Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Florida State
LOS ANGELES — A few weeks back, the four head coaches who have guided their teams to the College Football Playoff posed for pictures with the championship trophy.
Alabama's Nick Saban. Ohio State's Urban Meyer. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher.
"And some other guy," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said about himself.
The 40-year-old Oregon native, in his second season leading the Ducks, doesn't take himself too seriously. And he's fine being the other guy in an all-star lineup of championship coaches. Helfrich's second-seeded Ducks (12-1) face Fisher's third-seeded Seminoles (13-0) on Thursday in the playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
Saban (four), Meyer (two) and Fisher (one) have combined to win seven national titles. They are all among the 14 highest-paid coaches in college football this season, according to USA Today's database, with a combined salary of more than $15.3 million.
Helfrich, who made $2 million this season to rank 51st among FBS coaches, right behind Colorado's Mike MacIntyre and just ahead of Illinois' Tim Beckman, knows he has a long way to go to match the resumes of his playoff counterparts.
"But I think certainly from a confidence standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, from a who we are standpoint, I have a ton of confidence in every guy in this room and every guy in our program," he said this week.
Yes, Helfrich turned the question about himself into an answer about the program. In a sense, it's appropriate. Saban is synonymous with Alabama. Meyer is Ohio State's biggest star. At Oregon, Helfrich is just the next guy in line, the coach who took over after Chip Kelly left for the NFL. At this point Helfrich's greatest accomplishment as head coach seems to be keeping a good thing going.
Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said Helfrich is more than just a caretaker.
"He was sitting there with three Hall of Fame guys," Aliotti said. "Someday he might be in that same group."
Helfrich grew up in Coos Bay on the Oregon coast, a city of about 16,000. His mother and father went to the University of Oregon and he could have walked on to the football team. Instead, he went to Southern Oregon and became one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history.
He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Oregon, then bounced to Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, working his way up to offensive coordinator.
Former Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan, who was the running backs coach for the Buffaloes when Helfrich was offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins, said Helfrich's humility hides a fierce competitor, brimming with confidence — whether he was calling football plays or playing pickup basketball.
"You pass him the ball, very seldom are you going to get it back," said Hagan, who is now director of player development at Colorado.
Hagan said Helfrich's greatest strength as a leader is making everyone feel like a vital member of the program.
"He's a guy when he walks into a space, he's not afraid to say hi to the janitor," Hagan said.
Helfrich joined Kelly's staff in 2009 as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Being Kelly's offensive coordinator is like being Paul Prudhomme's sous chef — you're not getting much credit for the final product.
But it was Helfrich who discovered Marcus Mariota when he was a high school quarterback in Honolulu.
"Without coach Helfrich my growth as a football player wouldn't be where it is right now," Mariota said. "When I first got in coach Helfrich was huge with little things. Understanding what we do as an offense and why we do it."
When Kelly jumped to the NFL and became Philadelphia Eagles coach, Helfrich was promoted, continuing an Oregon tradition.
Oregon has not hired a head coach from outside the staff since Rich Brooks came from UCLA in 1977. Brooks handed off to Mike Bellotti and Bellotti to Kelly.
Under Kelly, the Ducks went to four straight BCS games, played for the national championship after the 2010 season and became synonymous with cutting-edge football from their uniforms to their up-tempo offense.
What Helfrich has added is a personal touch.
"One was more business focused. More operational focused," senior offensive tackle Jake Fisher said of Kelly. "Helfrich kind of turned it more into a high school team. We bonded more."
On Tuesday Fisher was asked if his coach was the most under-appreciated in the playoff.
"The most underpaid, yes," he said.
With two more wins, that could change, too.
Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State
NEW ORLEANS — They rose to the top of their profession from different sides of the line.
Nick Saban, the defensive mastermind.
Urban Meyer, the offensive genius.
The areas of expertise may be different, but their coaching principles are cut from the same cloth.
A demanding quest for perfection, even though they recognize it will always be just out of reach. An absolute rejection of anything that feels like contentment, no matter how many championships they might win. A neurotic obsession with every little detail, while recognizing that some delegation is required.
Make no mistake: When Saban's top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide faces Meyer's No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, two figures will tower over everyone else. It doesn't matter that neither will play a down in the semifinal playoff game.
This is like a paint-off between Picasso and Monet, a chance for the rest of us to savor two savants at the top of their games.
Not that they'll be relishing the moment.
"It's always about the next play. It's always about the next game," Saban said Tuesday, speaking from a podium on the floor of the Superdome. "I'm always looking toward the future."
Saban has already won four national titles, three of them coming in the last five years at Alabama. Meyer captured a pair of championships at Florida and is two wins away from adding to his haul with the Buckeyes.
If you're looking for some perspective on what it all means, better ask someone else.
"I don't really think much about the past," Saban said. "I always like to say, 'Be where your feet are.' What's happening right now? What do I need to do to affect that? That's where your energy is always focused."
Meyer takes essentially the same approach, though he does "try to force" himself to appreciate the good times.
"Maybe when you're younger, you don't always do that," the 50-year-old said. "You're always swinging, swinging, swinging."
That's about as far as he'll go. Anyone who thinks Meyer softened up a bit after taking a year off from coaching, a sabbatical he said was necessary because of the toll it was taking on his health and family, just listen to Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
After serving as interim coach between the scandal that brought down Jim Tressel and Meyer's arrival, Fickell remained on the staff at his alma mater. But Meyer was none too pleased with breakdowns in the pass defense last season, so he brought in a new co-coordinator, Chris Ash. To say that caused some bitterness would be a massive understatement.
"Mad, uncomfortable," Fickell said, describing his feelings after some of the tougher meetings with his boss. "But the reality is: That's what makes you better, that's what makes you grow. You ask, 'Why did you stay?' Well, everybody wants to be challenged. Sometimes it's not the greatest way to live your life."
Freshman quarterback Stephen Collier felt the wrath of Meyer during Monday's practice. Getting some work with the first team, mainly to help rest the arm of starter Cardale Jones, there were a couple of plays Collier didn't run the right way. That's understandable, considering he started the year as a fourth-stringer and has only moved up because of injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.
But in Meyer's world, no excuses are allowed.
"It's very tough and uncomfortable in the beginning," Jones said. "But when you see the results and rewards of that, you buy into it, you understand it more, and you learn to like it."
Well, that's not entirely accurate.
Meyer never wants to create an environment that anyone likes.
"I can think of some bad words, but 'complacent' falls right up there with those bad words," he said. "That's the leader's job, to make sure there's no complacency. If you see it or feel it, you've got to poke the tiger. I don't want to say discomfort, but discomfort usually breeds production. I don't want guys to feel like they've arrived, because we have not arrived."
At 63, Saban gives off the exact same vibe, though there's one challenge he has no intention of tackling again — the NFL. Two years with the Miami Dolphins was enough.
"I learned that maybe my best legacy as a coach or a person or whatever might be better realized in college," he said. "I never really thought about ever going back to the NFL."
No matter what, Saban and Meyer have ensured their place among the giants of the college game.
It's not necessarily been a joyful journey.
It's not for everyone, that's for sure.
But for these two, it's the only way.