The 85-scholarship era and Oregon’s rise to power

In college football, the modern era is generally considered to have begun after World War II ended. But it was actually in 1994 that the game solidified around the NCAA’s 85-scholarship limit. Isn’t a game only relevant so long as there is a reasonably level playing field? And as Oregon fans know, it is precisely that year, ’94, in which the program was transformed.

Coincidentally, the Ducks in this year’s Rose Bowl were playing a program whose rise models Oregon’s almost exactly. In the 1990s, the Ducks were tied with the Wisconsin Badgers for 27th most appearances in the Associated Press top 25 poll. In the 2000s, the two teams were tied again, at 13th. Both programs languished in the 1970s, achieved some modest success in the 1980s, and then began winning conference titles in the mid-1990s (1993 for Wisconsin, 1994 for Oregon).

Rose Bowl opponent Wisconsin is close behind Oregon in post-1994 rises

There are other programs across the nation to rise when given the chance to succeed on an even playing field, such as Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, Utah and Boise State. Virginia Tech may be, along with Oregon, the ultimate poster child for the transformation from mediocre program to powerhouse. The Hokies had never been to a BCS bowl game before the 1994 switch to 85 scholarships. Since then, they’ve played in seven, including, like Oregon, a national championship game appearance.

Scholarship limits have affected each program differently since 1994. And it wasn’t as if there were no limits before then. From 1978-91, there was a 95-scholarship limit. This period exactly parallels Washington’s greatest era of prominence. The Huskies enjoyed a .76 winning percentage during these years, after hovering around .500 in the three decades before that.

Some top programs have continued to flourish no matter what the scholarship limits may be. Southern California has been a powerhouse almost continuously, and legendary programs like Alabama and Texas have also stayed near the top in times of both unlimited scholarships per team and parity-inducing 85-scholarship-limit years. But look at what it’s done to Notre Dame, for example. Their generations of glory end roughly in the mid-1990s with the departure of head coach Lou Holtz.

The Fighting Irish aren’t the only top-tier program to slide following the introduction of the 85-scholarship limit. UCLA from 1945-98 played in a whopping 15 January bowls, including 11 Rose Bowls. Since then, the team has played in none. Nebraska can claim all or a share of five national championships, and can claim an astonishing 33 appearances in BCS Bowls or the equally prestigious Cotton Bowl. But they have slid since the team’s last national title concluding the 1997 season. And even before Joe Paterno’s legacy was tarnished and the legendary coached fired due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Nittany Lions peaked as a powerhouse after beating the Ducks in the 1995 Rose Bowl.

It’s not to say all the glories achieved by teams across the country are invalidated if they fell before 1994. Especially for a Duck fan to argue as such might be construed as convenient given how it parallels the rise of our team. And along with the 85-scholarship limit, it goes without saying that other factors, such as coaching, facilities, recruiting and fan support factor in just as importantly. Yet to look at the likes of Oregon and the group of teams like it that have upended years as outsiders to become college football’s new establishment, one sees a special breed of program that did something that poor old-money powers at USC and Alabama will never get to do: change the course of history and establish a winning tradition.

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Brian Libby

Brian Libby

Brian Libby is a writer and photographer living in Portland. A life-long Ducks football fanatic who first visited Autzen Stadium at age eight, he is the author of two histories of UO football, "Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline" and "The University of Oregon Football Vault." When not delving into all things Ducks, Brian works as a freelance journalist covering design, film and visual art for publications like The New York Times, Architect, and Dwell, among others.

  • NYCDucks

    Not to be overly critical but this article shows little evidence for true correlation and even less for causation. What was the point? Just to mention that these two things could be correlated? What are the differentiating factors? I’m not trying to be rude, this just comes off as a decent idea that resulted in fluff.

  • Andrew

    I’m not sure that we need exhaustive statistical analysis to make an educated assessment here.  When wealthy universities can’t stockpile ALL the good players, less wealthy universities have access to more talent.  In the old days, a rich school could give scholarships to as many players as they wanted which diluted the available pool (read leftovers) for the “have-nots”. With an 85 scholarship limit, players 86-… that might have signed with Bama, Michigan, USC, Notre Dame or other traditional powerhouses have to either walk on or go elsewhere.  That gives lesser powers a better shot to get good players that might have ridden the pine at a huge school for a shot at cracking the two deep.  While it might seem like common sense for a second tier player to go to a school where they know they can play, the traditional powers still hold a lot of Mystique to young people. I think it’s common sense to recognize how parity has improved in College football since the limits were imposed.  Look at who is in the Mix now.  Oregon, Oregon St in the early 2000’s, Boise St., Utah, ASU in the late 90’s, Wazoo in the late 90’s, Michigan St., Wisconsin, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Kansas St. None of these teams were considered traditional powers 30 years ago but have enjoyed successful individual years if not improved overall success year after year.

  • NYCDucks

    Thanks for the cliffs notes Andrew. My questions were more rhetorical in nature. I was also channeling the feedback of my J-school professors during my freshman year, although I was admittedly more gentle.
    This is sloppy blogging/journalism (whichever apple you prefer to bite). I understand this is a side project, but in all seriousness this article would look right at home on BleacherReport and that’s really not a compliment. This article was as informative as a timeline. I don’t want exhaustive statistical analysis, but between OregonLive, the ESPN Pac-12 Blog, Rob Moseley’s blog and ATQ; the market is pretty full. If I’m going to come here for anything more than videos I’m going to want an informed, educated view, not a campfire talking point turned article.Equal or better arguments could be made for the internet generation’s rise allowing for my dynamic mobility within the sport or the proliferation of bowl games allowing more teams the right to post-season practices. I don’t need “exhaustive statistical analysis,” but if you’re presenting an argument, do your best to make sure it holds water.Again I really feel uncomfortable being so negative about this, however I have some sort of fondness for this site and want to offer my feedback, even if it’s only helpful in establishing the kind of reader they don’t want.