EUGENE, Ore. — This time of year, the foggy mist here often burns off by midday, revealing a spectacular autumn kaleidoscope. But one morning earlier this week, the clouds stuck around. It was as if winter — around here, damp and gray for months on end, with occasional sunbursts — had arrived a few weeks too soon in the Willamette Valley.
The only thing drearier is the mood surrounding Oregon football.
After a period of spectacular success, the Ducks have fallen into a tailspin. Less than two years ago, they played for the national championship. But at 2-4 halfway through the season, they’re playing down to a level unseen in decades. At least for now, the questions aren’t about whether the Ducks will even qualify for a bowl, but if they’re about to make a coaching change.
Earlier this week, after declining requests by USA TODAY Sports and other media entities, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens took to the airwaves on a school-produced radio program to offer support for head coach Mark Helfrich. He acknowledged “a lot of frustration” among the fan base, and said “everyone is disappointed,” including himself.
“I understand the frustration,” Mullens went on to say. “Absolutely appreciate the passion. We are six games into the season and not where anyone wants to be. But there’s still an opportunity to turn this a little bit and start to see some positive results.”
What that means is anyone’s guess, and it should be noted that Mullens was not directly asked about Helfrich’s job status, nor did he directly address it. But it’s clear Helfrich’s situation is tenuous, and that what happens over the next few weeks might determine his future — and Oregon’s.
Would 4-2 (for 6-6) be enough? Or 3-3 with momentum and signs of huge growth? Keep in mind that the second half of the season includes home games with Arizona State and Stanford, as well as road games at Cal, USC, Utah and Oregon State. And it’s probably not so much about a final record as a sense of the overall trajectory of the program, and confidence (or lack thereof) that the Ducks can quickly return to contending in the Pac-12 and for the College Football Playoff.
The problems are clear
No one’s much asking what’s gone wrong. The answers seem fairly obvious. A defense that’s a little less porous than air. An offense that’s gone from explosive to pedestrian, though maybe that homegrown kid who’s just been named the starter at quarterback could provide a spark. And underlying everything, a glaring lack of top-line talent.
Washington’s 70-21 victory Saturday — the most points ever scored by an opponent at Autzen Stadium — served as a huge exclamation point, the kind of result that counts, in its effect on perception, as far more than one loss.
“It’s different than a normal loss, no question,” Helfrich said afterward, and he added: “I apologize for that score.”
Asked about the comment Thursday, he told reporters: “I know what that (score) means. Again, it’s very frustrating for all of us.”
Yeah, a hated rival ended a 12-year losing streak, but that was bound to happen. It was more how the Huskies easily manhandled the Ducks — a lot like how Oregon treated opponents so often during its recent run.
And it wasn’t so much about the gap between the programs on a given Saturday as what appeared to be diverging trajectories. Washington looks like a Playoff contender. Oregon looks like a team that might struggle against anyone.
The loss to Washington was only the latest eye-opening, bigger-than-a-loss loss. Last year Utah ripped the Ducks 62-20 at Autzen. In the Alamo Bowl, Oregon blew a 31-0 halftime lead and lost to TCU. Those moments aren’t easily forgotten, especially when during their rise and reign atop the Pac-12, those were the types of beatdowns the Ducks regularly inflicted.
Going into this season, the Ducks had won 79 games in seven seasons and played in two national title games during that span. They did it without a natural recruiting base or tradition of winning big. It’s an incredible run, considering everything. And it’s an open question whether that kind of success is sustainable, by any coaching staff.
But that doesn’t much matter. The expectations just are, and they’re not changing. Having come so far and gotten so close — and having invested so much to get there — the Ducks are dead-set on remaining.
“We’re never going to back down from those expectations,” Mullens said on the in-house program. “We’re going to continue to work every day to find what we need to do to support those expectations and see those results. That formula is not going to change.”
