So just what is it that makes a highly-sought football recruit decide to come to sleepy Eugene over all of their other choices? Is it the facilities? Is it the coaches? Is it the flashy uniforms, or the flashier offense? Is it that success breeds success, the 34-6 record tallied by Chip Kelly since taking over more than enough to convince kids that they would be joining a winner? Is it something in the water?
Well, yes actually…at least according to Derrick Deadwiler, a JC All-American who in 1992 decided to join the Ducks over his other offers in part because, “the water was really good. Coming from San Diego, I remember that the water in Eugene tasted really good, it didn’t taste like dirt or salt like back home. That was really important to me for some reason.”
See, there are lots of reasons that may tip a decision in Oregon’s favor, and it may not be what we assume are the main draws. For many of the blue chip athletes with offers to play at nearly every major university across the country, the little things may add up to a lot.
The highly-touted players will spend months if not years being lobbied by coaches and scouts from schools across the country. Home visits, camps, recruiting trips, and an endless supply of mail will come their way to convince them to come to this school or that one. All have valid reasons for why they should come there, so little things like observing how teammates interact, or local food, or weather may prove a deciding factor all things else being even.
Oregon recruits on a national scale now, no longer picking from the scraps on the west coast left behind by USC and Washington, the Ducks are drawing in athletes from all over the country. The program’s success was built upon the under-recruited/undersized scrappers, ignored by the major institutions but embraced by Oregon and molded into winners, because while a camp may be able to measure intangibles like 40-time and bench press it cannot measure the heart of a student-athletes, the will to succeed.
Oregon’s roster used to be littered with 2-star and 3-star recruits, but with the recent success in the Kelly era not only are the ratings and quality of athlete boosted, but so too is the distance they are willing to travel to become a Duck. If there is a reputation established for Oregon over the years, it is that of a place that can take the under-recruited overachiever and mold a good athlete into a great one. Some of the best to ever don an Oregon jersey did so first arriving as a walk-on or choosing Oregon over only a small handful of other offers. The NFL has been littered with Oregon alumni, most of which were passed on by the bigger schools because some scout at a camp only rated them a 3-star instead of a 4.
It’s easy to pigeonhole 18-year-olds we have never met, drooling over their highlight films on youtube, making assumptions of who they are based entirely on one or two quotes in an article, or the rumor mills of hearing secondhand how their recruiting visits went. It is indeed easy to forget that every recruit is an individual, with differing backgrounds and discerning tastes in what is important to them when making one of the most important decision of their lives, which university to select that will hopefully aide them in pursuing their greater goals. It is much easier to just assume that every recruit fits into the same box, and will make their decisions for the same reasons. It’s simple math; if recruit A chose Oregon because of the indoor practice facility then surely recruit B will as well, or they would have until Washington also built one, so now Oregon has to build a new football wing to the Casanova Center or recruit B might end up a Dawg.
And thus the great arms race continues, one-upsmanship at its finest all in an effort to convince 18-year-old kids to put on a hat with the UO logo on it come signing day.
Oregon’s attempts to compete in the arms race started years ago, first with the construction of sky-suites at Autzen Stadium in the 1980s to help pay for the initial phase of the Casanova Center in 1990.
In the time since the initial construction, the Casanova Center has been remodeled, practice fields built, an indoor practice facility added, a new basketball arena, renovations to Hayward Field, a new academic center, a baseball stadium, lacrosse and soccer fields, new locker rooms, new treatment centers, and currently underway new football offices further expanding the Casanova Center. All are done to add to recruiting, in the hopes that a better athlete ensures more victories, which sells tickets and increases donations.
The University of Oregon has always had certain disadvantages to the recruiting game. The city of Eugene, while a great place to live, does not afford the same extra-curricular activities that some may find more readily available in a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles or San Francisco. It’s also hard to reach, few direct flights travel to Eugene (Oregon temporarily resolved this issue with the use of a private jet to fly in recruits, until the NCAA outlawed such practices). Oregon’s total population is less than even a corner of Los Angeles, fewer locals meaning fewer athletes growing up in the program’s shadow attending games and dreaming of one day running out of that tunnel too. Also while there is much pride in Oregon’s history, there is not the sustained winning tradition and legacy of a school like USC.
So how does a university take the steps to try to compete on an even level with traditional powers easily reached within major cities, containing a large populous with prospective student-athletes growing up dreaming of one day playing for the Trojans, or Longhorns, or Buckeyes?
Well, it may be time to realize that while the facilities and branding gets an athlete interested, there are other factors that are just as important, if not more so.
Oregon didn’t always have grade-A facilities that were the envy of the college and pro ranks, and didn’t always have winning seasons to point to as validation. There wasn’t always packed stands or futuristic uniforms or billboards or Nike funds flowing into the program. But where Oregon has lacked in big city attributes, there are some points to be made for the University of Oregon and Eugene community that bear paying attention to amidst all the boasting of facilities as key factors in the success of Oregon athletics.
- Consistency in the coaching staff
- Family atmosphere
- Community support
- Campus life
In speaking with many current and former student-athletes at the University of Oregon, these are often the first things mentioned. While the awe of Autzen Stadium, the Jaqua Center, the Casanova Center, and The Mo widen the eyes, that only goes so far in convincing a recruit to commit to spending the next 4-5 years of their life in Eugene.
