From small town to big time

Matt Sayre has no doubt that his buddy, former Southern Oregon University quarterback Mark Helfrich, will succeed as Oregon's new head football coach.

Sayre, now the Raider athletic director, began his coaching career in 1995 as an SOU assistant to Jim Palazzolo, working with receivers and quarterbacks.

That was Helfrich's senior year, and the two struck up a friendship that continued the following year, when Helfrich was a graduate assistant, and beyond.

Helfrich was hired Sunday to replace Chip Kelly following the latter's jump to the Philadelphia Eagles, and a number of former SOU coaches and teammates are confident the bright, witty, engaging person they've known will live up to lofty expectations in Eugene.

Sayre shared a story about when Helfrich was on a recruiting trip in his first year under Kelly.

Helfrich liked to call from random recruitment places, said Sayre, like Delaware, Oklahoma, southern Florida. It was even better if the town was small and in the middle of nowhere.

One time, a call came from deep in Alabama, where a high school coach had dissuaded Helfrich from offering a player a scholarship.

Helfrich adopted a "perfect Alabama drawl" and repeated to Sayre what the coach told him.

"Mark," Sayre recounted, "that kid'll run a hole in the wind, but he ain't seen nuthin' but two cricks and a stump in his whole life. He won't make it at Ory-gun."

In a way, Sayre said, the story is a metaphor for Helfrich's situation. He comes from a small town, Coos Bay, and now is on a big stage. The difference, according to those who know him, is that Helfrich is fully prepared and capable to keep the Ducks' atop the college football world.

Steve Henninger was a defensive lineman on those Raider teams of the early 1990s and, as vice president, took over Helfrich's duties as student body president when the quarterback's schedule became too crammed.

"We knew he had the 'It' factor," said Henninger, who works for a global logistics company in Portland. "Whatever he ended up doing, it would be out of the ordinary and exceptional. It doesn't surprise me that he climbed this high."

Nor has Palazzolo been taken aback.

"He's fully equipped beyond what most people understand," said Palazzolo, who was head coach of the Raiders from 1989-95 and is now a mortgage loan officer in Medford. "We're talking about a very special guy."

Helfrich starred at Marshfield High, leading a resurgence under coach Kent Wigle. As a senior in '91, Helfrich quarterbacked the Pirates to the state quarterfinals, and his passing and running skills, to say nothing of his intellect — he was class salutatorian and intended then to go into medicine — made him a sought-after commodity.

Most of the small schools on the West Coast recruited him, said Palazzolo, and Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti beseeched him to walk on.

"It wasn't easy," said Palazzolo of getting his man. "It was extremely competitive."

The Raiders needed to replace David Searle, and they landed Helfrich, who was born in Medford but moved away at an early age. Both his father, who played football for SOU in the 1960s, and his mother graduated from the school and would be able to watch him play at their alma mater.

As a freshman, Helfrich shared time with Medford's Brent Barry. But when the senior Barry was injured, Helfrich took over and showed flashes of what was to come.

A year later, with a full offseason of workouts and study, Helfrich impressed from the get-go. He soaked up information at a remarkable rate and put it to use on the field.

"We had a virtual computer behind center," said Palazzolo.

There was seemingly nothing the signal caller couldn't handle. Spread option out of the shotgun — what many are doing now but few were back then. No-huddle. How to utilize numerical advantages. Recognizing mismatches and angles in the running game. Identifying and changing protection schemes.

You name it, Helfrich knew it.

"I hardly ever called a play, he understood the defenses so well," said Palazzolo. "We would signal in concepts, that would be about it. We were able to take what we were doing and expand it much further just because of his mental capacity."

Indeed, said Henninger. No matter what stadium they were in or how crowded it was, Helfrich was probably the smartest person in attendance.

"I don't know if we ever got into a bad play," said Palazzolo, "because he understood what we were trying to accomplish so well."

Palazzolo recalled a couple of the instances Helfrich audibled out of plays and struck gold.

In the first game of his sophomore season in '93, Helfrich called "Awol" at the line, sending the 'A' back through the hole to a post pattern, resulting in a touchdown of 60-some yards.

"I knew right then we had something special," said Palazzolo.

And as a senior, Helfrich checked out of a play against Linfield, luring the Wildcats to collapse into the middle while he took off, untouched, around an end for 83 yards and a score on "one of his great, great plays," said Palazzolo.