There’s also this important piece: Phil Knight is 78. The Nike founder and Oregon alum has been the single biggest catalyst, both in financial investment (hundreds of millions of dollars given to the entire university, not just athletics) and in turning the creative brainpower of his shoe company toward making Oregon into a power.
Those who know Knight say he is not impatient. But they note he’s not getting any younger, either, and that he has high expectations about results after significant investment.
Cold financial math will enter the equation, too. In the second half Saturday, Autzen Stadium was maybe half-full, which should be alarming. Not necessarily because a lot of people left early — but because some of them might not return next season.
Oregon’s sellout streak, which had reached 110 games, ended earlier this season. Though it had been gimmicked up for a while in order to keep it going, it was still impressive. Now it’s over. And it would be wise, especially if the second half of Oregon’s season is anything like its first half, to pay attention to season ticket renewals.
Autzen Stadium seats 54,000. When compared to the peer group of college football’s elites that Oregon wants to inhabit, the stadium and fan base is small. The athletic department’s operating margin is thin. A decrease of, say, 10,000 in average attendance might mean $10 million in lost revenue.
Time for a culture change?
But any calculus on whether and how to change also includes this: Is Oregon ready to blow up the culture that was carefully crafted over the last decade. That’s not a light consideration.
When Helfrich was promoted in January 2013, after Chip Kelly left for the NFL, it made perfect sense. Helfrich was regarded as whip-smart, a guy with high integrity and a very good football coach. He was universally liked, and he was a native Oregonian, to boot.
He had been offensive coordinator for Kelly’s four-year tenure, in which the Ducks went 46-7. No one wanted to change anything about the culture Kelly had built — meaning, mostly, the fast-paced offense and the accompanying brash swagger.
In an interview that spring with USA TODAY Sports, Helfrich said the only change he might make would be to the trademarked phrase “Win The Day.” He suggested “Win Today,” noting it was a letter shorter, and thus perhaps a little more efficient. He was just joking; when he was introduced, he promised he was “99.2 percent” on board with continuing what Kelly had started. The difference: He wouldn’t wear a visor. He would eat vegetables.
Considering everything, promoting was probably the right move — but by everything, maybe we mostly mean Marcus Mariota.
In retrospect, the presence of the best quarterback — make that perhaps the best player — in school history masked some developing cracks in the program, especially in recruiting, and obviously on defense. And it’s also apparent that college football was changing even then.
Now it’s evident: The hurry-up spread, the fantastic facilities, the multiple uniform combinations — almost everybody does it or has them. If none of that is really unique anymore, where is Oregon’s edge? It might be time for cultural change.
There’s hope that Justin Herbert, the newly installed starter at quarterback who grew up in Eugene, might spark the offense — though that seems like an awful lot to put on a true freshman’s shoulders. And that won’t address the Ducks’ defensive deficiencies.
After the Alamo Bowl debacle, Helfrich demoted defensive coordinator Don Pellum to linebackers coach and hired Brady Hoke, the former Michigan head coach. But Oregon ranks third-worst nationally in total defense (surrendering 522 yards per game), fourth-worst in scoring defense (allowing 41.8 points per game).
Hoke’s move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment might ultimately be a good move. But in the immediate, the Ducks don’t appear to have the necessary space-eaters on the defensive line for the scheme. And with Oregon, the short-term — as in, starting next week at California — appears critical.
“Nobody is happy,” Helfrich told reporters Thursday. “There’s not one person in our organization that’s happy with any result. Again, we have to be about fixing that.”
Which brings us back to Mullens’ careful phrasing in response to those softly lofted questions on that in-house show earlier this week.
“There is a time,” the athletic director said, “where you look at it all and say, ‘How did we perform?’ ”
It feels like that time’s coming very soon. Which means there had better be a big turnaround in the season’s second half, with results that provide reason to believe the program is hurrying back to where it’s been.
Otherwise, the forecast for Oregon football will be clear: winter is coming.