Oregon has fired a football coach for the first time in 40 years. Perhaps more stunning: The school canned Mark Helfrich just two years after he guided the Ducks to the national championship game against Ohio State.
Helfrich, who went 37-16 in four seasons, left his normally patient employer little choice as the Ducks declined rapidly this season, especially on defense. The inability to prepare for Life After Marcus (Mariota) ultimately cost Helfrich, a sensible successor to Chip Kelly who many expected to keep the Ducks rolling.
What does Oregon do now? As the Ducks enter somewhat unchartered waters, ESPN's Search Firm is back together to plan the next steps. National college football reporters Mark Schlabach and Chris Low join me as Search Firm regulars. Oregon-based Pac-12 reporter Chantel Jennings will lend her expertise and Erik McKinney, who covers Pac-12 recruiting for ESPN.com, also joins the Firm.
As always, we break down the job, the criteria and the candidates before offering our recommendation.
The Oregon job
Chantel Jennings: You have to drive to two hours to get to a major airport. Everyone's doing the uniform thing now. Everyone runs a spread offense. Everyone gives their players a bunch of swag. They have the Phil Knight connection, but at this point, how much does that actually result in a net positive? With USC and Washington rising, I don't think it's anything special.
Mark Schlabach: It's still an above-average job, just because of the Nike connection and the facilities are so good, and the new academic center is spectacular. If you're going to compete with USC and Washington and UCLA in recruiting, you're going to have to go down to Texas and other parts of the country. Like Chantel said, it's just so hard to get to Eugene.
Erik McKinney: It's always going to be a good job, but I think it will have a tough time breaking into that "great job" category. The kids all want to go visit. They get there and they realize what that commute would be, what that flight is, what that drive is from the airport to Eugene. That last part of it, getting them to sign off on that distance, is tough, and you're not moving the campus. If you try to just stay in state, you can't do it. Oregon is producing better players -- the 2017 class is really good, the 2018 class has a chance to be great -- but it's still not giving you a real base for your roster.
Adam Rittenberg: I also wonder how much Washington being back, in a sense, is going to hurt Oregon. Having recently been there, the Huskies are in a city, they've got great facilities, they've got a better stadium, they've got a larger fan base and a much larger local recruiting base. And they'd lost kids for years to USC or UCLA or Oregon. Now they're in a better position to keep more of those kids at home and maybe take more kids from the state of Oregon. Oregon really capitalized on Washington being down.
McKinney: You look at the 2017 class and Washington has the top two commits from the state of Oregon.
Chris Low: Coaches look at a place and say, "Where has it been done before?" When Nick Saban went to Alabama, Alabama had struggled, but they've had long-term success. Oregon was in the championship game in 2010 and 2014, so two of the past six years they've been in the money game. They're right there. The program has proven it can get to that stage. A lot of these programs have never been there, and they supposedly have better jobs. It's third or fourth in the Pac-12.
The Phil Knight factor
McKinney: It's 100 percent positive. As a coach, when you're there, you are going to have every bit of everything that you could sell to recruits that any other school can. At least from recruiting, I don't see it as any sort of negative.
Schlabach: It's beneficial because unlike at Texas and some other places, you don't have 27 voices in the room, you don't have 27 people to please. You've got one mega booster and donor who is the face of the alumni association. If you keep him happy, you're OK.
Oregon's criteria for its next coach
Rittenberg: It has to be somebody with an offensive background but who also has a healthy respect for their defense and a track record of recruiting defensive players. I'd have a hard time seeing a coordinator getting this job again after Mark Helfrich's promotion. It's going to be somebody who has had to run the whole deal at a high level before. I also think they need someone who will bring in younger assistant coaches. Continuity is great but Oregon's staff seemed to get stale at the end.
Schlabach: It has to be somebody who has recruited Texas and recruited outside the Northwest. You've got to expand the recruiting base to be ultracompetitive in the Pac-12. You're not going to get enough players out of Oregon, Washington and Hawaii to build a Pac-12 contender. And I definitely agree it has to be somebody who can put a competitive defense on the field. It's got to be an offensive mind who can wow the recruits and the alumni and the fans, but they can't keep playing defense like this.
McKinney: So much of recruiting now is done by ops guys or assistant coaches or analysts. You don't need a guy with ties to all these different places. You can bring in assistants from wherever you want and still get that. It's less about the recruiting ability of the head coach and more about the connections with as many people on the staff as possible.
