College Football: How Austria Helped Oregon Get to CFP Championship Game

Current Oregon coach Mark Helfrich with the Vienna Vikings, in Austria, in 1997.

By: Jonathan Clegg, Wall Street Journal

Link to original article in the Wall Street JournalOriginally published: December 30, 2014

Pasadena, Calif.

Usually, the path to becoming a top college-football coach involves a series of apprenticeships at schools across the country. Then there is the route taken by Oregon’s Mark Helfrich, for which we’ll need a bigger map.

Helfrich, who leads the Ducks into Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal here against Florida State at the Rose Bowl, had some of his formative coaching experiences in Austria, a country where football still falls well below soccer, ski jumping and yodeling in the cultural hierarchy.


It was in 1997 that Helfrich took leave of his position as a graduate assistant at Southern Oregon, his alma mater, and traveled to a snow-capped nation in central Europe to further his coaching education. There, with the Vienna Vikings, he was given his first opportunity to install and run an offense.

Helfrich has since developed his offensive ideas under some of college football’s most innovative thinkers, including Mike Bellotti, Dirk Koetter and Chip Kelly. But even as his schemes have grown more sophisticated, his fundamental approach still carries some subtle but significant hallmarks of his time in the Austrian Football League.

“That was just a great experience for me,” Helfrich said this week. “Living over in Vienna, it was a chance-of-a-lifetime type deal.”

It goes without saying that Austria isn’t likely to rival Texas or Alabama as a pigskin hotbed soon. But for a small, devoted band of football fans in Europe, Austria is regarded as the toughest league on the semiprofessional circuit. Today, the country boasts 20 tackle-football teams and more than 3,500 active players.

When Helfrich joined the Vikings, football in Austria was still in its infancy. The league had been established for little more than a decade and games were often played on unkempt fields in front of three-digit crowds. While Helfrich and a few others were paid, most players paid annual membership fees.

Back then, the skill levels from one team to another also varied dramatically. Former Oregon State running back Cameron Reynolds, who played alongside Helfrich during the 1997 season, said that whole some of the teams in Austria resembled Division III colleges, others would have struggled to overcome high-school teams.

For an aspiring offensive coach, there were other difficulties to contend with. Some players didn’t speak fluent English, the offensive linemen were universally undersized and the athleticism and talent level of the skill position players left a lot to be desired.

“You could tell they had grown up playing soccer,” said Thomas Smythe, a former Division III college coach who spent nine years as the Vikings’ coach. “They were much better with their feet than their hands.”

But for Helfrich, who served as Vienna’s starting quarterback as well as its offensive coordinator, those limitations were a mandate to get creative.

To address the lack of speed at the skill positions, he instituted a wide-open offense that would create space by stretching the defense horizontally. To overcome the lack of bulk on the line, the offense was heavy on quarterback scrambles and throws on the run, with read-option elements added to get the running backs into space. The struggles in blocking made long field goals treacherous, meaning Helfrich would often go for it on fourth down.

If all of that sounds a little familiar, it is because those have been the fundamental characteristics of the Oregon offense that was installed by Kelly in 2007 and later took off following Helfrich’s arrival as offensive coordinator in 2009, averaging more than 45 points a game in each of the past five seasons.

“The scheme is the one thing that stands out,” said Reynolds, who roomed with Helfrich during their time in Vienna. “You could see back then it was a very sophisticated scheme.”

But the lessons from Helfrich’s European sojourn went far beyond the basic principles of his offense. Reynolds says the fact that there was no game film of opposing teams forced Helfrich to become unusually flexible as a game-planner.

The Vikings would use the opening few series to identify the weaknesses of each opponent and then attack those relentlessly as the game went on. It is a tendency that Helfrich has also exhibited as Oregon coach: In the past two seasons, the Ducks rank second nationally in second-half scoring, averaging 20.5 points a game.

Mark Helfrich3

The language barrier also placed a premium on communication, forcing Helfrich to find simple ways to teach his offensive scheme. That may explain the success he has had in preparing freshmen to play from day one. Half of Oregon’s true freshmen saw the field in some capacity this season, including star running back Royce Freeman, the first true freshman to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in school history.

Yet the biggest impact of Helfrich’s season abroad may have less to do with Xs and Os than his outlook as a coach.

The unusual dynamics in Austria encourage a coach to question everything and think unconventionally, said Smythe, who was responsible for recruiting Helfrich to the team. More than that, he says the unusually collaborative way Helfrich interacts with players—involving them in decisions that range from uniform choices to the makeup of the game plan—is also a legacy of his time overseas.

“In America, it’s this is how we’re going to do it, if you don’t like it, hit the road,” Smythe said. “Over there, you can’t do that. If they hit the road, you’ve got no team.”

Helfrich returned to Oregon shortly after his season with the Vikings, taking a graduate-assistant position with the Ducks that kick-started his coaching career. He says he would recommend a stint in Europe to anyone looking to extend his career, though perhaps not for members of his current team.

“It’s something I think would be great for anyone to be able to do,” he said. “But our guys would probably want to play at a little higher level than that.”

Write to Jonathan Clegg at [email protected]

Vienna Viking photo: Johannes Jirgal

The College championship game is Tuesday January 13 between Oregon and Ohio State.