EUGENE — A water fountain tinkles softly beneath Oregon’s new football-operations building, a menacing structure of dark tinted windows and state secrets.
On a recent morning, Mark Helfrich explained how he came to be here and how he hopes to stay. This is a much different Oregon from the one when he was “kinda, sorta” being recruited, a walk-on quarterback out of Coos Bay a generation ago.
He’s the new Oregon football coach, at the new Oregon. Back in 1992, there was no football ops building and no indoor practice facility, no embedded practice fields and no expanded Autzen Stadium.
“This was all gravel,” he said, waving an arm. “Nothing else out here at all.”
Oh, and there were also no outsized expectations of the football program, certainly nothing like in 2013. Oregon is big now, a power player in college football, and the natural inclination is to wonder whether the 39-year-old Helfrich is big enough to keep pace.
“There’s a certain element of our fan base that, if we don’t win the national championship, it’s a failure,” he said. “That’s one angle. At the same time, this is the kind of place you want to be and should be excited about being. It’s a destination job now.
“We don’t sit around and say, ‘Gosh, we have to win every game.’ We say, ‘How can we do this better, how can we do that better?’ “
Those would be only incremental advances, because Chip Kelly, gone to Philadelphia and the NFL, left an imposing shadow. The sample size, four years, is small, but he went 46-7, and his 33-3 mark (.917) in conference games exceeds Pete Carroll’s .816 percentage, otherwise best ever.
Bigger picture, Kelly’s .868 percentage, projected over the 10-year minimum required to make the all-time top 10 of FBS coaches, is better than Frank Leahy (.864), Barry Switzer (.837), Tom Osborne (.836), Urban Meyer (.835) and Bud Wilkinson (.826).
It’s obvious that Oregon could have gone national and made a splashy hire to replace Kelly. Instead, it went the way of more modest operations — think Gonzaga and Butler basketball — and kept it in the family, hiring an offensive coordinator who worked under Dirk Koetter (Boise State, Arizona State), Dan Hawkins (Colorado) and Kelly.
“They believe in our system,” he said by way of explanation, “and they believe in our culture.”
He didn’t say who “they” is, but you can infer that one of them is Nike emperor Phil Knight. Besides the godfather of Oregon athletics, Helfrich appears to have three things going for him:
The expertise he gleaned with Kelly in Oregon’s wildfire offense.
A richly experienced staff steeped in the Ducks’ way of doing things.
A roster that appears capable of a national-title run.
Six of the Oregon assistants have a combined 129 years of work with the Ducks.
“It’s been awesome, to have that many guys stay,” Helfrich says. “All those people know how we want to operate, and you can’t measure that.”
Helfrich has back 15 starters from a team whose 49.5-point average was No. 2 in the country.
The point man is quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose 32-6 touchdown-interception ratio keyed a dynamic offense that not only featured a 1,767-yard rusher (departed Kenjon Barner) but the Pac-12’s No. 1 pass-efficiency unit.
Can Mariota be better?
“He can because he wants to be,” says Helfrich. “He has the combination of the ability and the desire to be great.”
Most problematic, potentially, on offense is the unknown of whether the Ducks have a tailback in the mold of their recent uber-producers. Maybe that’s holdover Byron Marshall (5-10, 201) or five-star true freshman Thomas Tyner of suburban Portland, who scored 10 touchdowns in a prep game last year.
“There’s a lot of pressure on him, being a local guy,” Helfrich said.
The defense must replace standouts in Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, but there are emerging stars all over the defensive line and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is an All-American waiting to happen.
Outside Helfrich’s new office is a large photograph of an Oregon icon, the late Steve Prefontaine, like Helfrich a graduate of Marshfield High in Coos Bay.
Everywhere the new guy looks, the bar is set high.
About the Ducks
Last year: 8-1 in Pac-12 (tie for first in Northern Division), 12-1 overall.
Beat Kansas State, 35-17, in Fiesta Bowl.
Coach: Mark Helfrich (1st year).
Leading lights: QB Marcus Mariota, C Hroniss Grasu, RB-WR De’Anthony Thomas, TE Colt Lyerla, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Key stat: Ducks converted a phenomenal 81 percent (59 of 73) of red-zone trips into touchdowns.
The schedule: UO’s first five opponents had a 14-45 composite record in 2012, so Ducks will almost inevitably come to Washington Oct. 12 with a 5-0 record. Lots could be on the line Nov. 7 at Stanford.