Oregon’s 2001 Postseason: Part 3
Despite the disappointment of the BCS excluding Oregon from the Rose Bowl (site of the national championship game that year), the Oregon team and fans had a lot to celebrate. Most fans were ecstatic to see their beloved Ducks headed to represent the Pac-10 against a very good Colorado team.
The general Eugene atmosphere was very positive as the team made it known to the media and fans that they were out to prove a point. It may not have been the national championship as they had hoped, but Oregon was still competing in its first-ever BCS Bowl Game, and every Duck-loyalist was excited about the new sense of legitimacy for the program after struggling for so many years.
The Heisman trophy had been decided, with an undeserving Eric Crouch taking the title, arguably the only time in the history of the Heisman Trophy that it was given out as a career award rather than single-season achievement. The billboard of Joey Harrington no longer hung prominently near Times Square, the Heisman hype was over. Gone too was Head Coach Mike Bellotti’s signature moustache, shaved off in a public sign of solidarity for a family friend enduring chemotherapy cancer treatments.
Sure there was disappointment that Harrington wasn’t the first Heisman winner in Oregon history; that they weren’t going to the Rose Bowl as the seniors had worked so hard to achieve for years; and that they weren’t playing for the national title despite being ranked #2 in the country. But those were things beyond their control, in the greater scheme of things that which they could not control did not matter despite media insistence to the contrary. The team had moved on, all focus was on the business at hand, finishing what was started. Linebacker Dan Johnson (brother of legendary UO receiver Pat Johnson) recalls the intensity of hype leading up to the game. “I remember sitting in the Pittman room for the BCS Selection show. It was terrible to be overlooked, and was a shame to be disappointed with the Fiesta Bowl. We were #2 in both polls, it was crazy that we were jumped in the BCS by a team that didn’t win their conference. Even their fans said they shouldn’t be in. How could we have someone who didn’t even win their DIVISION and finished third place inside their conference playing in the national championship?” However, Johnson and company new there was a lot to play for in the Fiesta Bowl, and quickly put the disappointment behind them. “Once we got the news, the focus immediately went to Colorado. No body gave us a shot: our small linebackers, 185 pound players, they thought ‘they’re not doing anything.’ ‘Those guys can’t keep up.’ One thing we knew they couldn’t do was block us, we were faster. We knew what their offense was going to be whenever we lined up against them.”
Practices were held outdoors in the cold weather up through mid-December, before heading indoors to prepare for the desert warmth. Many fans lined the sidelines for practice to show their support until practices were moved indoors and locked tightly in preparation for the biggest game in Oregon history at that time.
The general excitement for the coming game was that same tangible excitement in the air as a kid with Christmas coming soon, but this was more than that. This was every holiday rolled into one, amplified by 11, and wrapped in bacon. Oregon was accustomed to playing in bowl games by now, but the BCS was a whole other matter.
The scuttlebutt revolved around the possibility of a split national championship if Nebraska could knock off the undefeated Miami Hurricanes. And why not, if Oregon defeats Colorado, which beat Nebraska, which would then beat Miami then by proxy wouldn’t that make Oregon better or at least on par with Nebraska and deserving of half the title? Oregon had gone from an embarrassment out west just a decade prior to an annual bowl contender, and now had reached the upper echelon of the country’s best. All the hard work and struggle had finally paid off, Oregon had officially arrived on the national landscape.
Sunshine greeted the Ducks as they arrived in Phoenix, Arizona on December 26. The Pac-10 champions set up camp for what would be a defining moment in Oregon Football history. Unfortunately for Oregon, the national media spotlight greatly overlooked the Ducks from the start. Only the local news stations were broadcasting information on Oregon’s progress and preparation, as the favored Colorado Buffaloes were receiving all of the national recognition. Colorado had the same disappointment as Oregon after having won their conference championship, but being excluded from the national championship. Although the human polls had ranked Oregon #2 and Colorado #3; the BCS rankings had Colorado ahead of Oregon, and Colorado had defeated BCS #2 Nebraska to claim their conference title.
