Oregon has seen many renowned linebackers. Particularly in the past 20 years, many greats behind the D-line have led the team in tackles and stood out among defenders; anywhere from the “Gang Green era” to the Harrington era, all the way to the more recent Kelly era. One particular native Oregonian linebacker spent four years at Oregon before finishing his final season as the top tackler. FishDuck wishes to remind fans of this outstanding asset to Oregon by reliving his forgotten success. Please welcome 1994-1998 linebacker Chris Vandiver.
CHRIS VANDIVER PRE-OREGON
Chris Vandiver (a.k.a. “Vandy”) grew up not far from Duck Territory in Lebanon, Oregon. He was recruited, and not a walk-on the way many local players are. Vandiver had a very successful high school career at Lebanon, which Oregon noticed. He earned the all-state title his junior and senior seasons, led his league in total defense, and was a successful fullback blocker/runner on offense. Coach Don Pellum personally recruited him and offered him a full scholarship to Oregon. Vandy gladly accepted the offer, and was off to Oregon to be part of the memorable 1994 Rose Bowl squad his very first year.
Q. WHAT WERE YOUR PRE-OREGON DAYS LIKE? WHAT SCHOOLS WERE RECRUITING YOU, AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BE A DUCK?
A. I was really fortunate; as I had a guy named Bo Yates who was my position coach (former Husky) but from Lebanon and back there coaching. He would be the guy who I would credit with teaching me the position of linebacker and how to read guards and whatnot. Don Tomlin, our head coach at Lebanon, was a phenomenal motivator. He always made me feel I could do anything. It was a good springboard.
I never thought I’d play college football. But then my senior year, it just sort of happened as I got letters and people were talking about it. Guys at Lebanon could always play ball, so I was fortunate to be in that position as big people came to games. Don Pellum and Joe Schaffield came; and it was so cool when they offered me a spot.
EARLY DAYS AT OREGON
Vandiver redshirted his first year at Oregon; however, he learned a lot as a valuable scout team member during that year.
Q. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE EARLIEST MEMORIES OF BEING PART OF THE TEAM?
A. It was just awesome being on the ride to the Rose Bowl that first year. Unbelievable! As a member of the scout team my redshirt year, we got to play against the starters in practice and have a bunch of fun. I got to take every rep in practice, that was great. I had that ultimate goal of having to make the offense run each play twice because the scout squad stopped them. It was huge getting together with the other redshirts and listening to the USC game (22-7 road upset in conference opener) as we started to pick up momentum. We even got to dress in uniform for the home games despite being on sidelines, and would always try to get someone else’s hamburgers after the game being hungry and never getting to play!! That was such a fun year to start, and my best early memories.
REDSHIRT FRESHMAN – JUNIOR SEASON
From 1995-1997, Vandiver saw a lot of playing time here and there. In 1995, he was behind “Gang Green” senior Jeremy Asher and Rich Ruhl, but still filled in here and there, recording five tackles as a freshman.
Q. WHAT DO YOU BEST REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FIRST PLAYING EXPERIENCE?
A. I would say the first time I ever got in on defense. This was at Utah; the opening game of 1995 (Redshirt-Freshman year.) It was a night game and felt like high school in that regard, but crowd/atmosphere was radically different. Jeremy Asher went out one play on third and short, and I came in a little undersized at 190. They ran the ball, but ran Rich Ruhl’s side (and he made the stop.) That was the first time getting to play backer in a game; I also did a little bit of kickoff stuff.
1996 – his sophomore season — was the most successful of the first three, as he made the transition from scarce playing time as a freshman to a leading tackler as a sophomore. He finished 1996 placing fifth in tackles, with 50 (32 unassisted, five for loss, and two QB sacks for 16 yards) while only starting six games. He registered 30 tackles in a three game stretch, including 12 over a powerful Washington team. Vandiver also helped overcome a five game skid against Arizona in 1996 with nine tackles, as Oregon won its final three games to secure a winning record. In 1997, only the prodigious success of Peter Sirmon leading the PAC-10 in tackles prevented Vandiver from the spotlight. Vandy, however, remained persistent and never gave up; still seeing the field as a special teams starter and reserve for relief time while registering ten tackles.
PERSISTENCE PAYS: UNEXPECTEDLY BECOMING A STARTER AS A SENIOR
In 1998, Vandy headed into his senior year as a second-string linebacker. He worked hard and had seen plenty of playing time here and there. However, given the success of All-PAC-10 linebacker Peter Sirmon (who led the league in tackles in 1997), it was not possible to be the starter at his position. Yet Vandy was not about to quit and he remained persistent as the year began, seeing starting time on special teams and filling in for Sirmon here and there in the first three games.
All of a sudden, disaster struck for Oregon in the third game of the season. In a 58-3 blowout win over San Jose State, several key players were lost due to injury. Included was a season-ending injury to Sirmon from a torn pectoral. Many thought Oregon would be doomed on defense without its Sirmon, who led the league in tackles the year prior. Oregon fans: Never fear, Vandy is here!
