EUGENE — Saturday night, in a team meeting at the Casanova Center, new University of Oregon head football coach Mark Helfrich was introduced to his players.
The reaction? A standing ovation that was more raucous than courteous.
“There was a great vibe in our meeting last night,” running back De’Anthony Thomas said Sunday at a press conference for Helfrich. “I feel like our team is excited for coach Helfrich to step up.”
Four days after Chip Kelly left the Ducks for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Oregon signed Helfrich to a five-year, $9 million contract to take the helm of a program that played in its fourth straight Bowl Championship Series bowl game not even three weeks earlier. And by all accounts, the Oregon players unanimously embraced the promotion of Helfrich, the Ducks’ offensive coordinator for the past four seasons.
“Yes. Yes,” answered safety Brian Jackson when asked if the hire had 100 percent support among the players. “You can just feel it.”
Jackson said many players had been hoping Helfrich would get the job, even when athletic director Rob Mullens announced last Wednesday he would conduct a national search for a new coach.
“He’s been here with us, he understands the way that the program rolls, and I don’t think there’s a better way to keep this thing rolling than to get someone who was with us from the beginning,” Jackson said.
“He knows the process, he knows the struggles, he knows what we go through. For him to move up the ladder, we’re ready for him to take us where we can go next and I feel like this team is going to take off with him.”
Ever since Kelly flirted with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, the cloud of his imminent departure for the NFL has hung over the Oregon program. With that in mind, center Hroniss Grasu said the hiring of Helfrich brought a sense of relief that the process was finally over.
“We had faith in Rob Mullens and this whole university to pick our next head coach,” Grasu said. “I can say none of us were nervous, we were just excited. Obviously we’re sad about coach Kelly leaving and we’re really going to miss him, but we’re real excited for coach Helfrich and what he’s going to bring to this program.”
Promoting from within also gave quarterback Marcus Mariota confidence that the system that has produced a 46-7 record over the past four years will remain intact.
“To have someone like coach Helfrich, who’s been here, who’s been through the process, who understands our culture, it’s very pivotal,” said Mariota, who, when asked if he expected any changes, said, “Not really. Coach Helfrich has been here and he knows the success that we’ve had, and if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.”
Receivers coach Scott Frost is also rumored to be the Ducks’ next offensive coordinator. He was one of many assistants who attended Sunday’s press conference.
Mariota worked side by side with Helfrich, who was also the quarterbacks coach, the past two years, and called Helfrich “a funny guy. Even up there today he was cracking jokes the whole time. That’s the type of person he is.”
Jackson, a redshirt senior who never had much interaction with Helfrich in his previous four seasons, said he is excited to see that side of his new head coach.
“It’ll be fun for me to finally get coached by him because just what I’ve seen from him he seems like a nice guy,” Jackson said. “I told him, ‘I’ll finally be able to hear you talk more,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s good.’ I like him and I think everybody else is all on board, and we’re ready to be coached by him.”