The media was largely clamoring for Colorado’s argument to be in the national championship after they had defeated Nebraska and Texas in back-to-back weeks. “The hottest team in the country” they had been deemed, neglecting that they had lost the season opener to Fresno State and been trounced by Texas during the regular season. Colorado’s hype received large amounts of national attention, pushing gamblers everywhere to overlook Oregon and bet on Colorado. Colorado was favored to win by the betting lines, and heavily by the national media as well. Some didn’t even think it would be a game, and that Oregon couldn’t even compete on a national level.
It was perceived that nothing could stop that devastating run game by Colorado, their massive corn-fed offensive line and bruising triple-threat of tailbacks would roll right over Oregon and their undersized defense. It will be a laugher, and forever Colorado will be left pondering what SHOULD have been. Or so it appeared to be, as the headlines and stories were prepared even before the game began.
Buffalo fans brought the same attitude to Tempe, AZ. In recent years, Colorado had badly gotten under Oregon’s skin. Coach Mike Bellotti was 0-2 against Colorado (both in bowl games) and many Colorado fans used that to taunt Oregon. In Bellotti’s first season, Oregon totally fell apart in the Cotton Bowl as Colorado scored 38 unanswered points to defeat Oregon 38-6 in the 1996 Cotton Bowl. In 1998, Oregon fell down 21-0 in the Aloha Bowl; followed by a remarkable comeback attempt that fell just short to lose 51-43. Oregon fans hadn’t forgotten either game, nor the disrespectful actions of then Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, who had since left for the job at Washington further fueling the Neuheisel-hatred, and had a very bitter taste of each game to create an extra incentive to cheer for a huge win.
Many of Oregon’s juniors and seniors were part of the team that limped their way into the 1998 Aloha Bowl, thrust into action prematurely out of necessity after the injuries piled up. They had not forgotten that frustrating game to create a disastrous end to such a potentially great season that began 5-0 and thrust Oregon into the top 10 before an epic battle vs. UCLA came up just short in overtime, starting the downward spiral for the remainder of the season.
Oregon’s 2001 team had arguably less talent than in 1998; but had a never-say-die spirit acquired through numerous thrilling last-second comeback victories. Oregon’s quarterback Joey Harrington had earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” and fans began referring to the team as “the cardiac kids” for somehow finding a way to always come through in the clutch. The upperclassmen had learned a great deal since their younger years, and had not forgotten the lessons learned in 1997/1998.
Ever since losing to Stanford midway through the season, Oregon knew about what paths to take and how to work as a team. That Stanford game had been a wake-up call, don’t relax or take things for granted. The Ducks held a 42-28 lead at the start of the 4th quarter and expecting to cruise to a victory, but two blocked punts and an interception later Oregon was stunned to go down 49-42. The loss not only setback Oregon’s title hopes, but also ended the nation’s longest home winning streak, which Oregon held for all of one week.
Lesson learned, teams cannot slack off at any point, the drive to play hard has to be there start to finish, have to work hard for 60 minutes to be successful. This time around the Ducks were not about to allow national media negativity and/or loud-mouth Buffalo fans trash-talk get them down. No outside influences, no headlines, no media attention or other distractions would get in the way of the task at hand.
On a personal level, I had a chance to briefly speak with Coach Bellotti prior to departure for Arizona. I wished him and the team the best of luck, reminding him that it was his third time against Colorado, and that as they say–“the third time’s the charm!” He gave me a big smile, saying how he hoped I was right and knew it was possible if they worked hard enough for it.
Meanwhile, as the team prepared, fans traveling to Arizona indulged in the various festivities all throughout the greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area designed to blow off steam. There were parties to attend hosted by former players, a pep rally, local sights to see, concerts sponsored by the Fiesta Bowl committee to attend (among the performers was Bryan Adams, who generated as much ire as he did interest). The game to be played on January 1, 2002 was just one small part of the greater BCS experience, a week of events to partake in that, all that the local Phoenix area provided for entertainment and sights to see. Phoenix was flooded with fans of both teams wanting to party before the actual party at Sun Devil Stadium on game day.
