Oregon Ducks offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at press conference for the 2012 Rose Bowl at the Marriott Los Angeles Downtown. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
If Chip Kelly's last game at Oregon is the Fiesta Bowl, the Ducks have their next coach.
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will be promoted to head coach if Kelly jumps to the NFL, according to a person with direct knowledge of the school's plans. This person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because Kelly is still the Ducks' coach.
No one knows how long that will be the case, though. Oregon plays Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl tonight in Glendale, Ariz., and Kelly hasn't revealed his plans after that. But as previously reported by USA TODAY Sports, Kelly is scheduled to interview with the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. Oregon officials anticipate Kelly, who flirted heavily with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost a year ago, will move to the NFL someday - and most likely very soon.
If so, Oregon would move quickly to replace him, and would stay in-house. Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who had long been linked in speculation to the Oregon job if it ever opened, would not be a candidate, the person said.
"Conceptually, it's about continuity," the person said, adding that Helfrich could be named head coach within 72 hours of Kelly's departure.
The only complication would be an Oregon state law requiring public universities to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching positions. Adopted in 2009 - a few months after Kelly was named Oregon's coach-in-waiting, then promoted to succeed Mike Bellotti - the law is similar to the NFL's "Rooney Rule," but carries no penalties.
"We've got boxes to check," the person said. "There obviously is a process, and those things will be done appropriately. But we'll still end up with the same conclusion."
It also would be the same conclusion the school reached almost a year ago, when Kelly told officials he was taking the Tampa Bay job. Within the space of a few hours, Oregon considered its options and made the decision to quickly promote Helfrich before Kelly changed his mind.
"For a couple hours, he essentially was the guy," the person said.
Helfrich was the choice then in large part because of timing. National signing day was less than two weeks away; Oregon officials were concerned that the time needed to conduct a coaching search would seriously damage their recruiting efforts. But in the months since, the Ducks have grown more at ease with the idea of Helfrich as head coach. A formal coach-in-waiting plan was considered but never finalized.
"The comfort level over time has grown a lot higher," the person said, adding that Helfrich was endorsed by former NFL coach Tony Dungy, whose son Eric is a third-year sophomore receiver at Oregon. Tony Dungy has a home in Eugene, Ore., and lives there part-time.
"I don't think anybody wants to see this change happen," the person said. "But if it's gonna happen I don't think anybody has concern with (promoting Helfrich)."
Oregon has reached unprecedented heights under Kelly, 49, who is 45-7 in four seasons, with three conference championships and four consecutive appearances in the Bowl Championship Series games, including a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship. With flashy uniforms and a fast-paced, innovative offense, the Ducks have grown into one of college football's hottest brands.
Although the school's new status might draw interest from established head coaches - including perhaps Petersen, a former Oregon assistant who has shown little interest in leaving Boise State for other opportunities - the goal in promoting Helfrich would be to continue much of Kelly's philosophical emphasis in hopes of extending the football program's run of success.
Helfrich, an Oregon native who played at Southern Oregon University, has also coached at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, where he was offensive coordinator before joining the Ducks when Kelly succeeded Bellotti. Although the Ducks' high-powered offense is Kelly's brainchild, Helfrich has been heavily involved in game-planning and has earned a reputation for developing quarterbacks.
"He can finish Chip's sentences," the person said of Helfrich. "He's been in that environment long enough (to succeed). It's a leap of faith but it's very similar - I'd almost argue that it was a bigger leap (promoting) Chip than with Mark.
"Oregon football is a stronger brand and a better franchise now. Chip created a culture and a template somebody could perpetuate."
Helfrich's promotion would continue an Oregon tradition. He would become the third consecutive Oregon offensive coordinator promoted to head coach. Before Kelly replaced Bellotti in 2009, Bellotti succeeded Rich Brooks in 1995.