, ‘Hey, okay, that was Jason’s idea, give him credit, that was Johnny’s idea, give him credit.’ That just doesn’t happen.”
The continuity in Eugene has led players like center Hroniss Grasu to buy right in to Helfrich.
“I think he has done a great job,” Grasu said. “What’s amazing with coach Helfrich is that he leaves his ego at the door. Everybody knows what Chip did to this program when he took over and coach Helfrich hasn’t changed that much. The only thing that he has changed is that he brought this team so much closer together. He kind of made it like a high school team. With coach Kelly, it was more about like business and playing football. But with Coach Helfrich he really cares a lot about us as players, as people, and he truly loves us.”
Monday night will see Helfrich match up against a head coach with two national championships and 117 more career victories than he has. But it’ll only take one win to successfully fill those Timberlands that Kelly left behind in Eugene.
Even though Helfrich will be just fine, no matter what, with the swanky pair of Nike sneakers he’ll have on at AT&T Stadium.