In 1917 Oregon represented the Pacific Coast Conference in the third East-West Tournament Game, later known as the Rose Bowl, at Tournament Park in Pasadena, CA. The following year during the height of The Great War it was two military camps playing in the game, with one team (Mare Island Marines of California) being led by Hollis Huntington and John Beckett, who had won the previous year as Oregon players, along with Oregon’s coach Hugo Bezdek now leading the Mare Island Marines team.
With the MVP effort of Oregon Webfoot-turned-Marine Hollis Huntington and John Beckett, the MVP from the 1917 game, Hugo Bezdek’s Marine Island team won the East-West game 19-6. That 1918 game could almost be claimed as an Oregon victory, with Oregon players holding MVP awards for two of the first four East-West games.
Two years later Oregon again returned to the East-West Tournament game, but lost to Harvard 7-6 despite a terrific effort from Hollis Huntington, now back at Oregon. The next year Tournament Park would be leveled, in its place Rose Bowl Stadium was built, with the first game being held there in 1923.
Many years would follow, lots of memorable games and heroic efforts as the Rose Bowl grew to become the most prestigious and oldest postseason game in the country, but Oregon would not make their return to the hallowed grounds of Tournament Park, now the site of the Rose Bowl and a massive golf course, until 1958. 38 years between Rose Bowls, and again Oregon came up short. 37 years after that Oregon’s next trip to the bowl occurred, and again the Ducks couldn’t win the big game. 15 years after that, the Ducks true to form returned to the granddaddy of them all, and lost.
Five times Oregon had made it all the way to the Rose Bowl, the overall record a dismal 1-4. In 1958 and 1995, the feeling of just making it there was enough. I still recall the mass emails going out with subject lines like “Rose Bowl tickets?” and the body text reading simply “can you say ‘fat chance?’” There was so much demand, so much fervor over the potential of just being there, it was an experience to tell your grand kids about, like attending Woodstock or storming the beaches of Normandy.
The 2010 trip to the Rose Bowl felt a little different. Oregon was no longer the long-shot underdogs having a dream season just happy to be there, now there was the expectation to win. When they didn’t, succumbing to Ohio State 26-17, perhaps that removed some of the glamour from the magic of the Rose Bowl. After following that up with a loss in the national championship, I got the sense that many Oregon fans felt a general malaise and apathy towards the prospect of Oregon once again playing in the Rose Bowl. I personally was shocked at the amount of Duck fans that chose to sell their tickets rather than attend the game. Gone was that sense of wonder from 1995 or even 2010 of the Ducks actually going to the Rose Bowl, now it was a ‘been there—done that” response, it’s only the Rose Bowl…not it isn’t ‘only the Rose Bowl’…IT’S THE #$%&@*^ ROSE BOWL!!!
This past Monday, January 2nd 2012, the Oregon Ducks played Wisconsin in that legendary game, and this time finally after long last the Ducks came out on top. It is 95 years between Rose Bowl victories for Oregon. Unlike the 1995 game, the supply demand curve had flipped, whereas before it was a luxury to be going to the game, now there was excess. Sure, the stands looked packed at game time, but it was disappointing to see the general blasé attitude across the fan base. Was it financial fatigue after the national championship and the LSU road trips in 2010? Was it being sick and tired of always losing the big games? Was it an attitude that the Rose Bowl was a consolation prize now compared to the national championship? Whatever the cause, the excitement wasn’t there as it had been in the past.
Even the unveiling of Oregon’s most brash uniform change to date got only mild response, getting more of a rise from the media than the fans. There were a lot of jokes about sunglasses being required at the game or attendees may go blind from the glare off the new helmets. But after so may uniform re-designs year after year, bringing out a bold new design too has lost a little of its lustre.
Of course it being a BCS game, the game itself was just one part of the overall festivities. There were pre-game parties, a pep rally, tailgating, and post-game parties to attend. There were fellow fans and former players to meet, stories to exchange, and expectations for the battle to come. The trip to a bowl game is for as much the enjoyment of the pre & post content as it is the 60 minutes of football on the field, just like tailgating at Autzen Stadium among friends is half the fun of going to a game.
