Oregon's football program has had one of the best 8-year runs in the history of college football. As Husky fans we need to acknowledge that to show we aren’t biased. Though they are on the cusp of a national championship, the 2013 promotion of the inexperienced and unaccomplished Mark Helfrich should carry some long-term concerns.
To evaluate the near and future outlook for Mark Helfrich’s tenure at Oregon, we studied the performance of coaches who were promoted internally to head coach following a legendary or elite head coach. We had two pieces of criteria for determining elite head coaches. In their last five seasons they won at least two conference titles (including ties) and had at least two top 5 finishes (by SRS rating) or won the national championship. We included a #1 SRS rating as winning a national championship.
10 coaches fit the criteria, including Chip Kelly who only coached four seasons. Barry Switzer and Butch Davis each reached a #1 SRS rating once. Lou Holtz and Jackie Sherrill did not meet the criteria due to not playing in a conference. We also included Jim Harbaugh who likely would have met the criteria if he coached a few more seasons.
Next are the coaches who were promoted to take over for the elite or legendary coaches. The data we included was win percentage, top 10 finishes (SRS rating), conference titles (0.5 for a tie), and the coach’s record his last two seasons.
Tom Osborne is the outlier in the study as he is arguably one of the greatest coaches in college football history. His ascension at Nebraska was similar to Chip Kelly’s at Oregon. Bob Devaney fell to 6-4 in 1967 and 1968. In 1969 he promoted a young Tom Osborne to offensive coordinator. Osborne changed the offense and Nebraska went 42-4 in the next four seasons and won two national championships. Osborne then was promoted to head coach.
The best comparisons to Mark Helfrich are Frank Solich and Larry Coker. After a disappointing first season Solich in his second season went 12-1 and finished #2 in the Coaches poll. Two seasons later he reached the NC game. Coker inherited a juggernaut and played for the NC in his first two seasons (2001-2002). The two coaches won 82% of their games in their third and fourth seasons but regressed after their fourth season, winning only 63% of their games in their next two seasons.
We could be seeing a similar fate with Stanford’s David Shaw. After winning at least 11 games and two conference titles in his first three seasons, he went 8-5 in 2014. The metrics show it was a strong 8-5 (top 20 SRS) but the study suggests Shaw’s regression has likely begun.
While Oregon does share a similarity as a program to Michigan (history of internal hires), the comparisons to Larry Coker and Frank Solich make the most sense. Like those coaches Helfrich inherited an elite program and will coach in the NC game. Both Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr inherited a solid but not spectacular program that was very consistent for a long time. Bo Schembechler barely filled the criteria as Michigan was ranked #1 in SRS in his fifth to last season.
The study argues that Helfrich could maintain Oregon’s elite status for two more seasons but suggests major regression thereafter. If Chris Petersen is who we think he is then he will have our huskies rebuilt and ready to contend right at the time when Helfrich and Oregon will begin their regression.