Mourning One of Oregon’s Greatest Seasons

Brian Libby History

Although it may have been bested in 2010 with a perfect campaign, one-loss regular seasons at Oregon are the mark of something very special. In the 67 years since the end of World War II, only the 2001 and 2005 teams have done it.

That makes the current season among Duck football’s best of the best.

But I’ve got a secret to tell; something I’m not at all proud of, yet something I suspect many of my fellow Duck fanatics share:

I’m in mourning. Because the national championship was there for the taking. And because Oregon — if media prognosticators are correct — may be about to lose the coach who took us to this highest echelon of college football.

The elementary-school version of me who spent the 1980s watching the Ducks lose more than they won would scoff at this. “11-1? Headed to the Fiesta Bowl? And that’s not enough for you?” the little boy me would say to my 40-year-old present day self. “Here I am, ready to sprint down the middle of the street screaming like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life merely if Oregon posts a winning season and goes to a toilet bowl. You’re telling me the Ducks will go 11-1 in 2012 and that’s depressing? What’s the matter?”

To answer, let me offer a quick story about tennis player John McEnroe. To be considered one of the all-time greats in this sport, you not only have to rack up a lot of Grand Slam tournament wins (Wimbledon plus the U.S., French and Australian Opens), but you also must win each of them at least once—to achieve what’s known as the “career slam.” McEnroe wound up winning three of the four, but missed out on a French Open title in dramatic fashion. In 1984, McEnroe was not only ranked #1 in the world, but he was undefeated with a more than 40-match winning streak. His opponent in the French Open final that year, Ivan Lendl, had never won a Grand Slam tournament before. But despite leading Ivan Lendl by two sets in the 1984 French final, McEnroe saw Lendl come roaring back and lost the match: 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5.

In the locker room afterward, McEnroe’s brother Patrick tried to console him. “Don’t worry, John, you’ll win it next year,” he said. But John was insistent. “No, you don’t understand!” he told his brother. “That was my chance!” And he was right: John McEnroe never won the French Open, and thus never completed the career slam. And today that’s why players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are among the greatest of the great and McEnroe is a notch below.

I think of John McEnroe when I think of the 2012 Oregon Ducks. I hear those angry words and fear that they could apply to our team as well.

Oregon’s 2012 football season has been one like any other. And by that, I don’t just mean it’s been special or memorable. Perhaps more than any of the team’s campaigns dating back to 1894, it’s hard to know what we have here. Of course, the story won’t be fully told until after the Fiesta Bowl. Winning or losing that game will do a lot to resolve what kind of season this turned out to be.

But consider this: even in 2010, when Oregon went undefeated and reached the national championship game, there was always one of the great superstars of the modern era, Cam Newton, and his Auburn team waiting for us. The Ducks did reach the #1 ranking in 2010, but soon after, whispers began that Newton was taking his team all the way to a Heisman and a title. Most of the country believed Newton would prevail.

But this year, when Oregon briefly re-gained the #1 ranking after Alabama’s loss to Texas A&M, there was for a short time an incredible national consensus favoring the Ducks. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas gave Chip Kelly’s team the best chance of winning it all. In two national polls, ESPN viewers and online readers not only voted Oregon the team most likely to win it all, but also the team they would like to see win the championship. When you put it together, this was arguably the first time in team history that the nation envisioned and expected an Oregon Ducks national championship.

That was all before the Stanford game, of course.

For the sake of all of us bleeding green and yellow, I’m not going to delve into all the excruciating “What if?” moments on that Saturday evening in November. But needless to say, a field goal here or a block there, and Oregon could have escaped with a win.

What’s just as devastating as Oregon not reaching the national championship game when we had the opportunity is the fact that this time around the Ducks would have been the clear, unequivocal favorite. Oregon versus Notre Dame would have been the ultimate college football matchup: the team of the 20th century against the team poised to become the team of the 21st. But Notre Dame is no Alabama. In fact, Oregon would have been more likely to beat the Irish than we are of beating Kansas State. I have no doubt that the Wildcats would beat the Irish as well.

Although this is a difficult topic because of all the unknowns and speculation, I can’t address the crushing sense that this was Oregon’s best chance at a national championship without touching on the possibility of Chip Kelly’s departure after the Fiesta Bowl. Because if Kelly were coming back next year to try and finish the “unfinished business” he said kept him from signing on the dotted line in Tampa, this season’s lost chance at the championship would feel different. It would feel more like an unequivocally great season, a BCS bowl reached and the chance at a Top-5 finish for the third straight year. After all, a Fiesta Bowl win this year would make 2012 one of Oregon’s top 5 seasons of all time. We’ve only won three January bowls since 1894, and with 2010 that only makes four. Winning the Fiesta Bowl—or heck, even reaching and losing the Fiesta Bowl—ought to feel like cause for celebrating a great triumph.

But it’s precisely because Chip Kelly is so special that the rampant speculation about his imminent departure has at least partially tainted what ought to be a great year. One can’t blame such an acclaimed coach—one that legends like John Gruden and Bill Belichick go to for ideas, one who has been called the Bill Walsh of our time—for seeking to ply his trade in the National Football League. In fact, Kelly’s future success in the pros would be a tremendous source of pride for Oregon fans. Do it, Chip! But not just yet!

Nobody ever really dreamed of a national championship at Oregon before Chip Kelly arrived. (Yes, Mike Bellotti talked of it, but inside we still saw the Rose Bowl as our ultimate goal.) Now, that Pandora’s Box has been opened, yet the man most responsible for prying it open could be leaving for brighter spotlights.

And if that’s the case, there’s no escaping a difficult, excruciating question: a Fiesta Bowl win would be stellar, but did we miss our only chance to win the national championship?

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