Yet all of the apathy, the discontent, the lackluster quickly dissipated when kickoff finally approached. The fans packed the Rose Bowl’s surroundings to tailgate in the sun, and filled the stands for one of the greatest Rose Bowl games in history…or at least the highest scoring. When the dust settled it was Oregon lifting the Rose Bowl trophy, defeating Wisconsin 45-38, soon to be on permanent display inside the Casanova Center.
Oh, the sense of relief when the referees announced the game was over and the confetti started flying. Perhaps for the youngsters whose sense of Oregon history doesn’t extend further back than Joey Harrington having grown up in an era where Oregon was always a winner they may not have fully realized just how important this was, how historical this moment is, and how much it took to reach this point: Oregon Ducks – Rose Bowl champions. For those in the know, those who sat through many cold and miserable days in a half-empty Autzen, those who supported the team through the good times and bad, this greater sense of the bigger picture was not lost.
It was fitting that on stage to accept the trophy alongside Head Coach Chip Kelly was Lorraine Davis, who has been with the university in multiple facets for 40 years, including Interim Athletic Director and currently the Senior VP and Provost at the University of Oregon. The cameras catching the pride and joy shown on her face exemplified the greater sense of accomplishment that the trophy represents, the culmination of many years of struggle to build the foundation for the glorious jewel that the University of Oregon has become. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t a fluke; many people have put in a lot of work over the course of many years to put that beautiful trophy into a case inside the Casanova Center.
For those in attendance on Monday, the pure joy of the victory was shared by all clad in green & yellow. The cheerleaders and band exuberantly performed while fans clamored for a hand-slap from any player to briefly share in the celebratory moment. One of the last to leave the field was redshirt freshman wide receiver B.J. Kelley, who thrilled the crowd with a back-flip before sprinting off to the locker room to join his teammates. Slowly the crowd made their way out, but many including myself didn’t want to leave, there was a longing to hold onto this feeling for just a few moments more. Something great happened here, something great was witnessed, if that sense of accomplished pride is a drug then consider me an addict.
The Oregon Ducks are the Pac-12 Champions, and the 2012 Rose Bowl champions. For the rest of their lives no matter what twists and turns they may experience, every single player on that football team is a champion.
The feeling experienced is really beyond description, but it is one that Oregon fans have felt before. If you were there for the 1994 Washington game, you know the feeling of pure unadulterated joy. If you experienced any of the last-second thrill rides that defined the Joey Harrington years, you know the atmosphere. If you experienced the glory of defeating Michigan in 2003 and repeating it once more in their house in 2007, you have sensed that electricity in the air. If you stayed to the end for the 2006 Oklahoma game to witness the blocked field goal, you know the great relief of winning a game that hangs in the balance. And if you were there for the game that previously put Oregon into the Rose Bowl, the 2009 Civil War game, you know the greater feeling of ‘the happening’, of wanting to experience this great moment for just a few moments more in the aftermath of something great occurring.
All of those emotions flowed through my body while witnessing the final moments of the Rose Bowl and the ensuing post-game celebration, like tasting every ice cream flavor available at a Baskin-Robbins simultaneously. Random fans wrapped their arm around me and rhetorically asked “now wasn’t that sumthin’?” as they made their way to the exits. Others clamored for photos, hugged buddies or random fans, or joyously sang along as the band played the fight song. It was a sight not witnessed in 95 years, The University of Oregon as Rose Bowl champions.
A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE ROSE BOWL EXPERIENCE
For those who couldn’t make it to Pasadena, or chose not to, let me walk you through my personal experience of the past few days, to both revel in the festivities and also perhaps rub it in a little about all that you missed.
