A Dominant “Gang Green” D-Lineman: The big man he is today, thanks to his days at Oregon
The legendary and never forgotten “Gang Green Defense” of 1994-1995 was instrumental in the turnaround of Oregon Football. The 1994 season (that began with disappointment and doubt) turned into one of the greatest seasons in Oregon Football History, led by an outstanding defense that forced some of the biggest upsets and exhilarating defensive stands in UO history. It is tough to put into words the unprecedented achievement of that season, the scrappy underdog coming out of nowhere to take down the mightiest of teams demanding their spot at the table of national recognition. For those who were lucky enough to experience it, they will never forget it.
“Gang Green” was best known for its speedy secondary and quick hitting linebackers, but forgotten in that mix was the men up front manning the trenches on Oregon’s defensive line (given it was a 3-4 defense.) Defensive End Mark Schmidt really came into his prime and made his presence felt the whole year; and would truly progress from there, both on and off the field.
Mark Schmidt came to Oregon in 1992 from Concord, CA as one of the Top-10 Bay Area Prospects. Schmidt would redshirted that first year, and eventually worked his way into the mix as a redshirt freshman in 1993. Beginning his sophomore year in 1994, he became a valuable anchor of the Oregon defensive line, becoming a very successful three-year starter.
Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Mark to relive his glory days of the Oregon gridiron.
WHAT MADE YOU COME TO OREGON?
“It was 525 miles away from doorstep to doorstep! I wanted to play in the Pac-10; but I didn’t know much about Oregon until I took a recruiting trip there. I guess I liked the feel of the atmosphere, it was a family atmosphere. I liked the feel I got from Mike Bellotti (who recruited me), Joe Schaffeld (my Defensive Line Coach) and his ol’ ‘whatever it takes to get it done‘ mentality, and Rich Brooks, who was one of the most emotional coaches you could ever be around and who you wanted to run through a brick wall for. The passion they had for the game was a good positive fit, and that’s what made me come to Oregon.
It was my third recruiting trip I had taken. I had taken a trip to Colorado, one to Arizona State, and then Oregon. Going from my junior year into my senior year, I had verbally committed to play both football and baseball at Cal-Berkeley. I was an all-state baseball player, and baseball was my favorite sport, I just had more of a football body. But, I felt that blue-collar family atmosphere at Oregon. They made me feel wanted, that I was going to be a part of something big. I liked a lot of players I got to meet on the recruiting trip. My host was Mark Slymen (upper-class defensive lineman,) a great guy. These were guys you wanted to be around: their charisma, the brotherhood they showed – you really felt the camaraderie amongst those guys (whether they were from LA, Washington, Idaho or Oregon), there was that brotherhood amongst each other. I got to meet a lot of good guys. On my recruiting trip, I met Reggie Jordan and we had a bond; and we ended up being roommates together the next three years.”
“First time I ever stepped on the field was on special teams, I was a wedge-breaker on kickoffs. On a kickoff return, I set the wedge. That was the first time I saw the field my freshman year. Then I got thrown in at other positions. Gary Williams and DJ Cabreara (defensive linemen) got hurt, so I was thrown in as a freshman lineman against Todd Steussie (future NFL star) from Cal. I remember the next game against Washington State, the guy who was blocking me was saying ‘nope, you’re not going anywhere!’ It was demoralizing, but I was a young kid. That was my first part of being on the field, thrown into the mix.
The biggest transition I had from high school to college was to put my hand on the ground! I was a ‘monster position,’ playing running-back, linebacker, and tight end in high school. I was mostly linebacker in high school, sometimes nose guard. Even when I did that, I wouldn’t put my hand on the ground, rather use my quickness and strength. My biggest transition in college was definitely getting put down on the defensive line and getting put in tight quarters; not having the space I had in high school. Having my hand down on the line, I think I had more skid marks on my jersey my first year than on the front!
To become a successful defensive lineman meant having the mentality of doing whatever it took. Coach Schaffeld would call us all ‘dirt dogs!’ To have that mentality of never quitting and never surrendering, always knowing ‘I’ll never get beat, and if I do, I’ll come twice as hard next time’ was what it took for me to become a successful defensive lineman. I wish I would have played more instinctively, but I played more inside our defense and would strive to play as a team defense rather than an individual.”
“I had two games that were my favorite games; just to walk away feeling proud of how I played and how our team played; and what I laid it all on the line for on the field.
1) My sophomore year against Arizona State: I had four tackles for losses, three quarterback sacks, and was going against All-American Juan Roque and Kyle Murphy. Just taking on double teams from them and defeating them, allowing them not to run the ball and making them one-dimensional so we could pressure a great QB in Jake Plummer. Just walking away from that game – we won the game hands-down (34-10.) The defense did a great job, and I felt great about games we won as a team. They didn’t run the ball hardly at all on my side of the field, because we were stuffing the run and were able to pin our ears back with blitzes and moves to where I could eventually get 2.5 quarterback sacks. Winning the game hands down as a team, and just feeling the atmosphere of the crowd at Autzen Stadium (final home game of Rose Bowl season) was probably what made it one the best games I ever played in, one of the best games I had, and been a part of.