Jason Bauer, for 15 years a South Medford teacher and assistant football coach, was the Raiders' starting running back and Helfrich's roommate.

He spoke to the cerebral side of his friend, with whom he remains in regular contact. They took biology, for which Helfrich has a degree, and science courses together.

"It was always a joke that we wanted to dispel the dumb-jock perception," said Bauer, who teaches biology and horticulture. "We worked hard and studied together and did well in school. He's a bright guy."

When a lecture got "dry," said Bauer, they'd pass notes. He still has an old biology notebook in which Helfrich drew a caricature, put Bauer's No. 34 on it and labeled it the "Albino Rhino."

Bauer in turn teased Helfrich about being "Everybody's All-American."

Kidding aside, Bauer did marvel at how Helfrich, as a sophomore, stood in front of the team during Friday night meetings and gave motivational speeches.

"He was just a natural leader, and it definitely showed," said Bauer.

They also shared one unfortunate trait: a penchant for injury.

Helfrich burst onto the scene as a sophomore, leading the nation in total offense with 3,196 yards. He passed for 2,712 yards, with 23 touchdowns, and ran for 484, with three scores.

The ensuing winter, spring and summer, he worked exceedingly hard and was "the near-perfect" quarterback when fall camp opened, said Palazzolo.

But on the first day of practice, when players weren't even in pads, Helfrich came down the line on an option drill and was poked in the eye. So severe was it there was concern the loss of sight in the eye would be permanent.

"I'd go home and he'd be sitting there with no lights on and the drapes and everything closed," said Bauer. "He was super sensitive to light."

He returned at the tail end of his junior season, wearing a dark shield on his face mask.

A year later, in the second game against Linfield — against whom he'd already broken off the long TD run — he suffered a lower leg injury that ended his season.

"I do know," said Palazzolo, "that if he had not gotten injured, the record book at Southern Oregon would be quite a bit different."

Helfrich still owns single-game records for passing touchdowns (six) and passing attempts (62) and ranks among the leaders in many categories. His passing yardage total of '93 was a record until Austin Dodge shattered it last fall.

When Dodge did so, Helfrich asked Sayre to pass along his congratulations.

Surpassing Helfrich's numbers would have been more of a chore had he played all of his final two seasons. During that time, former Ashland standout Chad Guthrie stepped in an put up stats that would rival or surpass Helfrich's career numbers.

For all he did on the football field, Helfrich is credited by Palazzolo and others with helping to save sports at SOU.

Budget cuts were a primary concern in the early '90s, and football and other sports often were deemed expendable by various entities.

Palazzolo often trumpeted his players of outstanding academic achievement and character, and no one epitomized that more than Helfrich, he said.

It was Palazzolo who encouraged his players and other school athletes to get involved in student government and have a say in the decision-making process regarding student funds.

"Jim knew we should be involved in the process, and we were not," said Henninger. "He encouraged us to get involved not only from a learning perspective but for what it meant to the college."

Helfrich was inducted into the SOU Sports Hall of Fame last fall. He couldn't attend because of obligations as the Ducks' offensive coordinator, but he provided a 3ÿ1D2-minute video for his acceptance speech.

In it, he said he was very proud to have run for office and for his part, along with others, in "quote, unquote, saving Southern Oregon athletics."

He thanked his former coaches and other school personnel and teammates and recalled great times in Ashland: the Fourth of July parade, trying to get dates for the Shakespearean Festival and the flood of 1997, when so many people grabbed shovels to fix things and, he said, "somehow that turns into a great experience."

Helfrich played a year of football in Vienna, Austria, upon graduation, then served as a graduate assistant at SOU in '97 under then-coach Jeff Olson. He was to return for another year, but Bellotti — remembering how impressed he was with Helfrich when he asked the high school senior to walk on — intervened and offered a grad assistant position that Helfrich jumped at.

So began a coaching sojourn that would take him from, then lead him straight back to, the Ducks.

A recurring theme, according to friends, is that Helfrich is supremely competitive, yet equally cool under fire.

"He doesn't get ruffled," said Doug DeGroote, Helfrich's center at SOU.

DeGroote is a financial planner in Westlake Village, Calif., and his brother, Tim, played on the Ducks' 1995 Rose Bowl team.

"(Helfrich) fits right into what Oregon has built over the last decade," said DeGroote, "with that win-the-day mentality."

It makes sense, then, said Sayre, that Helfrich will run a hole in the wind, that he'll do very well at Ory-gun.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email

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