Vandiver’s persistence had paid off, as he would be named the starter for the remainder of the year in place of the injured Sirmon. From there, Vandy made the most of his chance. Not only would he start every game, but he proved he could compete with Sirmon’s statistics and leadership abilities. Oregon opened conference play over Stanford at home the following week. Stanford decided to go to Vandy’s direction all game, as they thought they had it easy without Sirmon around. THINK AGAIN, STANFORD! Vandiver was equally as valuable as he strongly made his presence felt by never missing a tackle all game. In fact, he recorded a season-high 19 tackles in his first game as a starter — four more than Sirmon’s high the previous year — to record the best one-game effort in 8 years. Unfortunately and unethically, his outstanding performance of 19 tackles went unnoticed and he was not awarded PAC-10 defensive player of the week as deserved. However, Oregon dominated the game with a record 63 conference points (aided by Reuben Droughns’ power runs and Akili Smith’s cannon arm.)
The following game at Washington State, Vandy picked up where he left off with nine stops and a sack. He and Michael Fletcher led the team in tackles to hold the Cougars under 300 total yards and earn its first victory in Pullman since 1992, 51-29, in the second consecutive 50 + conference game.
In one of the most memorable games at UCLA, Oregon came up just short over the nation’s #2 team. In this game, Vandiver again led the team in tackles with 10 and the defense held very strong by fighting until overtime to only be toppled by a field goal. Oregon rebounded well the following week against USC, and they won a tight battle over the Trojans for their first victory at Autzen Stadium in 11 years. For the fourth consecutive game, Vandy led the game in total tackles with 11, helping to hold the powerful Trojan ground game to only 109 yards and limit wide receiver RJ Soward to only three catches for nine yards in a 17-13 win.
As the year went on, Vandy continued to lead the team in tackles nearly every game. In a tough loss at Arizona, he led with seven tackles (two for loss.) Against Washington at Autzen, Oregon beat the Huskies for the fourth time in five games; holding the Huskies’ running game to 89 yards – thanks in part to Vandiver’s 10 tackles. He shared the lead against Arizona State with a co-high of six tackles and limiting to 24 second half yards. The 51-19 victory marked Oregon’s first undefeated season at Autzen since 1990 – only the second in history at the time.
Injuries prevented Oregon from finishing that year strong. In an unforgettable Civil War game, Oregon came up just short in double overtime, but Vandy had another 10+ tackle game, finishing with ten again. Oregon would earn a trip to Hawaii with an appearance in the Aloha Bowl. In the final game of many Oregon greats, and the last remaining from the Rose Bowl squad, Vandy would be a leader of the senior class with an amazing 15 tackles in his final game to go out with a bang. He even had a sack late in the game to force a punt and give Oregon the ball back only down one score. Sadly, Oregon’s 22-point fourth quarter rally came just short of atoning its six turnovers earlier in the game, as the thin-at-depth offense would fall just short of a comeback victory on its last drive. However, the memorable season had a lot of great victories, and Vandiver was a true unsung hero. Vandy finished with 102 total tackles, three sacks for 15 yards, and 12 tackles for loss for 38 yards. His heroic efforts coming off the bench to lead the team in tackles earned him the Clarke Trophy as Oregon’s Most Improved Player.
Q. WHAT DID YOUR POSITION COACH TEACH YOU THAT STICKS OUT MOST?
A. Pellum was my coach to start; then I had a variety of coaching changes in between, but he was back to linebackers at the end. DP taught me a lot about the linebacker position specifically; about attitude, and swagger as far as conducting your business on field. I really enjoyed being around him; awesome guy.
Q. IF YOU COULD HAVE ONE GAME OR PLAY OVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
A. I’d definitely change the outcome of that 1998 Civil War game (2OT). We won every other game in my career before. It would be amazing to sit here and say we never lost to the Beavs in my career!
Following graduation of Oregon, Vandiver went on to pursue a teaching career, as well as coaching. He earned his master’s degree, started substitute teaching, and earned his way to becoming a high school social studies teacher.
Q. TALK ABOUT YOUR POST-COLLEGE JOURNEY TO GET YOU WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
A. I decided teaching was something I wanted to do with coaching. I ended up going into an MAT program at Pacific University (out of Eugene, so I got to stay in Eugene one more year.) I went to grad school, quit lifting and ran a lot to lose weight, and felt great. My coaching started in grad school when there was an opportunity to student coach at Lebanon where I was from; so I ended up going back there to coach football and basketball. I also subbed after student teaching was over to get a start. I’ve been coaching since the year I graduated UO, and have coached football every year in three schools. Coached three sports until marriage and kids; now football only.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Chris Vandiver did not migrate far from his hometown of Lebanon. He is now settled in Salem with his wife and kids. Currently with two sons, they are expecting their third child soon. Vandiver enjoys his teaching position at West Salem High School, where he teaches social studies and coaches part-time. The leadership Vandy learned on and off the field at Oregon made him into the true leader he is today as the teacher in the classroom, the coach on the prep field, and the dad at home. CHRIS VANDIVER: big man, teacher, leader, role model, athlete, coach, friend, guide, persistent, one to never give up, all-around great guy; and ALWAYS A DUCK!