Saturday, December 31st (New Years Eve)
The Rose Bowl festivities kicked off with the big Oregon Duck Bash, a new years eve party in downtown Hollywood in The Hollywood-Highland complex, the premier club in the heart of the entertainment district. It was hosted by Kenny Wheaton and multiple other Oregon legends. Wheaton had hosted a party at the national championship at Dos Gringos in Tempe last year, with wall-to-wall Oregon fans partying before the big game to come. This event proved to me that what had been happening on the Oregon messageboards was reality, Oregon fans were simply not coming out in full force for the Rose Bowl this year. Compared to the national championship, the turnout was underwhelming. Still, the Oregon fans on hand rang in the new year in style, alongside some of the greats of Oregon’s past.
I personally got the chance to spend some time with Jaiya Figueras, Michael Fletcher, Cristin McLemore, Matthew Harper, and the man himself Kenny Wheaton. I also encountered a small group of fans that oddly I would manage to run into at literally every single Oregon-related event I was to attend in the coming days. By the time the clocks turned to the new year the house was packed, but not all in attendance were Oregon fans, even a few Wisconsin Badgers managed to slip in among the random attendees and made their presence known with their personal obscenity-laden sentiments about the Ducks towards me.
Sunday, January 1st, 2012
Fighting off the hangovers from new years, Oregon fans assembled in Santa Monica the next day by the pier for the official Oregon Ducks pep rally. The crowd size was probably half of what it had been two years prior for the 2010 Rose Bowl, and no contest compared to the mass of people in attendance at the national championship pep rally. Still, several thousand packed into the space in front of the stage and along the pier to show their support for our Ducks.
ESPN’s Neil Everett (Morfitt), whose grandfather Neil Morfitt played in the 1920 Rose Bowl, was the MC for the event along with PGA golfer Peter Jacobsen, the two reprising their roles from the national championship a year prior. Guest speakers included the mayor of Santa Monica, Lorraine Davis, Congressman Peter DeFazio, and the presidents of the pit crew and the alumni association.
Of course the band, cheerleaders, and the Duck were in attendance as well, but absent was Coach Kelly, instead addressing the crowd via pre-recorded video unlike in previous years where he had arrived in person to speak to the crowd. Coach Kelly jokingly blamed Sebastian Bach for his absence (Sebastian Bach performed his Oregon power ballad to the crowd at the national championship pep rally the year before).
The common theme for the event was recognizing the sense of history. Joey Harrington gave a passionate speech about those who paved the way, Lorraine Davis spoke of the pact she made with her friends that if Oregon ever won the Rose Bowl they would all get rose tattoos, others echoed the sentiment of what it took to get there and to not take it for granted. The passion for the team was evident, but the overall feel was somewhat subdued, matching the size of the crowd compared to Oregon’s previous recent trip.
I did enjoy getting to meet quite a few fans I had known previously only in a digital context, fellow users of the various Oregon websites and messageboards with whom I have crossed paths often. Rian from the Sportschat503 video blogs came by to chat. Benzduck, propagator of his own website that extensively covers Oregon Ducks football history, made an appearance. Some of the guys from AddictedtoQuack spotted me along with fellow visitors to FishDuck.com or my youtube channel, thanks to the custom Oregon jersey I had made with my recognizable ‘KEEERRRTTT’ nickname spread across the back. Coach Gary Campbell’s wife and son made their way through the crowd, and we made sure to say thank you for all that they do for the university.
It was a great event, but for those who I spoke with the consensus was unanimous, it just didn’t have the same feel as before. Something was missing, a certain innocent jubilee. Had Oregon’s success bred complacency? The Ducks were the only team in the country to play in three successive BCS games, but that streak didn’t add to the excitement, it made the emotion feel manufactured and cliché. Not to say that fans didn’t care or weren’t excited, but relate it to the feeling of an Oregon game vs. Portland State compared to the Civil War or Husky Week. There was just something missing…
After the pep rally ended, fans made their way over to the 3rd Street Promenade and Yankee Doodle’s, where a players-only alumni gathering was taking place in the basement while fans gathered on the level above. I spoke with Devan Long and Justin Andrews, teammates from 2002 – 2005, and Cristin McLemore.
Other players arrived, and it was noticeable the kind of effect the game of football can have on the human body, as aches and pains suffered from years of football collisions had guys sometimes struggling to make it up and down the stairs. I sat with the same group of fans I had met the night before at the new years eve party, having a few drinks while we discussed the game to come and watched the Portland Trailblazers on the big screen.