2) But I think my best overall game was against Colorado (Cotton Bowl) my junior year.”
WHAT VICTORY WOULD YOU CLASSIFY AS THE BIGGEST WIN FROM YOUR CAREER?
“As a team, the most memorable game was the 1994 Washington Game at Autzen Stadium, it really put Oregon on the map. Here was a dominant team with Napoleon Kaufman as the key against the ‘Gang Green’ upstart defense – did people believe in it or not? It was a huge momentum swing, not only in the Gang Green Defense, but I think in Oregon Athletics as a whole. It was like, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived, we’re on the scene, and we’re for real.’ To see how our fans in a packed house reacted and how they believed and supported us; I think the fans had as much to brag about as we did on the field. We were the ones who got all the glory and won it, but the fans and momentum they had in that sellout crowd played into a part of success for Oregon Football.”
[Note: As any Duck fan knows, the victory was capped by Kenny Wheaton’s renowned 97-yard interception pick-six. Oregon had just taken a 24-20 lead, and with under a minute to play – foiled Washington’s comeback attempt.]
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE INDIVIDUAL PLAY YOU HAD? WHAT MAY FANS NOT KNOW ABOUT IT?
“I wasn’t a ‘glory hound.’ I wasn’t out in space. Kenny having all those picks, Cota having all those picks/tackles, Asher making all the tackles, they did it. I really felt our defensive front were the unsung heroes of Oregon football, and that we played in a form to keep people off those guys behind us to make the plays. If I had to pick one play that I’m proud of, maybe it was that Cal play. That year against Cal, I had a sack against QB Kerry McGonical at the 1-yard line (and it was a safety!) but Silila (Malepeai) made the safety the very next play, so it worked out anyway!
(What fans may not know,) I took on a double team from (future NFL stars) Tight End Tony Gonzales and Tackle Todd Stewart. I eluded a double team, then to chase down a mobile quarterback and sack him at the one-inch line was a memorable moment. Then, to hear the crowd erupt and to come to the sidelines and see the crowd cheering was very exciting for me. The fans may not remember or know much about it, but it was a memorable moment in my career.”
TALK ABOUT SOME MEMORABLE TEAM MOMENTS FROM YOUR CAREER…
“There have been moments at Autzen Stadium that I’ll never be able to feel again. The win against Arizona in 1994 when all the fans came rushing on the field; and the Washington game where Kenny had ‘The Pick.’ Playing around the mosh-pit of the fans and feeling the energy from the people in Autzen Stadium is what brought me to Oregon. We were just a bunch of blue-collar guys who would strap up their boots and bring their lunchpail to practice everyday to make themselves better and just strive to be average amongst the best in the Pac-10, which paid off at times like that.”
[Note: Against Arizona, Oregon was coming off the memorable upset over #9 Washington, and facing another ranked team at Autzen Stadium. Arizona (4-0 Pac-10) was in the driver’s seat for the Pac-10 Title, and featured the famous “Desert Swarm Defense.” Oregon struggled in the beginning, trailing 9-0 at the half. However, Schmidt and “Gang Green” really began to take effect after halftime. Oregon’s defense did not allow Arizona beyond midfield in the second half, holding them scoreless. The Oregon offense rallied for the second consecutive week, coming back to take a 10-9 lead in the fourth quarter. Late in the game, Arizona was pinned deep in their own territory, 28 yards from the first down. Oregon lined up in the nickel package for deep pass coverage when Schmidt made a remarkable sack, breaking through the offensive line and pinning Arizona around their own 10 yard-line. Oregon’s “twelfth man” assisted the defense holding Arizona in check from there, as a wild snap hindered Arizona’s progress and “Gang Green” held strong on pass coverage. Chad Cota would intercept a Hail Mary pass to seal the victory 10-9 as time ran out, and “Gang Green” would prove to be the stronger of two tough defenses on a memorable defensive shootout.]
“I had a one-on-one with the guard, and then made a move I hadn’t used at all during the game. I set him up, used a ‘push-pull inside rip’ move, and then was able to break through and tackle (quarterback) Danny White in a key down. It was a key situation for Arizona, it was awesome. Then to hear the roar of the crowd, as tired and as beat up as we were from battling that whole game, that just energized everyone more. The next series, they had that wild snap that went behind Danny White. Then Cota got a pick (the winning interception.) I remember a lot of those games from that year, they’re my favorites. Those were all memorable moments, and they were all at Autzen Stadium! The feel off the crowd and excitement of all the fans was pretty darn cool!”
