I was wandering down Brownstone Street trying to find shelter from the scorching Burbank sun. Coach Steve Sarkisian had amassed a throng of reporters that had gone three deep all around his wooden picnic table, so I took respite at the Oregon table, where players Royce Freeman and Rodney Harvick were sitting and eating lunch by themselves. I made a couple attempts to engage them in chatter but it was clear that at this stage of the two days, they were as over it as everybody else. I sat there happily eating my turkey burger essentially in silence when Coach Mark Helfrich wandered over. A reporter quickly corralled him and began an interview. I was still good with my turkey when a ginger-bearded fellow in a Pac-12 t-shirt walked over and asked if I was trying to get some time with Coach Mark Helfrich.
"Sure," I said, while hoping there wasn't too much turkey in my teeth.
"Give me a minute and we'll bring you guys inside where you can talk to him."
Wow!! My first exclusive!! I thanked Ginger Beard and a couple minutes later I was standing with Coach Helfrich in an air-conditioned lobby with a few minutes before he'd be heading towards the airport. As coach of Stanford's key rival in the Pac-12 North, as well as someone who'd coached in the most recent National Championship game, Coach seemed like a "great get" as they say. What follows are some really intriguing responses to some questions I'd wanted to ask during his official podium session.
R.J. Abeytia: Last year was my first trip to Eugene, and I couldn't help but notice how everything seemed in sync both on and off the field, from the tiniest details. It seemed like you guys are trying to do way more than just build a football team. How much of that is by design?
Coach Helfrich: ...hopefully we transcend those things, whether it's the city, the community, the state, we want to represent those people as well as possible and our job in that is putting a great product out there on the field and producing great guys and all those things as a product of the system, and there's a lot of thought that has gone into that process and you're constantly trying to refine that process and hopefully it reveals itself in that way sometimes.
RJA: Yeah, well it just felt like it was way more than just the football, it was like everything had been thought out. I mean, do you guys put thought into stuff like that (coaches uniforms I think was what I mentioned here as a detail)?
CH: Sure, yeah,whether it's the exterior of the stadium, or Dave (Oregon PR guy standing close by) singing 'Shout' between the third and fourth quarters, absolutely.
RJA: You guys have a ton of coaching experience, in fact in looking it up, you and Coach Frost are the least experienced members of the coaching staff. How much of that is by design and how much do you benefit from that much football knowledge?
CH: It's awesome, and that's the secret sauce certainly from the staff side of things is just a lot of people that have a ton of trust in one another. We have the longest tenured staff in football, our strength coach has been there for thirty-some years and that just makes you just that more efficient when you're doing a drill, you don't have to sit there and talk about it for an hour and a half, we know exactly what we want, and we have everybody committed to improving that process as it needs to happen.
RJA: You talked about doing a self-scout after the season, after the games. After the Ohio State game would you say the areas for improvement were from prep or from in-game as far as you as a coach and as a team?
CH: Well that's the chasing the tail deal, right? I mean you sit there and, whatever happens in the game, first and foremost, is on the coaches. We have that attitude, and everything that happens out there if it's bad, it's because it's our fault. If it's good, the players made it happen, and that's our approach. And then, if it's something that's simple, that just makes it that much more frustrating whether it's a dropped pass, or a missed (inaudible), who knows why that happens? It could be the guy broke up with his girlfriend, and that's when you play those games in your mind, and you can go crazy. And you can't do that. So you have to take a little bit of the good, flush the bad, and move on.
RJA: Rodney talked about the fact that Ohio State was probably the biggest team, and the strongest team, at all positions that you guys faced. Did that inform any kinds of changes you guys made in terms of conditioning, in terms of what you guys do coming into this season?
CH: Well, in every way you're going to try to improve, and that's a three-pronged approach as well. You have to develop players that you've recruited, and you've got to put them in a great scheme. Those things are totally interrelated. You can't develop a guy that's me and turn him into a great defensive lineman. Like I said, it's got to be recruiting development, scheme.
RA: Last question: You guys played fifteen games last year, awful close to an NFL schedule. Has that ever entered into your mind as a career goal?
CH: I mean, I have a great job and I'm extremely, extremely lucky, but thoughts of that have come up before, and you know, I'll never say never about any of that stuff.
It was brief, but Coach Helfrich gave a lot of sound to unpack. First off, the notion that Oregon puts thought into every single aspect of the program and has managed to effectively synchronize those aspects. It all came together that Saturday in Eugene as I watched the Ducks dismember the Cardinal and by the time the Duck fans were singing 'Shout' as Coach referenced, it had become clear to me just how thoroughly conceived the Oregon program was and how the success on the field was a by-product of so much coordination. Now, singing in the stands doesn't cause Royce Freeman to be unblockable, but I thought it was telling just how detail-oriented the Ducks are and how discernible it is when you go to a game in Eugene.
I also found it impressive how open Coach Helfrich was about the role experience plays in Oregon's success. Typically, he linked it with efficiency, but when you connect it with the three-pronged approach he mentioned later (recruit, develop, scheme) it's clear just how vital that "secret sauce" is in producing the success Oregon's enjoyed during the Kelly and Helfrich tenures. It takes a self-assured coach to surround himself with leaders with far more experience than he himself possesses, but that's Helfrich. He must have one, but he comes off as the closest thing to an ego-free head coach as I've ever encountered. It's really been diluted down to finding the most efficient and effective path to success, and executing it.
Coach Helfrich to the NFL is an intriguing proposition (and a concerning one to Duck fans, I'd think) especially with the way Hurricane Kelly has hit the league. I suspect he'd be great in the NFL, and as a Stanford fan, hope he tries his luck soon.
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