Monday, January 2nd, 2012
The next morning officially brought gameday, I woke up to the ESPN Gameday crew broadcasting live from the Rose Bowl on a stage setup next to the field. A quick jump in the shower and I was off, making the half-hour drive from my home to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Traffic was surprisingly light, and I made it to a designated spot on the golf course by 9:30. In retrospect I should have made a better mental note of exactly where I parked, as after the game I spent nearly two hours roaming the golf course before I eventually located my car, by then isolated all by its lonesome with the majority of the course vacated of vehicles.
I made my way through the golf course bound for the lots south of the stadium, and along the way encountered a couple of the same fans I had met at the new years eve party and Yankee Doodles. I thought it odd that out of about 40,000 Oregon fans present in Pasadena for the events that I somehow would encounter the exact same ones again and again. We headed to the furthest south point of the tailgating area to meet up with a group of friends who communicate through the web via a Facebook group, Ducked Up On Quack. Teaming with the ultimate tailgating ride, The Manbulance, they had a nice tailgate spot for the day. Former Oregon tight end George Wrighster walked by, now retired after a lengthy career in the NFL, and we chatted for a while.
Of course there was BBQ, and an assortment of alcohol with familiar faces and a few new ones, the typical festive tailgater atmosphere. A few more people recognized the name strewn across my back and praised FishDuck for its content, while fellow FishDuck contributor Josh Schlichter arrived to also indulge in the tailgate party supplies. We were given a VIP tour of The Manbulance, the ultimate Oregon Ducks tailgating vehicle.
Eventually it came time to pack up and head into the historic stadium, after all there was a game to witness. But not before stopping at the wall of champions, the plaques adorned along the Rose Bowl’s entrance permanently recognizing each game and the respective MVP.
I explained the story of the 1918 game to a few Duck fans nearby, how two Oregon players and their coach from the 1917 team had led a military team to victory in 1918, making it an unofficial back-to-back Oregon streak. The crowd seemed around 50/50 Badgers and Ducks, a welcome sight after experience a 60/40 ratio at the 2010 Rose Bowl in favor of the Buckeyes and a much larger percentile of Auburn fans at the national championship, likely upwards of 75-80% compared to Oregon fans.
Inside the stadium the excitement grew. The teams were warming up on the field while music blasted over the P.A. system and each school’s marching band warmed up. It was a hot day, and the girl sitting in front of me would spend almost the entire first half sitting down bent over suffering early signs of sunstroke awaiting the late afternoon shadows to eventually bring some much needed relief.
With the teams back in the locker rooms going over their final preparations the Oregon Marching Band took the field to play the national anthem, followed by a fly-over by a B-2 Stealth Bomber. If people weren’t pumped up before now the sense of anticipation was palpable, the electricity was in there, fueled by the low-pass of a billion-dollar aircraft over our heads.
A few moments later the teams emerged from their respective tunnels, and the battle was on. Two teams with eerily similar histories both distant and recent. Oregon had lost the Rose Bowl two years prior, Wisconsin had lost the previous year, both wanted respite from the “can’t-win-the-big-one” stigma.
As the game progressed, it became clear that the two Oregon fans in front of me knew very little about the rules of football, but felt the need to antagonize the Wisconsin fans across the aisle. I bit my tongue as one obnoxious/dumb comment spewed forth through the first half, but when Wisconsin forced Darron Thomas to fumble and they started shouting about how it couldn’t be a fumble because Thomas had made a throwing motion I had enough. A big motivation for Charles and I starting FishDuck.com was to educate the Oregon fan base, and with these two a little hands-on education was needed.
“That was OBVIOUSLY a fumble, know the rules. Go here, get a clue, but until then shut up because you’re embarrassing us!” I shouted at them while slapping a FishDuck flier into their hands. A heated argument ensued, but soon cooler heads prevailed, and it turned out they had actually visited FishDuck.com before, if only they had learned the basic rules about what constitutes a fumble.