“We were just a bunch of average blue-collar guys. We had just a few top-caliber athletes, but how WE were successful on the ‘Gang Green’ was – we played together as a team and did whatever it took to get the job done! Very few of those guys who played a big role on the ‘Gang Green’ played a long time in the pros or even made it to the pros. But again, what made us different and successful was playing together as a team, sacrificing for each other, rallying to each other, and being a part of that brotherhood I keep talking about – because that bond is what made ‘Gang Green’ successful.
I’m proud to say that I was a big part of the Gang Green and part of those who played unselfishly. Playing for the guys around you made everyone else better. Edification of others is what we always said to make others better, and not wanting to let each other down. With our bond, you never wanted to let any of your buddies down; you never wanted to let the DB’s down, the linebackers down, and they never wanted to let us down.”
EVERYONE REMEMBERS THE 1994 SEASON TURNAROUND. WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST KEY TO OVERCOMING THE 1-2 START AND GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL, AND HOW DID YOU PLAY A PART IN THAT?
“The key to the turnaround was a players-only meeting. A lot of the players stood up and talked about what was going wrong (and what was going right), and where we had to believe in each other/take care of each other/work hard for each other. This was something that helped us turn around a 1-2 start to where we ended (The Rose Bowl).”
[Note: Oregon began the season 1-2 after two straight losses to Hawaii and Utah. The frustrated coaches called for a players-only meeting the week heading into the Iowa game. Oregon really came together, and “Gang Green” began to take effect for the first time against Iowa (the final non-conference game) to pull off an impressive 40-18 victory. Oregon went on to upset USC 22-7 in the conference opener on the road; and would go 8-1 in the regular season following the players-only meeting.]
“Again, taking care of each other, whether it was guys from LA, guys from Washington, guys from Oregon; wherever they came from – it was all put aside. It was about the camaraderie of the brotherhood and not letting each other down; making each other better, and playing hard for each other. A big turning point in that for me was actually a speech by Kory Murphy. Kory was a wide receiver who was a year older than I was, and someone I thought a lot of. He came out the week of the Iowa game and talked about having passion for the game, working hard every single practice to make yourself better – especially since you never know when that last play of your career is going to happen (as had just happened to him-a neck injury vs. Hawaii ending his football career).
That really helped me realize (as a young kid) that this could all be gone tomorrow like it was for Kory, one injury on the field ended a promising career. To see someone I respected in Kory Murphy say these things to the team was huge. Every time I got tired or didn’t want to practice/play hard, I remembered Kory’s speech and him saying ‘you never know when that last play is going to happen. You never know when you’re going to get your last opportunity to do the things you can do on a football field.’ It motivated me to work hard. On top of that, in the players-only meeting, some guys really spoke from the heart and talked about playing for each other. Doing the little things that everybody hated to do (but were needed) would take care of the big things.
We came together as a unit with one common goal, and did whatever it took to get that common goal down. Knowing what your assignment was or ability play-by-play to be effective; whether it effected the linebackers behind me. If I kept the linemen off them, they could make the plays. Playing a team effort defense, that is, again, what helped ‘Gang Green’ and the whole Oregon football program in the turnaround. That was the brotherhood no one could take away from us.
The first game after the players-only meeting, Iowa came to town. They were supposed to stomp us. I ended up playing a hybrid position, which was the inside eye of the tight end–We three linemen, and I was a right defensive tackle. For this game, they put Mark Slymen in and moved me to the hybrid position. They had a good tight end, this was to stop him.
I ended up having a quarterback sack, and we really built off of that. You could feel the momentum swinging and confidence in each other. We took that same defense to USC the next week; I played the same position to pound the tight end and fight with tackles. I had a sack, several tackles for losses, and we had nine total quarterback sacks that game. We all fed off each other, everyone was playing for each other, and it showed big time.”
DURING YOUR LAST YEAR, WHAT WAS THE CHANGE LIKE WITH NEW DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR RICH STUBLER AND HIS “EDGE” DEFENSIVE SCHEME?
“Having Stubler as Defensive Coordinator my senior year was probably one of the worst mistakes Oregon could have made while I was playing there. We were a good team in 1994 at the start of the ‘Gang Green’ and lost key players, but came back the Cotton Bowl year and had a phenomenal defense under defensive coordinator Charlie Waters. We came back as seniors, and Stubler was in charge now (the third we’d had in as many years), and he played this ‘soccer-style’ ‘yard-off-the-ball’ defensive style. It worked well in Canadian Football, but that’s because they always ran outside and were on a wider field. It did not work in the Pac-10!
