Mike Helfer and Valdosta State basketball have become synonymous after 13 years. Helfer has directed the program as the Blazers head coach through arguably the most successful stretch in history. Most recently, the Blazers won “back to back” Gulf South Conference regular season championships in 2017 and 2018. This past year, VSU once again won 26 games (tied for 3rd most) to repeat the win total from the 2016-17 campaign. Helfer has led VSU to an amazing 52-11 record over the past 2 campaigns and a 32-5 conference mark, which ended with the Blazers in 1st both times. The Blazers advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 6th time under Helfer following their successful 2017-18 season.
Helfer has seen numerous player awards flood in after the success over the past 2 years. Beau Justice was named the GSC “Player of the Year” following the 2017-18 season. He follows fellow Blazer Jeremiah Hill, who was named GSC “Player of the Year” last year. Under Helfer, VSU has had 3 POY award winners (Tyrone Curnell in 2009-10) and many GSC first team performers. In all, 13 former Blazers have gone on to play professionally after their VSU career was completed.
Helfer’s plan for the Valdosta State program nearly reached its pinnacle in 2009-10 as his team advanced further than any squad in school history. En route to advancing to the national quarterfinals, Helfer directed his team to a school record 28 victories, against just five defeats, and claimed a share of the program’s second straight Gulf South Conference East Division title. The Blazers reached as high as No. 2 in the national polls during the year, the highest VSU has ever been ranked nationally, and twice defeated the No. 1 team in the nation, the first incident coming in an 81-75 victory over Augusta State during the regular season and the second occurring when Valdosta State defeated Arkansas Tech 72-60 in the semifinals of the NCAA South Region Tournament. The 28 victories on the year marked the second-highest win total in a single season for Helfer in his 13-year coaching career.
Personal honors were handed out to various Blazers at the conclusion of the season, led by Tyrone Curnell who was named the Gulf South Conference and South Region Player of the Year while earning All-America honors for the second straight season. Helfer shared the GSC East Division Coach of the Year honors, earning the award for the second straight year. Ricardo Lewis was also honored by the Gulf South Conference as he joined Curnell on the first team All-Conference squad.
The single season wins record was not the only Blazer school record to fall during the season as Valdosta State also established a new school mark for points in a season, finishing the year with 2,666 to surpass the old mark of 2,591 set during the 1967 season. The aggressive Blazers also established a new school mark of free throw attempts in a season, tallying 812 attempts on the year, while Curnell set the individual record in both free throws made and free throw attempts, connecting on 156-of-226 attempts on the season to best both old school marks by two. Valdosta State fell just one win shy of tying the school record for consecutive victories in a season as it went 15 games, a stretch that lasted from December 15 until February 18, without losing a contest.
The success of the 2009-10 season was not an overnight occurrence as Helfer spent four years prior to that year establishing the Blazers as one of the top school in the NCAA Division II ranks. His first four years with Valdosta State saw his teams play in a pair of NCAA South Region Tournaments while the Blazers won the Gulf South Conference East Division title in 2008-09, just the third time in school history that the Blazers finished first in the league’s division.
Helfer’s ability to teach the game of basketball was never more evident than the 2008-09 season, when in addition to the GSC East Division title and a NCAA South Regional appearance, he led his squad to a 24-7 record, despite losing four starters from the previous year. The squad, which featured 10 new players, went 9-3 in conference play and advanced to the championship game of the league tournament. Helfer’s direction helped several Blazers earn individual honors, led by Curnell, who earned All-America status from the National Association of Basketball Coaches while also being named to the All-Gulf South Conference squad. Curnell and Lewis each earned GSC All-Tournament honors during the season while Helfer was named the GSC East Division Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the season.
Helfer turned in perhaps his finest coaching performance the year after the magical 2009-10 season as he again directed his squad to a 20-win season, despite having to completely retool and reload his squad after massive losses from the previous year's team. The 2010-11 Valdosta State team lost nine out of the 12 players that led the team to the the 2009-10 Elite Eight, which accounted for 78.3 percent of the team's scoring and 83.0 percent of its rebounding.
With an entirely new squad, Helfer led his squad to a 21-9 record and a second place finish in the GSC's East Division. Two Blazers, Kevin Harris and Christian Hunter, earned All-Gulf South Conference honors while the team tallied 277 three-pointers on the season, a new school record. The 21 victories gave Valdosta State its third straight season of 20 or more wins, marking just the second time in school history VSU accomplished that feat, with the other occurrence coming during between 1965 and 1968.
After going 11-16 in 2011-12, Helfer once again proved his ability as a team builder as he returned just one player for his 2012-13 squad. The job Helfer turned in during his seventh year was nothing short of masterful as he molded a collection of new players into a team that improved with each passing game. The 2012-13 Blazers finished the year with a 19-10 record, including a 9-9 mark in GSC play, but saved their best for last as they charged through the GSC Tournament, including an upset of sixth-ranked Alabama-Huntsville, before falling 65-62 to Christian Brothers in the Championship game.
Three Blazers earned All-Gulf South Conference honors at the end of the 2012-13 season, including Josh Sparks, who earned All-Region honors after setting a new VSU and GSC record with 100 blocks on the season. He was joined on the All-GSC team by guard Patrick Diop and forward James Anacreon.
Helfer inherited a team that averaged 68.0 points a game in 2004-05 and led it to a 17-11 mark while averaging 83.5 points a game in 2005-06, his first season at the helm of the Blazers. Helfer’s first squad went 7-7 in Gulf South Conference play and finished tied for fourth in the league’s East Division. Two of Helfer’s players, Jon Rogers (First) and Michael Crane (Second), were named to the All-GSC team while Rogers also earned All-GSC Tournament honors after VSU advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Helfer followed his first year of success by leading the Blazers to the third NCAA appearance in school history in 2006-07. The Blazers were 20-9 overall on the year and finished 8-4 in the Gulf South Conference, tallying a second-place showing in the league standings. His tutelage led to three Blazers earning All-GSC honors, with Herman Burge earning a nod on the first team while Mike Crain and Devario Hudson were honored on the second team. The Blazers were 24th in the nation in scoring at 82.3 points per game and school records for most three-pointers in a game with 18 as well as in a season with 261.
After losing three starters and seven letterwinners off of his 2006-07 team, Helfer once again built a winning program in 2007-08 as he led his squad to an 18-11 mark. His team battled to a second place finish in the GSC East Division with an 8-4 mark while two Blazers, Hudson and Ricky Coleman, earned first-team All-GSC honors for the first time since the league began distinguishing between a first and second team members in 1997. VSU advanced to the semifinals of the GSC Tournament while averaging 77.0 points a game on the year.
For those that have tracked Helfer’s career, the success at VSU comes as little surprise. Before taking over the reigns at Valdosta State, Helfer enjoyed a successful eight-year run at Southern Polytechnic State University, where he compiled 186 wins, an average of 23 wins a year, and 83 losses, a .691 winning percentage. Additionally, his squads won three Southern States Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships and finished the 2004-05 season, his last at the school, ranked No. 2 in the nation.
During the 2004-05 season, Helfer directed his Running Hornets team to a 32-4 record and the NAIA National Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. SPSU won both the regular season and tournament titles for the SSAC and earned the school’s first ever No. 1 national ranking on February 8. After the season, Helfer was named the SSAC Coach-of-the-Year and earned Basketball Times’ NAIA Coach-of-the-Year award.
The Running Hornets also won the SSAC regular season crown in 2003-04, finishing the year with a 24-10 record and a trip to the NAIA national tournament. SPSU was 21-11 in 2002-03 after going 27-6 and advancing to the NAIA national tournament in 2001-02.
Helfer’s first two seasons at Southern Polytechnic were his only two non-winning seasons, as he went 16-16 in 1997-98 and 14-18 in 1998-99. He rebounded to lead the team to a 28-7 mark in 1999-00 while claiming his first SSAC regular season and tournament championships. SPSU advanced to the NAIA Sweet 16 that season, a feat also accomplished in 2000-01 when the team tallied a 24-11 record and a SSAC tournament championship.
Helfer received numerous honors while at Southern Polytechnic as he was named the Atlanta Tip-off Club’s NAIA Coach-of-the-Year for both the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. He was also named the Southern States Athletic Conference’s Coach-of-the-Year in 1999-00 while also earning the conference’s All Men’s Sports Coach-of-the-Year that same year.
Prior to his time as a head coach, Helfer spent seven years as an assistant coach. He began his career at his alma mater, Division III Capital University, where he served as an assistant for two years. Upon leaving Capital, Helfer joined the coaching staff of Division I Kent State in 1991 and worked with the school through the 1994-95 season. He also served as an assistant with Division II Grand Valley State during the 1996-97 season, helping the Lakers to a 23-6 record and the NCAA Division II tournament.
A three-time letterwinner, Helfer served as team captain for Capital as a senior during the 1988-89 season and was named the team’s most improved player following the 1987-88 year. He was also a star athlete in high school as he excelled in football, basketball and track.
Helfer has 2 sons, Chase (9) and Max (6) and resides in Valdosta, GA.