No doubt all readers of this know how the game played out so I shall spare the specifics. Wisconsin took an early lead, Oregon matched them tit for tat as the game progressed, leaving it 28-28 at the half. In the second half a few key turnovers put the game in Oregon’s hands thanks to some great individual performances by LaMichael James, DeAnthony Thomas, Darron Thomas, Lavasier Tuinei, and Kiko Alonso.
It was the most points scored in a single game in Rose Bowl history, and yet despite all the offensive prowess on display it was defensive plays that made the difference. In particular, Kiko Alonso’s diving interception turned the tide of the seemingly unstoppable Wisconsin offense, giving Oregon the opportunity to extend the lead, and barely hang on as in the final seconds Wisconsin failed to stop the clock in time for one last shot at a game-tying touchdown.
Fingernails were gnawed to the nub while the bands tried to keep the crowd entertained while officials reviewed the spike attempt. When the announcement came over the P.A. declaring the game over, well…just watch and enjoy.
And there we were…the Wisconsin fans quickly made their way to the exits, leaving the masses of Oregon fans witnessing Chip Kelly lift the Rose Bowl trophy surrounded by his players and select members of the University of Oregon administration. Kiko Alonso, who had been suspended before the start of the season for off-field issues, was handed the game MVP trophy and interviewed by ESPN’s Chris Fowler, followed by offensive MVP Lavasier Tuinei.
After the cameras turned off the party continued for many minutes, as a mass of players with one cheerleader hoisted on someone’s shoulders as if it a concert partied it up in the corner while fans clapped along to the fight song being played. Media swarmed the field for interviews, others took the opportunity to snap group photos to commemorate the moment. Whatever sentiments had existed before the game were gone now, nobody thought this was any sort of consolation prize, Oregon were Rose Bowl champions.
Eventually people slowly made their way off the field and out of the stands. I stupidly roamed the golf course hiking for miles neglecting to notice that I had passed by my car already, going in circles for hours before finally spotting it.
The game may have been over, but all the festivities had not yet completed. Back in downtown Pasadena there was a big post-game after-party being hosted by RawTeams, a new sports-centric social media website co-founded by former Oregon Ducks wide receiver Patrick Johnson, at Club Menage on Colorado Blvd along the parade route of the Tournament of Roses that had occurred that morning prior to the game.
Walking into the club I was greeted with a big hug from Patrick Johnson, and then immediately spotted at the bar the exact same group of fans that I had encountered at all the previous Oregon events too.
Many former Oregon players showed up to share in the moment, and deservedly so. The speeches discussing history at the pep rally had been apt. Among the fans partying in the club were the guys who had created the foundation that the Oregon program was built upon, the day’s events at the Rose Bowl had been in part a result of their actions. There was Sam Archer and Rory Dairy, two players from the 1980s teams that ended the losing trends by reaching the Independence Bowl.
There was Jaiya Figueras and Patrick Johnson, who were on the Oregon roster when the Ducks had played in the 1995 Rose Bowl. There was Akili Smith and Keenan Howry, who had elevated Oregon’s play to another level in the late 90s and early 00’s. There was Chris Solomona, defensive lineman extraordinaire in the last few years the Ducks played before converting to the spread offensive schemes that have vaulted the Ducks into the national elite.
The history was evident, and all had huge smiles with the content sense of accomplishment in knowing that they had all played a role in elevating Oregon to its current stature.
The players on the 2011 roster may be the ones who go down in the record books as having won, but the Rose Bowl trophy now owned by the Oregon Ducks is represented by every Duck to have ever worn the uniform or supported the team. It is our trophy, players past and present, fans past and present. Ours.
The parties have now ended, the stadium cleaned, and the fans have returned home. The game will now fade away over time, a mark in the record books, but the efforts made to attain it will live on.
For years now Oregon fans have endured the same rhetorical taunt from Husky and Beaver fans, “when was the last time you guys won a Rose Bowl?” Well, I can’t wait for one of them to ask me that again, so I can proudly respond “2012 Rose Bowl champions, and I was there.”