We had a lot of guys with a lot of experience coming back (Derrick Barnes, Reggie Jordan, Kenny Wheaton, Bryant Jackson, Desmond Byrd, Jaiya Figueras, myself), we had quality players that had finished in the top-three in the nation the Cotton Bowl year. We did lose key guys, but we brought back a lot of solid players; so to line us up a yard off the ball, you had to have guys make individual plays all the time because you were reacting rather than attacking. I always felt we were better when we were attacking. Underneath Stubler, we were on our heals the whole time! It showed, given we were one of the worst defenses that year.”
“I had a boxer’s mentality, ‘they’re going to punch you, you better punch them first, and you’d better make them react to you rather than react to what they’re doing.’ I didn’t study film in college as much as I could’ve, I didn’t study what the weaknesses were against offensive line that I know now. I wish I had paid better attention to whether they lean forward on a run-block. I didn’t buy into that as much as I did preparing hard against scout teams, knowing what formations they were going to run certain plays in.
More, just letting my toughness/mentality of never letting them knock you down, and if so, always getting up and fighting twice as hard. I played more by being mentally prepared for that upcoming week. Who was I going to play against: was it Juan Roque, was it Scott Sanderson, was it Boselli? I played against some phenomenal left tackles in my day. These guys played in the pros for years, I played against them and did well against them. It was more about who I was going against, and not letting them know that they got the best of Mark Schmidt at the time; knowing that when they walked off the field, they had just gone to battle.”
WHAT ARE YOUR HAPPIEST MEMORIES FROM YOUR TIME AS A DUCK?
“Happiest memories of being a Duck are just the camaraderie, fellowship, and brotherhood of being an Oregon football player more than anything. Everybody asks me ‘do you miss football?’ No, I don’t miss football at all. What I do miss is the camaraderie and the fellowship of brothers all playing together for the good of one.
As for actual moments on the field: The 1994 win at Stanford was huge. We had won against Washington, Arizona, etc; and didn’t want to jinx it. But when we won down at Stanford, we all dove in a mud pile at the end of the field! I think that was a happy moment for me and a lot of guys on the team, knowing destiny was in the palm of our hands. We just had to do business to get it done over Oregon State, and had written our own page in the history books of Oregon Football.
For me, a great moment was that Stanford win, and the success over a good Stanford team down there. Then, getting prepared for Oregon State. The Civil War was a tough battle, and a hard-fought game. I don’t remember the end of that, because I went out with a severe concussion in the beginning of the fourth quarter; so I don’t even think I knew we won until later that night! I know it was a great moment, but I can remember the Stanford win. I have a picture of me with my parents after the OSU game, and you can tell from the look in my eyes I was dazed and confused!”
WHAT WAS THE FUNNIEST MOMENT IN YOUR TIME AS A DUCK?
“There were a lot of great moments, but I think the funniest was when we were down at the Rose Bowl, and Dan Meade (teammate at the time) did impersonations of all sorts of different people at Universal Studios. Dan was a comedian, and would make a tough day turn into a fun day with the impressions and jokes he would do and doing comedy skits out in public. There were lots of fun times in that whole Rose Bowl trip. Those were some of the funniest moments in my time at Oregon.”
WHAT HAS YOUR LIFE BEEN LIKE SINCE YOUR CAREER AS A DUCK?
“I had a brief stint in the pros (NFL and CFL), but realized pretty quickly that football was not going to be my career choice. I kind of fell out of love with football, I didn’t like the business approach they had and really lost the love for the game. I played for the love and camaraderie of brotherhood, so I stepped away from football as a whole for three years. Then, I ran into ex-Oregon football player Justin Starck out where I had just moved, in the Thurston (Springfield) area. He asked me to come help a local high school team out where he was coaching. I helped out at varsity level coaching for 13 years, trying to make young men have better morales, better morals/ethics, and not necessarily better football players but better people.”
MARK SCHMIDT TODAY…
Oregon was not only where Schmidt decided to go to college, but where he decided to settle down. Following his brief stint in the pros, Mark returned to the Eugene area to temporarily work for Coca Cola; before finding a way to utilize his business degree, going into management for a locally owned company. Mark has worked for Willamette Graystone of Eugene since 2000.
“I am fortunate enough to work for an owner that I view as a father figure, and would run through a wall for like I would have for Rich Brooks or Mike Bellotti. I think that’s why I like working for Willamette Graystone so much, because of my loyalty to Don Jones and the man he is – someone I never want to let down and will always try to do better for.” Mark is also now a family man. In 1999, Mark and his wife Kara (a South Eugene High School Graduate) were married and settled together in Springfield. “I married my soul mate in 1999, she was Miss Oregon 1997. I got lucky, I don’t know how she chose me!!!”
Mark and Kara have three daughters, (Olivia, 10; Sophia 9; and Isabella 5). The Schmidt’s are happily settled in the town that made their “big daddy” into the man he is today. Mark continues to cheer for Oregon, knowing “Once a Duck, ALWAYS A DUCK!”