EUGENE — Oregon has fired coach Mark Helfrich after a disappointing 4-8 season, and just two years after getting the Ducks within a victory of the program's first national championship.
Helfrich was head coach of the Ducks for four seasons, leading the team to the first College Football Playoff championship game after the 2014 season. But Oregon faltered this year with a five-game losing streak, and finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 North with just two conference wins.
After taking over when Chip Kelly left in 2013, Helfrich went 37-16. He had an $11.6 million buyout on his contract with the Ducks.
Helfrich met with athletic director Rob Mullens on Tuesday night and was told he was being dismissed. Helfrich issued a statement saying he was honored to have served at Oregon.
"It is with respect and disappointment that we receive this decision," Helfrich said. "Plain and simple, we didn't win enough games this season."
At a news conference following the announcement, Mullens said that Oregon will look outside the program for candidates, and the new coach will make decisions about the current staff. There is no timeline for a decision, but recruiting adds urgency to the process.
Mullens said he informed the players of his decision earlier in the evening.
"It was difficult," he said. "Players were upset because they lost a family member."
The Ducks started this season ranked No. 24 in the preseason AP Top 25, but lost 35-32 at Nebraska in the third week, starting the team's longest losing streak since 1996.
Oregon had a brief revival with a 30-28 victory over then-No. 11 Utah in Salt Lake City two weeks ago, but they ended the season with a 34-24 loss to rival Oregon State in the 120th Civil War game this past Saturday. The loss snapped an eight-game Oregon winning streak in the series.
Afterward, Helfrich was asked about job security.
"Nobody's job is safe in college football," he said. "That's just the nature of the beast."
Fan discontentment with Helfrich grew as the season dragged on and wins were scarce. Some questioned the wisdom of new assistant Brady Hoke's new defensive scheme, or the reliance on graduate transfers at quarterback for the past two seasons rather than long-term player development.
"Didn't win enough games. I mean, that's blunt. But that's the fact. We have to own that part of it. And own the solution," Helfrich said following the loss to the Beavers.
Whatever the reason, Oregon's slide was a reminder of how hard it is to get good. And stay good.
When Helfrich was promoted into the job at the start of 2013, he had the daunting task of replacing Kelly, who orchestrated Oregon's hyperdrive spread-option offense and led the Ducks to their first national championship game appearance in 2010, against Auburn. An affable native Oregonian, Helfrich had served as offensive coordinator under Kelly and recruited future Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
Helfrich went 24-4 in his first two seasons, including a loss to Ohio State in the first College Football Playoff championship. But last year he was challenged with replacing Mariota. He lured graduate transfer Vernon Adams from Eastern Washington, but Adams struggled with injury.
The cracks were showing in that 9-4 season, the first with fewer than 10 wins since 2007. Losses to Michigan State, then at home to Utah and Washington State pushed Oregon out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009.
The ultimate embarrassment came in the Alamo Bowl, when the Ducks surrendered a 31-0 lead and TCU staged the biggest comeback in bowl history to win 47-41 in triple overtime.
This season the Ducks brought in another graduate transfer at quarterback, Dakota Prukop from Montana State. But after five starts, Prukop was benched in favor of true freshman Justin Herbert.
Herbert was one of the few bright spots in the dismal season, throwing for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions in nine appearances.
The overwhelming drag on Oregon's success appeared to be the defense. The Ducks, who switched to a 4-3 scheme under Hoke, spent most of the season mired in the bottom of the NCAA defensive rankings. At times it appeared that the players didn't know their assignments.
The defensive shortcomings were readily apparent in Oregon's 70-21 loss at home to No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8. Huskies quarterback Jake Browning threw for six touchdowns in the victory, which snapped a 12-game losing streak to the rival Ducks.
The issues on defense were again on display Saturday against the Beavers. The Ducks' season ended without a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Oregon had finished every season ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2007.
Mullens said he waited until Tuesday to put some distance between the emotions of the final loss.
"No one wanted Mark to be more successful than me," Mullens said. "We were not competing in a number of games and we were on a poor trajectory."
In the statement Tuesday night, Helfrich thanked his wife and family, the campus community, the fans, and his coaches and their families.
"Finally, to the players — thank you, and I love you," he said. "The future is bright for this young, talented team, and we will be supporting them and their new leadership."