It has been 40 years since Oregon fired a head coach. That was also the last time the Ducks went outside the program to fill the spot.
Now Oregon is again looking beyond its current staff following the dismissal of coach Mark Helfrich.
Athletic director Rob Mullens told players that he would be hitting the road on Wednesday and moving quickly to make a hire. Oregon has hired an executive search firm to aid in the process.
“We’re going to look far and wide. We’re going to have a broad, diverse pool of candidates,” Mullens said. “We want somebody who embraces the student experience, who understands the high expectations at the University of Oregon, who understands our community, you know, really, really wants to be here.”
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Helfrich spent four years as head coach of Oregon, promoted to the job after serving under previous coach Chip Kelly. Kelly was previously the offensive coordinator under head coach Mike Bellotti, who was the offensive coordinator under coach Rich Brooks.
Brooks, who coached the Ducks from 1977-94, was hired when the Ducks dismissed Don Read in 1976.
Among the possible candidates being mentioned for the Oregon job are Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, as well as Florida’s Jim McElwain and Penn State’s James Franklin.
Kelly, currently head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said Wednesday he had not spoken to anyone at Oregon except for Helfrich. He was asked if there was a chance he’d be coach of the Ducks and he shook his head and said simply “No.”
“I just felt bad for Mark. I love him like a brother,” Kelly told reporters in Orlando, Florida, where the Niners (1-10) were practicing while in the midst of a two-game road trip. “He’s a tremendous person. He’s a hell of a football coach but he’s an even better person.”
Helfrich was fired Tuesday evening following a meeting with Mullens, three days after the Ducks ended the season with the 34-24 loss to the rival Oregon State Beavers in the annual Civil War game.
Oregon finished 4-8 overall and won just two games in conference play to finish in the basement of the Pac-12 North. It was a dramatic fall for a team that two seasons earlier had gone to the College Football Playoff title game.
Oregon had not finished with a losing season since 2004, which was the last time the team missed out on a bowl game.
“Everybody wants to try and pinpoint to one thing that changes, but clearly over the last couple of years, particularly this year, we weren’t as competitive as we needed to be in a number of games. That’s not the only thing. Then you start to look at the totality of the program and, again, there was a shift in culture. Culture has been the winning edge here and we need to get that edge back,” Mullens said at a news conference late Tuesday.
Helfrich, who went 37-16 in his four years as head coach, had an $11.6 million buyout on his contract with the Ducks. He signed a five-year deal worth at least $17.5 million with the Ducks in February 2015.
Once known for their innovative spread offense under Kelly, the Ducks started showing vulnerability last season when they went 9-4 and got embarrassed in the Alamo Bowl by blowing a 31-0 lead at the half before falling in triple overtime to TCU, 47-41.
Oregon struggled for the past two seasons to find a replacement for Marcus Mariota, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2014 before turning pro. Last year, the Ducks brought in graduate transfer Vernon Adams, whose season was marred by a finger injury. This season, Oregon turned to another graduate transfer, Dakota Prukop out of Montana State, who was unseated by freshman Justin Herbert at midseason.
The Ducks also had trouble on defense. Last season’s defensive coordinator, Don Pellum, was demoted and Oregon hired former Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
But players had a hard time adapting to Hoke’s new 4-3 defensive scheme and the Ducks finished the season ranked 126th out of 128 FBS-level teams for total defense, allowing opponents an average of 528.4 yards per game. Oregon allowed an average of 41.4 points per game, ranked 125th nationally.
The Ducks lost to Nebraska in the third week of the season, touching off a five-game slide that was the team’s longest since 1996. Along the way was Washington’s 70-21 rout of Oregon at Autzen Stadium, which ended the Huskies’ 12-game losing streak in the series.
On Wednesday, a few players spoke to reporters about Helfrich and the uncertainty about the future.
“It’s difficult. He’s the guy that recruited me, came to my house, said he had my back,” freshman linebacker Troy Dye said. “It hurts a little bit. But it’s a business.”
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