Oregon has gotten used to winning, and winning big, in football over the past decade. So one losing campaign was all it took for the school to fire its head coach, Mark Helfrich.
After posting records of 11-2, 13-2 and 9-4, plus a berth in the first College Football Playoff championship, in Helfrich’s first three seasons running the program, the Ducks stumbled to 4-8 in their 2016 campaign. It was the first losing season since 2004, with the worst record since 1991, and just the second since 2008 that didn’t feature double-digit wins.
“We want to thank Mark for his eight years with the University of Oregon and appreciate his efforts on behalf of Oregon football,” Athletic Director Rob Mullens said in a statement. “We wish Mark and his family the best.”
“It is a great honor to have served as the head football coach at the University of Oregon,” Helfrich said. “It is with respect and disappointment that we receive this decision. Plain and simple — we didn’t win enough games this season. … The future is bright for this young, talented team, and we will be supporting them and their new leadership.”
The final nail in the coffin may have been a season-ending loss to archrival Oregon State, one in which the Ducks led 24-14 in the second half before falling by a 34-24 score. The Beavers had lost eight straight to Oregon going into that game. Similarly, another rival, Washington, had lost 12 straight to Oregon but trounced the Ducks, 70-21, in October. That was part of a five-game losing streak that followed a 2-0 start for the then-22nd-ranked squad.
The 43-year-old Helfrich had been the offensive coordinator for Chip Kelly when he got promoted to the top job in 2013. He inherited quarterback Marcus Mariota, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, but Helfrich was criticized for failing to recruit, or groom, another talented young quarterback.
However, the Ducks’ biggest failing in recent seasons was on the defensive side of the ball, where the team ranked 115th in scoring defense last year, then fell to 125th (out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams) this season. This year’s Ducks finished last in the Pac-12 North standings at 2-7.
Oregon had not fired a football coach in 40 years, and the school owes Helfrich an $11.6 million buyout for the final three years of a contract extension he signed in February 2015, shortly after the Ducks lost to Ohio State in the inaugural CFP title game. Some coaches linked to the now-vacant position include Florida’s Jim McElwain, Penn State’s James Franklin, Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin.