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Mark Helfrich, the Civil War, and what all this Might Mean for the Pac-12

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Reacting to Helfrich’s exit as an Oregon State fan.

Oregon v Oregon State Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Last night, Mark Helfrich was somewhat unceremoniously fired via what may or may not have been a way too mean/honest press release from the university. And my very first and most important question for him is this: What’s he going to do with all the stuff?

Really this question applies to any coach who's ever been fired or left a program for a new job. Is there a former-head-coach thrift store out there now full of Mark’s 48 different visors and 300 polos, waiting to be consigned to the head-coach-to-be?


Helfrich is going to be alright. He's still going to make about $300,000 a month until January of 2020. He’ll also end up being a successful offensive coordinator, probably somewhere in the SEC. I'm not worried about Mark.

In fact, as a Beaver fan, I wanted him to stay. I wasn't afraid of Mark Helfrich. The constant public criticism of his recruiting and his lackluster defenses made me feel comfortable. The dissipating “"Duck Culture” that Chip Kelly had manufactured using Phil Knight dollars and a fast-paced offense made me feel at ease.

As the ensuing coaching search engulfs our local media and a new “will ________ be the next head coach at Oregon?” article pops up every day until they finally hire someone, I find myself wishing the Mark had gotten another year. And I'm not alone:


The Civil War and Mark Helfrich

So how much did the Civil War loss to Oregon State play a role in Helfrich’s early exit?

Prior to the Civil War game, Oregon still technically had a chance to make a bowl appearance in 2016. With the addition of 7000 new bowl games over the years, even a bottom of the pack (technically just “bottom of the Pac,” I guess) 5-7 Oregon team had a chance at playing in the Burgerville Sweet Potato Fry Bowl. The odds of making a bowl game immediately became zero with the loss at Reser.

And losing to the in-state rival they have dominated for 8 straight years? Also not good for the ol’ coaching resumé.

But would winning the Civil War have made things any different? Despite how good it felt to beat the Ducks this year, some perspective on the game’s implications: In some years, the winner of the Civil War has gone on to the Rose Bowl. This year, the Civil War decided who finished last in the Pac-12 North. Given the great heights from which the Ducks had fallen, there's no way that a coach could keep his job under the pressure that big-money donors are able to exert on an AD. Losing to Oregon State isn’t what got Mark Helfrich fired, but it's what made it way easier to do.

The future in Eugene is murky at best, as recruiting without a coach is nearly impossible. The Ducks have already lost a top commit and are expected to lose another within the week. They have no head coach and a middle-of-the-road recruiting class for the 2017 season by Power Five standards.


What about the Pac-12?

I’m about to say something that will make any Beaver fan uncomfortable so if you enjoyed this article so far maybe stop reading but... it's not good for the conference when the Ducks are awful.

To remain relevant among the Power Five, the Conference of Champions must compete on the national stage against the upper echelons of college football. To recruit with Alabama, you have to play Bama. And you've gotta play them on New Years Day for everyone to see. If all goes well, this year Washington or Colorado will take care of that for us. But I repeat: it's not good for our conference when the Ducks are awful.

In fact, it's bad for the conference when anyone is awful. Given the competitiveness of the Pac-12 and also just mathematically, obviously everyone can't be good. Someone has to come in last place. But as annoying and infuriating and flamboyant as the Ducks are, people across the country recognize their brand and associate it with our conference.

Here’s an example: The Stanford/Oregon game is usually prime-time national television. This year, the 1:00 pm kickoff was on TV as usual... Only it was on the Pac-12 Network, not ESPN or a major network. And at halftime, Autzen was already over a fourth empty due to the Cardinal blowing out the home team. If that many people paying to be at the game drove home before it was even halfway over, imagine how many people flipped to a different channel?

Having Pac-12 schools remain nationally and internally competitive helps recruiting. It draws talent to places like Tucson and Salt Lake City and Corvallis that otherwise would've left for the greener pastures of the SEC or Big Ten. The more competitive teams in our conference are with one another, the better. As much as I always want Oregon State to be better than the Ducks, for the good of the conference and for the good of the Beavers, I don't want the Ducks to fade into irrelevance.

Who Oregon ends up hiring, whether we like it or not, impacts Oregon State. The type of players that make there way to the I-5 corridor, the bowl games our conference gets offered, and the television viewership of #Pac12AfterDark all hinge, in both small and big ways, on Oregon’s next move.