It’s inevitable when you write about football for a passionate audience, and the team you cover plays in a big intersectional game: the flamers come out of the woodwork. What I can’t stand are the big-bellied guffaws and quick assumptions, stuff like “y’all don’t understand that football is won in the trenches. Your team doesn’t have the strength and size to compete with an ESS EEE SEE defensive line. Tigers are gonna DOMINATE you, just like Awwburrrn did.” It’s the tone of snorting derision that gets to me, the quick dismissal, the oversimplification and presumption by folks who write and speak in all caps. Plus the fact that their talent for revisionist history can make a game that came down to a field goal in the last two seconds a domination.
I fully respect their history and tradition. LSU and the SEC have been winning football championships since 1933, and Tiger glory goes back to Paul Dietzel and Billy Cannon, a national championship in 1957. We are relative newcomers to the idea of football success and even football competence; in fact for many years the Ducks were regularly featured in a nationally syndicated newspaper column called “The Bottom Ten,” a satire of football’s worst programs. We were a staple of a category called “The Crummy Game of the Week,” a matchup of the worst versus the worst. In 1975 we were so bad we lost a home game to San Jose State 5-0. In 1983 our rivalry game with Oregon State was a 0-0 tie with 13 turnovers. From 1974-1986 the Ducks lost to Washington, their other hated rival, 12 out of 13 years, including shellackings of 66-0, 54-0, 32-3 and 38-3. At one point, the league brain trust seriously considered asking the Ducks and Beavers to leave the conference. We came that close to leaving for the Big Sky.
It wasn’t until Rich Brooks became coach and Nike founder Phil Knight began shepherding the program that the Ducks began to be competitive: in 1989 they went to the Independence Bowl with a 7-4 record, the team’s first bowl game in 24 years, touching off a wild celebration when they edged Tulsa 27-24. They built on that modest success, started recruiting better players, expanding the stadium, improving the facilities, and in 1994-95 the team went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 29 years. A Cotton Bowl invitation came the year after that, and when Oregon finally met and beat Colorado in the BCS’s 2001 Fiesta Bowl to finish 2nd in the country, Duck fans thought they’d gone to football heaven. For the last ten years or so the Webfoots have been fairly competitive. They beat Texas in a 2000 Holiday Bowl, Oklahoma State in 2008, Michigan in the Big House in 2007. Over the last three years the Ducks are 32-7, finishing 2nd (2010-11), 11th and 8th in in the country, winning the last two conference championships.
That isn’t SEC success, but from where the Ducks came from, it was a big deal out here. It was a relief from years of misery. Imagine if Vanderbilt suddenly became a competitive team. Thirty years ago if the Ducks would play Nebraska or Ohio State in an early season contest, it was a paycheck game, a road game for the team to get beaten and humiliated in exchange for the gate guarantee. Today the Ducks have realistic hopes of competing on the national stage, playing against the most storied programs in football, mentioned in the conversation for the national title. It truly is a brand new day. Contrast that to the years of misery, when the only time Oregon played an elite school was to take a beating to balance the athletic budget:
@ Texas (7-35) (ended season #12)
■1972 @ Oklahoma (3-68) (ended season #2; RB Greg Pruitt won Heisman)
■1973 @ Michigan (0-24) (ended season #6)
■1974 @ Nebraska (7-61) (ended season #7)
■1975 @ Oklahoma (7-62) (1975 National Champions)
■1976 @ Notre Dame (0-41) (ended season #12)
■1977 @ Georgia (16-27) (Rich Brooks’ first game as HC; Georgia ended season 5-6)
@ LSU (17-56) (ended season #15)
■1983 @ Ohio State (6-31) (ended season #15)
■1986 @ Nebraska (14-48) (ended season #10)
■1987 @ Ohio State (14-24) (OSU was ranked #7 at game time)
Realize, Oregon has no natural football recruiting base. It’s a smaller state that produces no better than 3-5 Division I prospects a year. To be competitive the Ducks have to import prospects from around the country, which is part of what made them so vulnerable to the false promises of Will Lyles. Oregon’s players have to come from California, Arizona and Texas. A few on this year’s roster are from Iowa, Florida, Alabama. It’s a special challenge, and part of why the Ducks play in fancy, non-traditional uniforms and Oregon fans have such a chip on their shoulder regarding the fortunes of the team.
No, the Ducks have never won a national championship. But viewed from the memory of the wreckage of 1975 and 1983, part of the years Benzduck calls “the suffering,” the modest accomplishments of the Oregon Ducks feel quite satisfying. We’re proud to wear green and yellow, even if our players rarely do.
And this season, these promising Ducks might prove they belong among the nation’s elite teams, and that they can handle an SEC defensive line. By the way, did you see the Tennesse game last season, or was it blacked out in your area?
[Read more of my Oregon Duck stories, profiles and commentary at The Duck Stops Here. Check out two of our latest features, "Don't go to sleep on these Dawgs, 'cause they are waking up" and "A zinger from the Southland: Oregon's offensive line has the Tigers licking their chops."]