University of Oregon officials pivoted quickly Wednesday in reaction to football coach Chip Kelly’s surprising departure, which came exactly three weeks before national signing day for prospective recruits.
Athletic director Rob Mullens said he will “restart" a coaching search that began in preliminary fashion earlier this month, when Kelly interviewed with three National Football League teams following the Ducks’ Fiesta Bowl win. Sources have long indicated that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich has been identified as Kelly’s eventual successor, but Mullens said the athletic department will conduct a national search for a replacement, in part a nod to a state law requiring that at least one minority candidate be interviewed.
“Obviously we’re very aware of where we are in the recruiting period, and the critical nature of finding the next leader," Mullens said.
“But we’re going to be thorough, we’re going to find the right person and we’ll follow all the policies."
Mullens offered no time frame for making a recommendation to university president Michael Gottfredson about a potential replacement. But he said the Ducks will neither name an interim head coach nor retain a search firm, at least initially, possible indications of an expedited process.
Given the looming signing day for recruits, sources have indicated that the Ducks would like to have a coach in place in a matter of days, not weeks, and perhaps as soon as next week. Oregon’s staff of assistants would provide oversight of the program in the meantime, Mullens said, another indication that the hiring process will be speedy, and that much of the staff figures to remain intact.
In the past, successful mid-major coaches such as Boise State’s Chris Petersen — a former Oregon assistant — and TCU’s Gary Patterson have been rumored as potential targets for Oregon. But one UO source suggested recently that pursuing an outside candidate, even one with such strong credentials, would be inadvisable given the continuity that could be maintained by promoting Helfrich.
On Wednesday, Mullens spoke of seeking a coach who “understands the culture" of Oregon football, would play a similar style of offense and has “been around winning programs." Helfrich would fill all of those requirements, as would other current UO assistants, a number of whom could be candidates in the search process, Mullens said.
Duck players interviewed Wednesday were careful not to indicate a preference for a current assistant, much less Helfrich specifically. But safety Brian Jackson did express an expectation that some continuity will be preserved.
“I don’t think that things will be changed so significantly that we’ll be a different program," Jackson said. “I think things will stay the way they are."
Center Hroniss Grasu was asked about the possibility of Oregon hiring a coach who might tinker with Kelly’s up-tempo, spread-option offense, and joked that “I doubt we’re going to have to huddle here," meaning that he too expects continuity in Oregon’s style of play.
But, Grasu said, “whoever the university hires, I’m going to play for that coach. Obviously that guy’s going to be more than qualified."
Mullens did attempt to diffuse the notion that an ongoing NCAA investigation into Oregon’s recruiting practices under Kelly either influenced Kelly’s departure or would affect the coaching search.
“I think we do things the right way here; I think most people in the industry absolutely understand that," Mullens said.
“I just have confidence that, industrywide, people know what’s going on here, and people are doing it the right way."