Generation Next

As players celebrate their victory over KSU in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, head coach Chip Kelly (in visor, of course) looks to the future. Photograph by Jack Liu

New Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is a direct descendant, if we can look at this in a sort of biblical sense, of Oregon State alumnus and defensive specialist Rich Brooks, who took over the foundering UO football team in 1977. Brooks begat Mike Bellotti (his offensive coordinator); Bellotti begat Chip Kelly (his offensive coordinator); and Kelly—after shocking Ducks fans and the sports world by accepting the position of head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after initially spurning NFL offers—begat Helfrich (his offensive coordinator).

The generations of Oregon football that began with Brooks reached some sort of summit at the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, as Kelly led the Ducks to a dominant 35–17 victory over the Kansas State University Wildcats. Kelly's relatively brief but singularly successful era at the UO was perhaps epitomized by a few minutes in that game's second quarter.

Kansas State had owned the quarter, scoring on the third play to cut Oregon's early lead to 15–7. The UO offense gained only one yard in its next possession and punted. KSU drove to the UO three yard line before kicking a field goal: 15–10. Then, starting near midfield, the Ducks quickly faced a fourth down with four yards to go. KSU had momentum. The Ducks were sputtering. Giving the ball back to the Wildcats could mean giving up the lead. Few Ducks fans were surprised when Kelly called for a fake punt. But Kelly's bold move failed, giving KSU great field position with plenty of time left before halftime.

The Wildcats drove to the UO 18 yard line, stopped just short of a first down on a third-down pass play. But they flinched—literally. Unwilling to risk failing on fourth down, KSU tried to entice the Ducks into an offsides penalty, but a Wildcat moved first, giving KSU a five yard penalty. The ensuing field goal attempt missed. The Duck offense then put together a lightning quick drive, covering 77 yards in five plays and 46 seconds, scoring to boost their lead to 22–10 and effectively seizing control of the game.

Chip Kelly was never afraid to fail. His audacity, as well as his offensive wizardry, will now be tested in the National Football League. Although hugely successful overall, Kelly had his share of setbacks at the UO. His first game in 2009 against Boise State was a disaster, with little offense in a 19–8 loss and an infamous punch delivered by a star UO running back. Off-season trouble for key players became routine. An NCAA investigation is looking into questionable dealings with a recruiting service. Kelly's closed and seemingly brusque persona turned off some fans, donors, and, especially, local media.

But, like the UO's response to the failed fake punt in the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly's teams responded to adversity and challenge with remarkable and unprecedented success. The statistics of the Kelly era are extraordinary:

  • A record of 46–7. Three of the losses came in the first year.
  • Three conference championships
  • Four straight BCS bowl games. Two straight wins.
  • Final national rankings of eleventh, third, fourth, and second
  • Average score: UO 45, Opponent 22

Oregon finished the year 12–1 (its third straight 12-win season) and ranked second in the nation. Whether this is the mountaintop or just another step on the football program's long climb remains to be seen.

Helfrich is an Oregon native who graduated from Coos Bay's Marshfield High School; both his parents are UO alumni. His coaching career included an earlier stint at the UO as a graduate assistant, and stops at Boise State, Arizona State, and Colorado before coming back to the Ducks in 2009. At a press conference following the announcement of his hiring, Helfrich, who got a five-year deal, said he hadn't quite convinced the UO to give him a "lifetime contract," but he hoped to earn that. "Coaching at Oregon is the pinnacle," he said. Asked how he would differ from Kelly, Helfrich would only give two specifics: "I won't wear a visor, and I'll eat more vegetables."

Infographic by Tim Jordan

—By Guy Maynard '84