South Florida head coach Willie Taggart, right, shake hands with SMU head coach Chad Morris. Taggart might be a candidate for the Oregon job. BRANDON WADE/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Search party

EUGENE — The Oregon Ducks are just as curious about the whereabouts of Rob Mullens this week as everyone else.

Oregon’s athletic director officially began the nationwide search for a new coach after firing Mark Helfrich on Tuesday night.

“I guess it’s kind of an interesting and exciting time to see where that goes,” junior offensive lineman Doug Brenner said.

Mullens plans to look “far and wide” for qualified candidates capable of getting the program out of the North Division basement and in contention for Pac-12 championships and College Football Playoff berths.

Parker Executive Search will assist in the search. Mullens must interview at least one minority candidate to comply with state law.

“This is a highly desirable job,” Mullens said after giving the pink slip to Helfrich, who won 69.8 percent of his games and is owed an $11.6 million buyout. “So it will be a broad, diverse pool of candidates. We want somebody who embraces the student-athlete experience, who understands the high expectations at the University of Oregon, who understands our community and really, really wants to be here.”

The president of a search firm said Oregon, which played for the national championship in 2010 under Chip Kelly and 2014 under Helfrich, will be targeting “high-profile” candidates.

“It will likely be a sitting head coach,” the prominent headhunter told The Register-Guard. “Leadership is paramount.”

Two current head coaches reportedly emerging as candidates are South Florida’s Willie Taggart and Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck.

Greg Schiano is another prominent name being mentioned. The Ohio State defensive coordinator was previously an NFL head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a successful stint at Rutgers.

“I’m sure (Mullens) has a short list in his pocket,” the search firm president said.

If Kelly is on Oregon’s wish list, the current San Francisco 49ers coach isn’t interested in granting the wish.

“I just felt bad for Mark. I love him like a brother,” Kelly, who posted a 46-7 record with the Ducks from 2009 to 2012 with Helfrich serving as his offensive coordinator, told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s a tremendous person. He’s a hell of a football coach, but he’s an even better person. Just felt for him and the rest of the guys on that staff.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that goes on in this profession. We all know about it when we sign up, but when it happens, you’re still taken aback by it.”

The 49ers are practicing in Orlando this week. Kelly reportedly shook his head “no” when asked if Central Florida coach Scott Frost, who was Helfrich’s offensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015, was interested in returning to Eugene.

Florida coach Jim McElwain, preparing the Gators for the SEC championship game against No. 1 Alabama, was also asked about being linked to the Oregon vacancy.

“You know, it’s always interesting this time of year how whatever comes out,” McElwain said. “No, I haven’t heard from Oregon. The things that get thrown out there at times, I don’t know how it gets linked sometimes. I guess, slow news day. I’ve got my hunch there might be some recruiting things behind it, I don’t know.”

Two recruits in the 2017 class have de-committed from Oregon this week.

“This is an important decision,” Mullens said. “I’m going to be very deliberate in my process, in my review, to make sure we’re making the right decision.”

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