EUGENE, Ore. -- If Mark Helfrich's father hadn't tracked him down in Europe in July 1997 he might have ended up being Oregon's team doctor, instead of its head coach.
After Helfrich finished his playing career at Southern Oregon, an NAIA school in Ashland, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1996. Helfrich worked as running backs coach at his alma mater during the 1996 season, while starting graduate school with his sights set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But then a trip to Europe changed everything.
In early 1997, Helfrich joined the Vienna Vikings of the Austrian Football League as a player-coach. One of Helfrich's father's close friends had been coaching in Austria for several years and hired Helfrich to help local players learn the game. Helfrich spent the 1997 season playing in Austria, as well as Italy, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
"It was just like John Grisham's book, 'Playing for Pizza,'" Helfrich said. "I wanted to do it for as long as I could."
Helfrich was paid about $800 per month in salary, plus the team covered his housing and transportation costs. The Austrian Football League season lasted from January through July, when the Austrian Bowl decided the league championship.
"The American players are not going over there to make a lot of money," said Tom Smythe, head coach at Lakeridge High School in Portland, who recommended Helfrich to the Vienna Vikings. "They're going over there to play football for another year or two and learn about foreign countries."
After the 1997 season in Austria ended, Helfrich was preparing to travel Europe with a couple of teammates. They planned on spending the rest of the summer in places like Italy, Portugal and Spain before Helfrich returned to school in Oregon.
But then Helfrich's dad, Mike, called him from home. Helfrich's father told him that then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti was trying to find him. Bellotti wanted Helfrich to join his staff as a graduate assistant.
"It was just dumb luck," Helfrich said. "The timing was very bizarre."
While luck might have provided the foundation for Helfrich's meteoric rise in coaching, his preparation and offensive philosophy helped him become Oregon's head coach after Chip Kelly left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in January. Helfrich, 40, is the first Oregon native to coach the Ducks since John Warren in 1942. Eight games into Helfrich's first season as a head coach, the No. 3 Ducks still haven't lost going into Thursday night's Pac-12 showdown at No. 5 Stanford.
Under Helfrich, Oregon is just as explosive and potent as it was under Kelly, who had a 46-7 record in four seasons and guided the Ducks to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. The Ducks are averaging 55.6 points and 632.1 yards of offense per game, which ranks No. 2 among FBS teams.
So much for a transition.
"As long as Chip was here, as long as Mark is here, we're never gonna play afraid of what might happen," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "That's been one of our hallmarks: playing with our foot to the gas all the time."
Even with a new driver behind the wheel.
"The difference in my mind is that they're a little more balanced in throwing the ball, but that's because they're more talented at wide receiver," Bellotti said. "Chip was run first, and when in doubt they were going to run it and run the same play 20 times. It's not a huge difference in philosophy, but it's an evolution in them taking advantage of their personnel."
He's really, really smart and has great people skills. Sometimes, smart people can't get their point across, but he's a great communicator.
"-- Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly
Bellotti, who coached the Ducks from 1995 to 2008 and now works as a college football analyst for ESPN, hired Helfrich as a graduate assistant because he remembered him from one of Oregon's summer camps in 1991. Helfrich attended the camp with a few teammates from Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Ore., and Bellotti coached him during passing drills.
"I really liked him," Bellotti said. "He was a great kid. He was a good athlete, but I really liked his demeanor. I told him we probably couldn't recruit him, but I told him I really liked him. He's intelligent and had a really good football background."
The Ducks ended up offering Helfrich an invitation to join their team as a walk-on, but he instead accepted a scholarship to Southern Oregon. His father, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound former lineman, started his college football career at Oregon, but transferred to Southern Oregon and played there as well. After spending 25 years as vice president of a bank, Mike Helfrich retired and spent the rest of his life coaching youth sports in Coos Bay, a coastal town about 115 miles southwest of Eugene. He was a volunteer assistant coach at Marshfield High for 15 seasons.
When Helfrich was younger, he and his father spent many Saturdays at Autzen Stadium watching the Ducks. Now, Helfrich's office overlooks Oregon's practice fields, where he and his friends used to play football on a gravel parking lot while tailgating before games. On other weekends, Helfrich, his father and brothers were undoubtedly somewhere on the water, either fishing for salmon and steelheads or clamming or crabbing on Coos Bay or the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Coos Bay, the largest city on the Oregon coast, has always been closely associated with the Ducks. Steve Prefontaine, the legendary American distance runner, was a Coos Bay native and graduate of Marshfield High before becoming an international star at Oregon. Helfrich was only a baby when Prefontaine was killed in a car accident near the Oregon campus on May 30, 1975.
"It was just the legend," Helfrich said. "Back then, you didn't have YouTube and other things like that. I remember seeing highlights of the 1972 Olympics and the Munich tragedy on Wide World of Sports when I was 8 years old. It was more of an aura and a legend. It was something you learned about."
After Helfrich went into coaching, his father attended three or four of his teams' games every year. Mike Helfrich died on Sept. 24, 2011, while sleeping in a hotel room in Tucson, Ariz. Doctors believe he developed a blood clot while flying from Portland to Tucson to watch his son coach in a game. Helfrich didn't learn about his father's death until after the Ducks' 56-31 victory over the Wildcats, when a University of Arizona policeman told him the news.
"He was one of those guys that didn't have too many regrets," Helfrich said. "That's one of the neat things about his life. He did the right things and there were no regrets."
Mike Helfrich instilled a love of sports and the outdoors in each of his four sons. Mark Helfrich started at quarterback as a sophomore at Marshfield High and was the only player to start three consecutive seasons in Kent Wigle's 38 seasons as a prep coach. Helfrich spent every Sunday night after a high school game analyzing film at Wigle's house on the other side of the bay.
"He's always been a guy that's more worried about getting wins than who was going to get the credit," Wigle said. "The problem solving is what really intrigued him about the game. He's always been analytical and wants to figure out why things work and why they don't."
After joining Oregon's staff in 1997, Helfrich followed former Ducks offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to Boise State (1998-2000) and then Arizona State (2001-05), working as quarterbacks coach and later passing-game coordinator. Helfrich was hired as Colorado's offensive coordinator in 2006, suffering through three consecutive losing seasons before returning to Oregon in 2009.
"He's really, really smart and has great people skills," Kelly said. "Sometimes, smart people can't get their point across, but he's a great communicator. When I hire people, I want to hire very, very smart people. I wanted somebody who came from a different system. I didn't want a yes-man. I wanted someone who would bring new ideas to our system."
Under Kelly, Helfrich learned more of a mindset and swagger than an offensive system. The Ducks are determined to play fast and are going to take chances, no matter their spot on the field. In a 42-14 win over then-No. 12 UCLA on Oct. 26, Oregon successfully ran a fake punt from its own 26. It was a risk that not even Kelly might have taken.
"With Mark, every time we meet, he says, 'Attack,'" Frost said. "He doesn't want us to hesitate for even a second. That's how we've won a lot of games around here: full-speed ahead, attack, never be afraid of failure. It's been that way ever since I've been here."
The Ducks' aggressive ethos started under Kelly and has continued under Helfrich.
"It's vital," Frost said. "It's been vital for our program. Ninety-eight percent of what Chip was trying to accomplish is exactly what Mark's trying to accomplish. We didn't have to start over with what we want to coach our team. Chip was confident and was going to go for it. It's the same way under Mark. The biggest thing is our players love it and embrace it."
More than anything, the Ducks don't worry if things will go wrong.
"A big part of it is not being afraid to lose," Frost said. "We haven't lost many games around here, but if you're not afraid to lose you won't get nervous when situations comes up. It's tough. I definitely want a kid that hates to lose and will fight with every fiber in his body. They keep their calm and stay confident. A big part of that was Chip's demeanor and now Mark's. If the coach panics, everybody panics."
On Thursday night, Kelly will watch his protégé from afar. He'll probably notice more than a few similarities.
"It seems like they're rolling," Kelly said. "It's a mentality. That's one thing I love about the place, but it always goes back to players. I've been places where a coach felt one way and the players thought another. That's the thing I loved about the place -- they're all on the same page."