LOS ANGELES -- For Mark Helfrich, Oregon is personal -- not just business.
The Medford, Oregon, native grew up a Ducks fan before being a Ducks fan was terribly rewarding. That's one big reason he couldn't become the second coming of Chip Kelly, who philosophically viewed personal emotions as a distraction from the concrete task at hand. However, before bolting to the Philadelphia Eagles, Kelly told Helfrich to be himself, and in his second season, Helfrich's self is doing pretty darn well, as the 12-1 Ducks are putting the finishing touches on preparations to meet Florida State in the the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual.
His late parents, Mike and Linda, both attended Oregon. Helfrich was a star quarterback at Marshfield High in Coos Bay, and going to Oregon games was a great family event, even if the football wasn't great and the atmosphere was nothing like the packed Autzen Stadium of the past two-plus decades.
"There was a lot of space out there in the parking lot," Helfrich said. "We had some good pickup games."
While more than a few coaches return to lead their alma maters, Helfrich's connection to Oregon began and endured for much of his life as a fan -- perhaps even more so because he turned down an offer to walk on at Oregon and played QB for Southern Oregon. Although he continues to espouse much of the "Win the Day" philosophy Kelly developed, such as every game being a Super Bowl against a nameless, faceless opponent, he also understands and is more sympathetic to the less businesslike fan and media perspectives.
Being himself also means being slightly more player-friendly and less autocratic than Kelly. When you poll the Ducks on the differences between the two, more than a few mention Helfrich seeks input from players and coaches. For example, he opted to yoke back the intensity of practices this year to help players be more rested late in the season. That seemed to work, and the Ducks won their last eight games by an average margin of 26.0 points per game.
"He really cares about our bodies and makes sure we're getting the right treatment," safety Erick Dargan said. "He's always getting input from players about how we can make it better."
Quarterback Marcus Mariota said Helfrich's personal style has helped cultivate more camaraderie.
"When you have that kind of camaraderie as a team, you can play incredible football," Mariota said. "Coach Helfrich has really gotten us to play the best that we can, and that's all you can really ask of a head coach."
A year ago, that didn't seem to be the case. Even after the Ducks completed an 11-2 season and finished No. 9 after whipping Texas in the Alamo Bowl, plenty of folks -- fans and media -- questioned whether Helfrich could maintain the program's surge into college football's elite. The Ducks had lost a second game in a row to Stanford -- they couldn't handle the physical Cardinal! -- and turned in a lackluster effort in a blowout loss at Arizona.
Helfrich seemed like a good fellow and a smart coach, but there were doubts he could develop that authoritarian and slightly menacing grip of so many top-line coaches, such as Kelly, Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. It turns out those doubts were valid, but Helfrich answered them by being effective in his own way, instead of trying to ape qualities of men with different personalities.
"Mark's strength is he's authentic," Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. "He's the right fit for Oregon. His strength is this hasn't changed him."
What's more, it seems the Ducks -- players and coaches alike -- might be having more fun than a lot of other teams. Although folks inside the program say Helfrich can boisterously challenge his team and get angry with the best of them, he also doesn't feel the need to go all Junction Boys 24/7.
"We have an environment I think is unique in that we take our job seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "I think there's more enjoyment and laughing in our football building than almost any football building in the country."
Of course, it's not all fun and games. Frost pointed out he and Helfrich share an offensive philosophy of constant innovation. They don't want to stand pat on one scheme but want to continually evolve, thereby keeping ahead of defensive coordinators, both in the Pac-12 and nationally. That philosophy also means the Ducks aren't as chummy about inviting other coaches to visit and observe practices and meetings.
First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum lauds Helfrich motivational and organizational skills -- "The way everything is structured is unbelievable," he said -- and how he gives Ducks assistants latitude to coach their own ways.
"He empowers us to do our job and gives us the resources and then says, 'Go,'" Pellum said.
Of course, all this praise will be forgotten, and past doubts will be remembered if the Ducks falter against FSU or going forward in the post-Mariota years. The Oregon Helfrich grew up with no longer exists. The program now is an established national power with palatial facilities and a demanding fan base. Helfrich knows being a native son only goes so far.
“It’s an added bonus because we are winning," he said. "[He and his family] would probably get kicked out of town if we weren’t.”
That's the present reality for Oregon, which is much different than it was during Helfrich's youth. That would be business -- not personal.