In between practices, Oregon enjoyed the sunny weather while taking part in certain activities (but was limited.) Johnson recalls the hotel the team stayed at. “The hotel we stayed at was phenomenal. They had a 500 acre golf course. We’d go to the front of the hotel, and they had to take us in golf carts from lobby to our rooms. The bowl gifts were forgettable, with putters and jackets, nothing like what they get these days.” Unlike previous bowl games, however, this game was not about fun in the sun. Johnson recalls the limits put on the team such as a curfew and limitations much tighter than the previous year in San Diego. “The hotel was in the middle of nowhere, and the curfew was much tighter than in San Diego.” Former Oregon Offensive Lineman Corey Chambers also recalls the hotel the team stayed in, and the feeling of isolation. “We stayed at the Pricness Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona; it was very nice. Coach Bellotti was methodical in placing us at the hotel away from distractions, we had to take shuttles far out just to get to anywhere. As far as events we did, they were mostly held in the hotel. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere, but we had events at the hotel.”
All in all, the 2001 Oregon team had a lot of heart, and was not about to let the disappointment of missing out on the BCS slow them down. Oregon had overcome adversity as they had all year, and was ready to prove naysayers wrong against a very tough Colorado team, deemed by many as the nation’s best at the end of the regular season. Every Duck player, coach, and fan eagerly awaited New Years Day, 2002.
Memories with 2001 Oregon Lineman Corey Chambers
Former Oregon Lineman Corey Chambers was a junior the Fiesta Bowl Year. A veteran lineman at every position except center, Chambers played a huge role in Oregon’s successful offense during the Fiesta Bowl year. Questions and Answers with Chambers:
After the disappointment of being robbed of the BCS Title Game, how did the team regroup to stay positive and focus for a successful Fiesta Bowl?
We were obviously upset that we weren’t #1 or 2 and playing for the national championship, so our focus was to go to the bowl game and win to prove ourselves. With the focus on Coloardo, it was a little more exciting for us, like revenge; as we had played them in the Aloha Bowl in 1998 and lost, so it was a chance for redemption. It wasn’t our fault (we weren’t selected) and was beyond our control, so we were mad and hurt; but we couldn’t do anything about it so we looked at what we could do.
How did the coaching staff best prepare you?
We as a team, and he (Mike Bellotti) as a coach, never placed any more importance on one game than another. Preparation was no bigger than a regular season game. We were always like “we’re going to use this week to practice for THIS team coming up.” It didn’t matter if it was Wisconsin, Utah, Cal, etc. The intensity was always the same; but Bellotti, coaches, and team captains were always saying that practice was hard so games are fun and easy! Pressure isn’t the same as importance. Pressure is more like society and people around you obligating you to get a job done. But, pressure does not indicate a level of importance, so there was more pressure on some games (games are pressure moments) but you can’t have an important final game if you don’t have an equally important regular season game 1 though 11. For example, the pressure was different when we played Arizona State (where Coach Osborne had gone) since he knew our team differently than Wisconsin. As for importance, we knew we can’t backtrack so it’s not important to focus on the past. Our job was to look forward each game.
What is your favorite memory of the hype/preparation leading up to the Fiesta Bowl?
I think my favorite memory of that is that we had an amazing year; and we all knew this was the year we were making Oregon history. Every day when we prepared, we were on the same page. Some days there were mistakes, but there was an overall feeling that we’re going to win this game. No matter what it would take; we were going to do it. It helped a lot to be all on the same page, we were all excited to go to the game and play to show who we were, and knew that was THEE game. We all got along, and knew we had a big test but were all one accord.
What would you tell the average fan about your team that they may not know?
I think a lot of people looked down on us because they thought we were spoiled. We got new jerseys, had nice facilities, had more than lots of teams; but they were just business matter–going way beyond the scope of what a student athlete goes through. But, we worked just as hard as any other collegian football players. We were on the same page and strong enough as a team; we still would have won those games even if we didn’t have the Moshofsky Center, Autzen Stadium, etc.