EUGENE — Emotions are running high inside the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex this week.
And there are mixed feelings inside the locker room after Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens fired Mark Helfrich as head coach on Tuesday night.
Many of the Ducks have an unbreakable bond with Helfrich and believe he should have been given an opportunity to turn the program back around after going 33-8 over his first three seasons and 4-8 this season.
There was also an acknowledgement from players chosen to speak to the media on Wednesday that Mullens’ assessment of a “culture shift” within the team and a “poor trajectory” for the program has merit.
“I thought we were bouncing back and going upwards,” linebacker Troy Dye said. “I’m sorry Rob Mullens feels that we were going down, but Helf had us on the way back up. It’s really unfortunate to see him go because he really had a plan for us, and of course guys were ready to allow that plan.”
Dye, Oregon’s leading tackler, is one of the 17 underclassmen and 10 freshmen to start on either offense or defense during the season.
Relying on so many young players hinted at a brighter future, but also created a leadership void on the team, something Helfrich acknowledged throughout the season.
“I think overall we’ve been stressing the same things culture-wise — win the day, taking care of each other, horizontal leadership, everyone being a leader on the team, not just looking to the elder guys to be a leader,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Doug Brenner said. “We have been stressing those same things ever since I’ve gotten here. Obviously, we might have done a poorer job of building the culture this last year.
“That’s on some of the older guys like me, that’s on some of the coaching.”
Brady Breeze, a touted member of the 2016 recruiting class who was redshirted, has been following the Ducks closely since childhood, growing up in Medford and finishing his high school career at Central Catholic in Portland. The safety said obviously the program had declined based on the 2-7 finish in the Pac-12 Conference.
“I’ve seen the culture change a little bit,” Breeze said. “It’s turned from more of a team thing from when Chip (Kelly) was here, and then when Mark started it was all team, team, team. I noticed this year it was more individuals. Guys were kind of doing it for themselves or so they could go to the (NFL) and not really worrying about how the season is going. They were more worried about what their stats are.”
The team statistics were not pretty.
Oregon’s defense is ranked 125th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed (41.4 ppg) and 126th in yards allowed (518.4 per game).
With a first-year offensive coordinator, a midseason quarterback change, four new starters on the offensive line and injuries to key players, the Ducks’ offense slipped to 31st in scoring (35.4 ppg) and 19th in total yards (491.7 ypg).
Several teams took advantage of the downward spiral and ended lengthy losing streaks against Oregon.
“You could tell from some of the games this year other teams wanted it more than us,” Dye said. “You look at the Colorado game, you look at their sideline, you look at the Oregon State game … it’s just two different attitudes.
“We’re Oregon. We have the big O on our helmets, we have the big target on our back. Some of those teams want to come out and beat us because we’re a world-wide name and we’ve dominated for the past however many years it’s been.”
Despite all of the success since Kelly was hired by Mike Bellotti as offensive coordinator in 2007, Mullens is looking outside the family for someone to lead Oregon into the future.
The decision on retaining any of the longtime assistants will be made by the next head coach.
Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, whose unit expects to return four redshirt freshmen starters and standout left tackle Tyrell Crosby, appears to be heading into retirement.
“Not the way I wanted it to end but grateful to have coached so many great young men over the past 31 years and work with so many great guys!” Greatwood tweeted on Wednesday.
Returning players understand they may have to start embracing different coaching philosophies this winter.
“That’s going to be a big part of this whole process is, no matter where this ends up going and no matter who takes the leadership role as head coach, we’re just going to have to buy in,” Brenner said. “The quicker more guys buy in completely, the better the transition is going to be.”
Without a bowl game to prepare for, the Ducks have a chance to decompress from a difficult season and focus on next week’s final exams at UO.
Meanwhile, Mullens will try to take the emotions out of the most important decision of his tenure at Oregon.
“(Mullens) wants to get Oregon football back to the success that we were used to,” Brenner said. “There’s definitely some uncertainty with the players right now, but I think it’s just normal with the head coach being fired.”