The humorous nature of Mark Helfrich makes him an odd fit in a sport that seems to demand a joyless, grinding pursuit of excellence.

The humorous nature of Mark Helfrich makes him an odd fit in a sport that seems to demand a joyless, grinding pursuit of excellence.

Helfrich grew up in a small Pacific Northwest fishing town, long aspired to be a doctor and remains removed from the expected ego often celebrated in college football coaches.

And, yet, here is Helfrich, 41, flirting with history, with only Ohio State remaining in his way.

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Defeat the Buckeyes on Monday in Arlington, Texas, and Helfrich will earn Oregon its first national championship in football in his second season as coach. Maybe he would earn a raise, too.

Fifty other coaches have a higher base pay than Helfrich's $2 million, including Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who is on the precipice of adding a third national title to the two he won at Florida. Although Meyer could add to his legacy, the Oregon players joked that their mild-mannered coach should be working on his biceps as a New Year's resolution.

"I definitely need to work on the biceps. That's true," Helfrich said at a news conference on the eve of last week's Rose Bowl. "I'm sure my wife will have a couple other (things) that I need to work on - taking out the garbage on time, that kind of stuff."

In an often grim business, smiles follow in Helfrich's wake.

"He'll joke with you. He'll find any little thing to make you laugh," Ducks quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota said yesterday in a media teleconference.

Don't be fooled by the humor, as Florida State can attest to Helfrich's competitive fire. Oregon hammered the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl on Thursday, the first College Football Playoff semifinal game.

The victory sent the Ducks (13-1) into the national championship game against the Buckeyes and improved Helfrich's career record to 24-3. He could be the first coach since OSU's Jim Tressel in 2002 to win a national title in his second season as a Division I coach.

Achieving such history seemed farfetched for Helfrich when he played collegiately at Southern Oregon, an NAIA school, and later joined the Vienna Vikings of the Austrian Football League as a player-coach for one season in 1997.

At that time, Helfrich was ready to leave Europe and his football salary of about $800 a month to add to his biology degree by enrolling in graduate school. He aimed to become an orthopedic surgeon.

"Through absolute total luck, a job came open here (at Oregon) in the summer of '97," Helfrich said yesterday on a media teleconference.

Helfrich accepted that job offer from then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and joined the Ducks as a graduate assistant before the 1997 season. A year later, Helfrich left to become an assistant coach at Boise State for three seasons. He then moved on to Arizona State for five years before serving as the offensive coordinator at Colorado for three seasons.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly brought Helfrich back to his home state in 2009 as offensive coordinator for the Ducks, and the duo's high-scoring system produced a 46-7 record in four seasons.

When Kelly left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, Helfrich was promoted to become the first Oregon native to coach the Ducks since John Warren in 1942. Helfrich, who grew up in Coos Bay, has added to Kelly's fast-paced offense and done so with a more personable coaching style.

"Coach Helfrich is really somebody that you love to play for," Mariota said. "He develops that relationship with you from the moment you get here. It doesn't matter if you are a starting offensive lineman or a scout-team guy. When you feel that compassion, it makes you want to play that much harder for the guy."

Helfrich doesn't believe in yelling at players, doesn't overwork his staff with unnecessary hours and doesn't care one iota about being overshadowed in coaching comparisons.

"As long as we're still playing and there's a matchup to talk about, you can say whatever you want," Helfrich said yesterday. "It's certainly not me versus anybody. It's us versus them."

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones