Like battering Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich on the message boards? Don’t get used to it. Big program frontmen don’t get much margin for error. 

By Andrew Pridgen

There’s a common misperception among the civilian ranks that football’s head coaches, especially on a collegiate level, have to be one part field general, one part molder of men and one part strategic mastermind. That’s not entirely true. Not today anyway.

Today it’s more like keep one bag packed and one eye on The Scoop for job openings.

At just under 18 months per gig, the average FBS head coach has a shorter job lifespan than the potato splitter at an In-N-Out. Each year, 55 of the 125 don’t make it to a bowl game and that all but guarantees a pink slip.

Win or lose, the average collegiate head coach puts in 100 hours a week on the job in-season. That gives him just a little over nine hours/day to eat, sleep, raise his family and go cry it out next to the town’s transient population on the shores of the campus creek.

The monetary stakes are high if not untenable. Only about one in seven (fewer than 20 total) FBS schools makes money from football and most of the programs, win or lose, are hit with a seven-figure write-down each season.

Before it was solely about the fiscal bottom line, it was about the mental and physical bottom line. The late Bear Bryant is perhaps best known for his handful of quotes stenciled on high school locker room walls today. But my favorite of his truisms isn’t really ready for weight room soundbite prime time. It goes something like this: “There is not a person alive who isn’t going to have some awfully bad days in their lives. I tell my players that what I mean by fighting is when your house burns down, and your wife runs off with the drummer, and you’ve lost your job and all the odds are against you. What are you going to do? Most people just lay down and quit. Well, I want my people to fight back.”

The whole wife-running-off-with-drummer thing (sounds like a personal problem) notwithstanding, I think reveling in adversity and seeing the other side even as the storm clouds are just beginning to gather is the kind of stuff coaching is about. And something a coach like Oregon’s Mark Helfrich has 3.5 million reasons to believe in right about now.

A quick glance at the message boards—the lowest common denominator of human faculty and reason—this morning and one would have thought Helfrich took his headset off in the fourth quarter of Oregon’s second-in-a-row humiliation at home and went and loaded up the van with bags of poo to throw Ronald Miller-style (“You shit on my house!”) on the front doors of most of greater Eugene and Springfield.

We already know how this one will play out. Helfrich is George Seifert to Chip Kelly’s Bill Walsh. For those of you not steeped in 49er history, Seifert was handed a Super Bowl-caliber squad and indeed, won it all his rookie season before sliding into a pattern of just good-enoughness to keep his job for a half-dozen additional years.

Today’s reality is Helfrich won’t get that crack at long-term mediocrity. Hell, he may not make it to the Civil War—and that’s coming the week after he signed a contract extension. The other reality is Oregon is currently a .500 team with two losses against Utah and Michigan State—a duo that very realistically should be vying for the vagina-inspired College Football Playoff trophy in January.

Panic over a team that’s lost as many as they’ve won midway through the season isn’t completely unjustified, however. Oregon will be lucky to escape with fewer than eight in the loss column this year. Next weekend, Oregon looks like duck confit to Chris Peterson’s Huskies who have been mounted and dominated by their neighboring-state rivals for more than a decade (Washington’s last win in the series was 42-10 in 2003, look for a similar score run-up Saturday.) And it gets worse from there: Cal at home, at Stanford and ending the campaign with USC and Oregon State at Autzen, likely putting Oregon in the unfamiliar role of underdog at home.

Helfrich has the shrinking presence of a math sub and the shaky urge to overcompensate like a student nurse inserting her first IV. The combination is engendering about as much faith in his formula for success as a new Farrelly Brothers script. The most forgiving of the disgruntled posts over the weekend went something like, “Nice guy but lame-duck coach.” Pun intended.

As much as we’d like to say we still live in a world where Joe Pa can go 4-7 one season and 11-1 the next. Where Barry Switzer follows three-consecutive four loss seasons with three seasons where he doesn’t lose four games total. Where Darrell Royal puts a trio of four-loss campaigns together followed by a pair of Cotton Bowl victories and a share of the national championship. …Where The Bear Bryant, square-jawed sporter of the Houndstooth chapeau, can lose five games in back-to-back seasons—as well as his wife to a drummer—and keep his job long enough to come back and win three national championships in the ensuing seven-year span …we do not.

We live in a world where Urban Meyer goes 8-5 and leaves Florida in disgrace and physical shambles. We live in a world where Rich Rodriguez rebuilds Michigan for two losing seasons and his fired in the dusk of his third—after he turned the corner at 7-6. We live in a world where Mike Leach is hailed as a savant, a visionary—an architect of football’s future bringing lowly Texas Tech to the national spotlight—until he takes a loss in the Cotton Bowl, goes 8-4 the next season and is shipped off to Spokane.

I’m not really sure Mark Helfrich with his Jimmy Stewart stammer and permanent puzzled expression of Karl Pilkington is really head coach material. Not in today’s era of marketing Jim Harbaugh’s sociopathic rants as inspirational and larger-than-life Nick Saban gazing on as the sculptor strains to get his crease just right in his khakis—or else.

It is a time of swipe left while gathering the torches and pitchforks for the same coach who was once heralded as the “quiet genius” for his revolutionary coaching style—opting for dulcet brushstrokes and thoughtful pause over fire and brimstone.

…That once upon a time was just a little over nine months ago, roughly the equivalent to half a head coaching career if you’re Mark Helfrich or any of his contemporaries.

Andrew J. Pridgen is the author of “Burgundy Upholstery Sky” and believes Mark Helfrich is more of a temp.


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