Jennings: Going to the Hal Mumme school is interesting because you've seen how competitive and successful Mike Leach has been, especially once he finally hired a guy, Alex Grinch, who can really mold the defense. The Air Raid is doing pretty well. Cal last year was a lot stronger. That's who you're competing with to get to the Pac-12 title game.
Low: I bet Oregon goes out and really tries to hit a home run.
Schlabach: The other thing is I think you need a guy with a big name and a big personality. You've got to have the opposite of what you had with Helfrich. You get a guy who's loud, boisterous, demanding, and not as stoic and laid-back as Helfrich.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen: He has the stuff we've been talking about. A guy who has had so much success but is going to have a hard time making the playoff. He has the personality, he has the pedigree, he has been a head coach. -- Jennings
I think Dana would be a good fit at Oregon. He's an offensive-minded coach. He has strong ties to Texas. He's got about everything he can get out of West Virginia, and for some people, that's still not enough. They expect him to compete with Oklahoma and Texas, and yet he's far behind in terms of facilities and coaching salaries and everything else. He's isolated from the rest of the league. He'd take the job for sure. -- Schlabach
He would jump at it. - Low
Recruiting would be pretty similar, too. He's used to going into Florida, he's used to going into Texas. It's not like West Virginia is crawling with a bunch of recruits. -- McKinney
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin: He's a Chris Petersen disciple, recruited in Texas, been a head coach at Arkansas State, working in the Northwest now. --? Rittenberg
He checks a lot of the boxes. He's got a much more of a radiant personality than Petersen, more outgoing. Offensively, they're similar. -- Low
Everyone is saying Harsin is not necessary that wow guy. But I think the way they make that more exciting is if they bring in Justin Wilcox as the defensive coordinator/assistant head coach. They would be Chris Petersen's first hires as the head coach at Boise State. Wilcox is an Oregon guy. Those two together are more impressive to me than just Harsin. --? Jennings
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora: He checks a lot of the boxes. He's an offensive guy and he can recruit Texas. He's vibrant. They've gotten a little bit better on defense. -- Schlabach
Washington coach Chris Petersen: I know Chris is a different cat and he's not driven by money, but to some degree we're all driven a little bit by money. What if they do call and offer him $8 million or $9 million a year? -- Low
San Francisco 49ers (and former Oregon) coach Chip Kelly: I could see Chip wanting to go back to college football. I don't think any coach's ego is going to take many one-win seasons in the NFL when he has a proven formula for success in college. -- McKinney
That's the thing. If he comes back to Oregon, he's a god. He is the messiah in the state of Oregon. -- Jennings
I don't see Chip going back. I think it's a pie-in-the-sky thing. The 49ers aren't going to fire a coach after one year for the second straight year. Even they're not that dumb. He'd have to willingly want to get away. -- Rittenberg
The Firm also discussed Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and UCF coach (and former Oregon offensive coordinator) Scott Frost.
The search firm's recommendation: Dana Holgorsen or Bryan Harsin
Oregon hasn't gone outside of the program to look for a head coach in so long, so it's going to need to make as much of a splash as possible. The Ducks get that with Holgorsen, a Power 5 coach with a lot of personality. Bonus: They get an offense that can keep up with high-scoring teams in the North Division, and a defense that has held Big 12 offenses at bay better than most. --? Jennings
While Oregon -- thanks to Nike -- is one of the flashiest programs in the country, I don't think it needs a flashy hire at head coach to be successful moving forward. Success for Oregon will be far more about putting a plan in place and developing players -- especially on the defensive side of the ball -- rather than simply bringing in a high-powered offensive mind or someone known as a strong recruiter. Harsin would continue a run of offensively minded Oregon coaches, but he has shown an ability to field a solid defense as well, and has done it with the three-star recruits that Oregon has traditionally turned into stars. --? McKinney
I'd feel more comfortable going with Holgorsen over Harsin just based on overall experience and a little longer track record of recruiting in Texas. I think either candidate fits at Oregon, but Holgorsen has worked extensively at Texas Tech and Houston and recruited Texas high school players for Oklahoma State as well. -- Schlabach
Harsin. He's a West Coast guy who has a strong offensive background but has also had balance in his program at Boise State. --? Low
Holgorsen's experience in the Power 5 and the maturity he has shown as a head coach gives him my vote for Oregon. The offensive expertise is there, but the way he has embraced defense is exactly what Oregon needs after the past two seasons. West Virginia also had an outside-the-box approach to recruiting, which is exactly what Oregon needs right now. -- Rittenberg