Ever since Rich Brooks came to Eugene in the late 70s, one of Oregon’s biggest keys to success has been the consistency in the coaching staff. Coaching can be a lonely profession, one in which team association changes as often as the weather. But in Eugene it has been different, coaches find a way to come here and stay here. Perhaps it is the mellow comfortable setting, the reasonable cost of living, or the support structure at the university, but repeatedly coaches have turned down other opportunities to remain within the comforts of Eugene.
Most recently, Head Coach Chip Kelly was sought by the NFL, but decided to continue calling Eugene home for the foreseeable future. Some such as Chris Peterson and Jeff Tedford have used Oregon as a platform to reach a more prominent role, but some of Oregon’s more prolific coaches have stuck it out to stay a Duck.
Steve Greatwood recently was voted as the best assistant coach in the country, Don Pellum was named recruiting coordinator of the year, and Jim Radcliffe is perennially considered one of the top strength & conditioning coaches in the country.
Even when great opportunities present themselves elsewhere, and some do choose to leave, the chance to remain within the Oregon family has kept some coaches grounded at the UO for decades. This is far from normal, and that consistency in coaching is as important as any factor, a prospective student knowing that the position coach that recruits them will probably still be there when they play their last snap as a Duck. Not only will Oregon athletes be taught by the same coaches during their time in Eugene, but those lessons will be received from some of the absolute best in the business.
‘The family atmosphere’ gets promoted often by many, but rarely can it be seen as genuine as at the University of Oregon. Ask any current or former player what their favorite times are, and it won’t be a moment caught in time on the field that the fans cherish and immortalize, but memories of hanging out with their teammates in the locker room or back in the dorms that they hold most dear. When heading out around town, they travel as a group. Oregon football is a communal experience, shared through the mutual love they have for their teammates; all brought to Eugene from different backgrounds with a shared motivation — to win. These young men would do anything for each other, because they are more than just teammates, they are family.
This sense of family is further encouraged by the coaches, whose mentoring and open-door policies prove that it isn’t just a statement, but a way of life. Ask a running back at Oregon what they think of Coach Gary Campbell, the response will be that he is more than just a coach, he is a father-figure treating them as if they were his own children. Ask a linebacker, and they will say Coach Don Pellum is by far the coolest guy they know. One universal fact binds these coaches to this team, that to them every student-athlete is a part of their family, the football family of Ducks.
Oregon lacks pro teams beyond the Portland Trailblazers, and claiming Seattle or bay area franchises feels somewhat hollow as a faux-representation of the state. For kids growing up in Eugene, the lack of a nearby pro team means that the college programs are elevated to a pro-like status. Seeing a Duck football player around town is like spotting a celebrity, on par with the gossip that ensues when someone spots the local NFL or NBA superstar around town in a big city.
While most kids across the country may spend their time in backyards tossing around a ball trying to emulate Peyton Manning or Aaron Rogers, in Oregon the names Dennis Dixon and Darron Thomas get uttered far more often. To grow up in Oregon is to treat the Ducks like a pro team, a representation of our city, our area, and providing victories on our behalf for a community that is 100% sports crazy.
The outpouring of love and support from the locals to those who choose to come to Eugene is genuine, and expressed every day in every Oregon Ducks logo on car bumpers or business windows. It is displayed in every passing shout of “GO DUCKS” or fan throwing up the O. The community lives and dies by the success of the UO’s athletic program, a sense of pride or depression felt throughout the whole valley dependent on the success or failure of its sports teams. Every player has a story, one of a random fan or elderly grandma stopping them in a grocery store or on the street just to say ‘thank you for being a Duck.’
In a recent interview article on FishDuck.com, Oregon graduate Darrion Weems (offensive tackle 2007-11) said the following of the community support in Eugene:
“That’s part of the experience Oregon has going; fans stopping you in the grocery store and talking with you about their favorite Duck moments, giving you their interactions with Oregon Football is huge. I met a lady in the grocery store a few years back, and she told me how she had classes with Ahmad Rashad, and her husband played with him.”
In other interviews with former players, we have heard stories of how student-athletes relished the opportunities to have friends outside of the football team. In many schools the populations are so great they are largely segregated into a team atmosphere 24/7. Oregon is small enough that it affords the opportunity to meet new people, mingle with fellow students, and experience as much of the normal college life as possible within the demanding rigors associated with being a student-athlete.
Yes, big beautiful buildings help draw prospective student-athletes to Eugene, and the more the better. Fun toys, like special locker rooms and a jersey for every day of the week help. But behind the glitz and polish that years of branding has placed on the University of Oregon, it takes far more to seal the deal to gain those valued commitments.
It is the coaching staff, the community, the people, the atmosphere, the support, and the sense of family that results in signed letters of intent.
Oregon’s recruiting has never been better, the quality of athlete and depth reaching sights unseen. While outside perceptions may be that it is solely the result of Nike’s influence, or accusations of illegal actions with scouts to gain some sort of advantage, the reality points to other factors.
Oregon is the only team in the country to play in three consecutive BCS games over the past three season. Oregon is also the only team in the country to keep its entire coaching staff intact over the past three seasons…coincidence?
The success on the field is dictated by the culture off of it. Sure, the facilities help. The uniforms are great. The Nike connection is awesome. But for those who think that is the only reason why the top athletes in the country are snubbing the traditional powerhouse programs in favor of coming to little ol’ Eugene, they need to take a closer look.
As vital are the coaches, the community support, the sense of family. Add them all up, and the full package is something that for many of the nation’s top athletes, it is simply too good of an opportunity not to become a Duck…or maybe there’s just something in the water.