EUGENE, Ore. -- The seniors at Colorado are getting ready to play for their third head coach.

Here in the Emerald City, the floundering CU football program, which has suffered through seven consecutive losing seasons, isn't considered to be a coaching graveyard.

Mark Helfrich -- the Buffs' much maligned offensive coordinator from 2006-08 -- was named the new head coach at Oregon on Jan. 20.

The 39-year-old Medford, Ore., native replaces spread offense savant Chip Kelly, who parlayed four consecutive BCS bowl game appearances and a 46-7 record into a job as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach.

Mark Helfrich spent three seasons as CU’s offensive coordinator.
Mark Helfrich spent three seasons as CU's offensive coordinator. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

Four years ago, Kelly took a chance on Helfrich, his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, even though CU finished the 2008 campaign ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring (16.9 points per game) and total offense (307.5 yards per game).

During an interview with the Camera, Helfrich reflected on his stint at CU under Dan Hawkins and looked ahead to the challenges of following in Kelly's significant footsteps.

"Obviously we didn't win as many games as we would have liked, but that's a great place and I still have a lot of friends from there," Helfrich said of his CU experience. "Good or bad, you learn something from every situation. The negative there is we just didn't win enough, which is important."


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The Buffs were 13-24 during Helfrich's three seasons orchestrating offenses quarterbacked by Bernard Jackson, Cody Hawkins and at times Tyler Hansen.

Helfrich coached spring football at CU prior to the 2009 season as the yearly quarterback battle between Cody Hawkins and Hansen dragged on.

Then Kelly rescued him from a damaged ship that was beginning to take on a lot of water.

Dan Hawkins was fired after losing nine of his final 15 games with Eric Kiesau as his offensive coordinator.

Oregon's two victories over the Buffs -- by a combined score of 115-16 -- didn't help Jon Embree's cause in 2011 and 2012. The former CU tight end was fired after compiling a 4-21 record during the program's first two seasons as a member of the Pac-12.

Mike MacIntyre, who sent Helfrich a thoughtful congratulatory letter after he was named the head Duck, is the latest coach to bring an optimistic rebuilding plan to the Dal Ward Center.

So why is it so hard to win at CU during this dark era?

"I don't know," Helfrich said. "I think it's a great place, a great university. I don't know. We're trying to worry about our own problems."

 

Next man up

Helfrich is the third consecutive Oregon offensive coordinator to be promoted to head coach, a path Kelly and Mike Bellotti also took in Eugene.

As Kelly's right-hand man, Helfrich helped develop players like Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, LaMichael James, Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas into stars with statistics usually reserved for video games.

Oregon's dizzying and dynamic spread offense, which averaged 49.5 points and 537.4 yards in 2012, is something Helfrich wanted the Buffs to run in the thin air at 5,360 feet.

"What they're doing at Oregon, you could see that vision when coach Helfrich was here," Hansen told the Camera before the Ducks out-gained CU 527 to 231 in total yards without using starting quarterback (Thomas) or running back (James) in a 45-2 romp on Oct. 22, 2011, at Folsom Field. "We just didn't have the personnel. It's been fun to see his offenses do so well the last few years. That's the vision he had for us."

Helfrich, who held together a recruiting class ranked No. 21 by Rivals.com, said his philosophy will be "99.2 percent" the same as Kelly's going forward.

That leaves a little room to put his own stamp on the program he grew up cheering for as a kid.

"Eight of the 10 coaches that have been here for the last four years are still here," Helfrich noted. "That's a show of solidarity that kind of speaks for itself. So we pointed to that (in recruiting). And the University of Oregon and Oregon football, there's enough to talk about in that regard to sell itself."

Helfrich hired Matt Lubick, son of legendary Colorado State head coach Sonny Lubick, as his passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He promoted former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost to offensive coordinator.

"I had a great relationship with Chip. Frosty and I also have a great relationship," Helfrich said of the head coach/offensive coordinator dynamic at Oregon. "Our players get what we're trying to do. ... We have a ton of young guys. We didn't lose a lot of people and we're excited about the competition, especially on offense."

Meeting the standard

Despite Kelly's departure for the NFL, expectations for the Ducks remain extremely high inside and outside of the locker room.

Helfrich, who will reportedly have a $1.8 million annual salary compared to the $3.5 million his predecessor was making, believes Oregon can compete for Pac-12 and BCS championships on an annual basis.

One of the first coaches to call Helfrich with advice was Boise State's Chris Petersen, who is also used to winning between 10-13 games every fall.

"Chris had the best line," Helfrich said. "He said, 'Congratulations and condolences.'

"It's different being the head coach. It's certainly different from preparing an offense and worrying about those guys. The beauty of it is we have a veteran staff that knows what we want. That's been a huge blessing."

On Friday morning the waiting room outside the head coach's office was filled with players wanting to talk to the personable "Helfy" about individual issues.

Helfrich can't wait to get on the field for Oregon's first spring practice where the focus will shift back to football.

"Literally the first question I was asked when this all went down was what color I wanted to paint some wall," Helfrich said. "There's things that come up every day that I've certainly never thought of before or done before or dealt with before. It's been good. Recruiting finished great, our staff did a great job closing that out, and now it's just onward and upward."

Style and substance

There is nothing special about Helfrich's current work space. In fact, it's not as big and doesn't offer as stunning a view as MacIntyre's digs under the Flatirons.

But that's all about to change. Oregon is constructing a new $68 million football operations center scheduled to open this fall.

According to the Eugene Register-Guard, the facility will include 124 climate-controlled lockers, each outfitted with an iPod dock and a charging station, two movie theaters, a Duck football museum, a "war room" akin to the White House's, a 2,285-square-foot players lounge, and a 25,000-square-foot weight room.

The Oregon campus is already dominated by Olympic-quality facilities funded by Nike founder Phil Knight.

"This building is going to be the best athletic facility literally in the world," Helfrich said. "We always talk about how we have all the shiny stuff and we want great people inside."

In other words, the coaching staff isn't just winning games because 18-year-olds love Oregon's ever-changing uniforms.

Oregon's coaches don't just benefit from a better infrastructure than CU. They are working with more talented players.

And it all starts at quarterback.

This season Mariota set the Oregon single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998)

"It's not always 100 percent on that guy, but man it sure helps. We've been fortunate. We've taken a couple guys that weren't that highly recruited and they've been great players," Helfrich said. "You never know exactly how that's going to be until they're in the frying pan so to speak. That position is key.

"Just getting everyone on the same page is something you never know how long that's going to take or how hard that's going to be. Having the right quarterback is vital."

MacIntyre could prove to be the coach that finally gets the Buffs back on track, especially if freshmen Sefo Liufau or Shane Dillon can run his pistol offense at a high level.

Helfrich will be back in Boulder on Oct. 5 when CU hosts Oregon in MacIntyre's first Pac-12 home game.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanThorburn