Northwest Favorites Usher in Oregon’s Athletic Revolution
In the past decade the University of Oregon has been highly renowned across the country for their athletics, gaining a national foothold with recruiting, whereas previously the Ducks relied primarily on regional pipelines. With the success of Joey Harrington in the early parts of the new century, there was an excitement brewing in Eugene. Equipped with flashy uniforms, a new logo, and top of the line athletic facilities; the original status quo Oregon athletic program was turned upside-down. Suddenly gone was the attitude of hoping the Ducks might win; now there was the expectation that the Ducks would win.
Oregon was not well known around the country until the 2001 season, when the Ducks football team led by Joey Harrington won the Fiesta Bowl and finished #2 in the polls. Harrington had a legitimate chance to win the Heisman, finishing fourth in voting. To help his campaign he had a $250,000 ten-story billboard in Times Square, advertising the University of Oregon and Joey “Heisman.” He was also featured on the cover photo for the EA Sports NCAA College Football 2003 video game after being picked third overall in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions.
All this publicity surrounding Harrington brought a new energy to Oregon athletics, beyond just the football team. Through this new athletic prowess the University of Oregon was making a name for themselves on a national level for prospective students and sports writers alike.
To many it is Joey Harrington who put Oregon on the map, but at the same time two other UO athletes had nearly as much of an impact on eschewing the new era of Ducks sports; Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson.
Alongside Portland’s Freddie Jones, Northwest favorites Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson were high school studs, but it was their basketball IQ that helped them polish the hardwood court with their opponents. All three would go on to be NBA draft lottery picks, an unheard of achievement at Oregon, but it was the two Lukes that would leave behind a legacy that still resonates today for their sport, like Harrington in football.
Luke Ridnour, raised in Blaine, WA, showed much athletic prowess in high school. He won two high school state championships and became a McDonald’s All-American. His unique style of play on the court earned him offers from basketball powerhouses Kentucky, Washington, Gonzaga and Utah among others. He could have gone to nearly any school in the country he wanted.
Oregon offered him a position as well, however according to family and friends, initially Oregon was not on the list of Ridnour’s top universities. And why should it? Oregon had only made two appearances in the NCAA tournament since 1961 (1995 & 2000), they weren’t an elite level basketball program, and aside from a few individual standouts Oregon basketball hadn’t made much noise since the Kamikaze Kids era of the 1970s.
But after a last minute visit to McArthur Court to watch an exhibition starring Fred Richardson, Ridnour was convinced Oregon was the right school for him. The Ducks pulled off a massive recruiting coup, getting one of the top recruits to stick to his northwest roots and pick a school of little prestige compared to other basketball powerhouses. Ridnour signed his national letter of intent Saturday after watching the exhibition game at Oregon Friday night.
In his three-year term with the Ducks, the 6’2″ guard averaged 14.6 points per game and 5.2 assists, along with an exceptional 42.8 field goal percentage. The 2003 season was Ridnour’s best, paving the way for his early entrance into the NBA following his junior campaign. He averaged 19.7 points per game, 6.6 assists, and set the school record for single-season assists at 218. His efforts led Oregon to become Pac-10 tournament champions, while Ridnour was named both tournament MVP and Pac-10 Player of the Year.
Jackson commit the same year as Ridnour, and like his counterpart with the same name, he too was a northwest native, growing up in the UO shadows in just-down-the-road Creswell, OR. Luke Jackson was born in Eugene, and dominated opponents with his 6’7″ frame at Creswell High School. During his high school career Jackson earned Oregon’s Class AAA player of the year his sophomore and senior seasons. Jackson capped off his high school career with an Oregon Class AAA state championship.
Jackson, continuing his success with the Oregon Ducks, played alongside two of the best guards in the school’s history (Jones and Ridnour). Jackson flooded school record charts, one of only two players in the conference to score over 1,900 points, distribute 400 assists, and collect over 700 rebounds.
The most impressive years of the “Luke Show” were 2002 and 2003. They followed Harrington’s departure to the NFL, filling the void vacated by Joey to become the new faces of the program. The university needed new talent to lead the next athletic programs to winning seasons, and characters to personify what it meant to be a Duck amidst the evolving program and Nike hype-machine. Into the limelight stepped the two Lukes, Ridnour and Jackson both evolving from raw freshman into talented all-around players during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Quality people on the court exceeded only by their character and academics off of it, they were the perfect figureheads to lead the next generation of Oregon student-athletes.
By the end of the 2003 campaign, the Ducks made their third ever Elite-Eight appearance and their third-straight NCAA tournament, and won their first-ever Pac-10 conference tournament championship. For the first time since the Kamikaze Kids era of the 70’s, football took a backseat to the excitement surrounding the basketball program.
Freddie Jones’ finger-roll basket in the final seconds of the Sweet Sixteen Round vs. Texas in 2003 remains a landmark moment etched in the history of the program.
The same year the Lukes’ committed to play basketball at the University of Oregon, Joey Harrington shredded the Texas defense with 273 passing yards and two touchdowns in San Diego at the Holiday Bowl in front of a national TV audience. Aside from his 25-3 career college record, he earned first team All-American and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year awards.
These successes brought on an Oregon athletics transformation. Phil Knight donated around $230 million dollars to the university, resulting in new facilities and halls, including the SRC (Student Recreation Center) where students have access to state-of-the-art exercise equipment, and the Knight Library.
In recent years Oregon football has dominated the Pac-10/12, the success of the UO’s athletics causing a trickle-down effect to improve the facilities on campus, leading to better academics as well. The entire campus has received a massive upgrade in academics, athletics, appearance, and most importantly national relevance. Oregon is the only school in the nation to have played in three consecutive BCS games over the past three years, and basketball has a shiny new stadium to showcase its talents, led by basketball coach Dana Altman bringing in top-level talent to match.
Whereas a decade ago Joey and the Lukes’ success showed the potential of the program, the facilities and consistent national prominence displayed by Oregon today, in large part thanks to the success of Joey and the Lukes, displays that promise now realized.
Their athletic performances showcased the full potential of what happens when quality players meet quality coaches matched with a strong and generous investment from boosters and loyal, passionate fan support. Ridnour, Jackson, and Harrington gave to Oregon athletics a spark that got the fire going.
A decade ago it was shocking when blue chip recruits like Ridnour would have the boldness to pass up a traditional power like Kentucky for Oregon. Now when premier talents like De’Anthony Thomas and Arik Armstead spurn a west coast power like USC in favor of Oregon, it barely resonates as a surprise. It is expected, because thanks to the efforts of the Duck trio, a decade removed from their time in the collegiate limelight, Oregon has become a destination for the top talents in the country. For this Joey Harrington receives, and perhaps deserves, the lionshare of the credit, but the impact of Luke and Luke on the future success of the program, as a whole beyond just football should not be forgotten.