The University of Oregon Ducks struggled in the early 1980’s under head coach Rich Brooks. They suffered through 2-9 seasons and even had a game in 1983 that became infamously known as the Toilet Bowl, the last 0-0 scoreless tie in NCAA history. Despite their struggles, the Ducks had several players that were able to make it to the NFL.
FishDuck.com was fortunate enough to speak with Steve Baack last week about his time at Oregon under Brooks, his time in the NFL and what he’s doing now. Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: WHAT SCHOOLS WERE RECRUITING YOU, AND WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO BE A DUCK?
ANSWER: I grew up in John Day in Eastern Oregon. I didn’t really have anyone beating the door down to recruit me. Mouse Davis at Portland State was the only one who really tried to recruit me and discovered me so to speak. Then at the very last minute, Rich Brooks offered me a scholarship at Oregon.
Q. WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO TO OREGON OVER PORTLAND STATE?
A. Well, because it was Oregon. I liked Eugene better than Portland area. It was also the Pac-10 back then. It was really a no-brainer for me.
Q. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FIRST GAME DAY EXPERIENCE?
A. Well, coming from a high school of 300 kids in four grades, the enormity of the stadium was a big difference. Even though it wasn’t what it is now, in terms of attendance, I was awestruck to some degree by the size of the stadium and the amount of people in attendance.
Q. DESCRIBE THE TEAM CHEMISTRY.
A. As a freshman coming in, I kind of tiptoed around until I could figure out who the established veterans were. The freshman class, as I remember it, was more trying to figure out who each other were rather than trying to integrate themselves with who was already there. There was good chemistry and I made some new friends. You get to hear stories from guys who came from across the country and traveled a long ways to get there. Most of them had never heard of where I was from in Eastern Oregon, so we had a lot to talk about.
Q. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE PLAY FROM YOUR PLAYING DAYS AT OREGON?
A. Believe it or not, it was actually in a spring practice and not in a game. I was a redshirt freshman and we were all trying to establish ourselves as players. There was a stud running back, Vince Williams, and I was playing middle linebacker. We ran the 4-3 Dallas Cowboys flex defense back then and the offense ran a trap play with him running the ball up the middle. I read it perfectly and I just blew into the hole and I crushed the guy.
The whole defense just erupted, started hollering and screaming and it was a loud crack. It was actually written up in the Register Guard. Right after the play, coach Brooks came running up to me and grabs me by both shoulders. He shook me and looked me right in the eyes and yelled, “THAT IS THE WAY YOU FILL THE TRAP!” So it wasn’t a game so much as it was that particular spring practice.
Q. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE FOOTBALL TEAM NOW AND ITS SUCCESS?
A. You just have to pinch yourself. I think we had one winning season in my five years, having that extra year as a redshirt freshman. There was talk at the time that maybe we didn’t even belong in the Pac-10 and that we were the door mats year after year. I found it humorous the other day when I dug out one of my team pictures and it said on the bottom: First winning season in nine years, fifth straight win over OSU. That’s all we really had to hang our hats on back then. It wasn’t easy.
Q. THE WAY THE TEAM’S PLAYING NOW, DOES IT MAKE YOU PROUD TO SEE ITS SUCCESS?
A. For sure. To be able to say you played for Oregon in the past, you get to share in their current success. The fans that have been around since the days I played, remember that there wasn’t a lot of victories that were memorable, but a lot of difficulties. One of the toughest was the Toilet Bowl against Oregon State. So, to see them doing so well is awesome.
Q. IF YOU COULD TAKE THE PLAYER YOU WERE BACK IN COLLEGE AND PLAY NOW, HOW WOULD YOU FIT IN THE DUCKS’ DEFENSE?
A. I would thrive. When I played in a flex defense as a defensive end, I had very strict gap responsibilities. We weren’t given the green light to just cut loose like Dion Jordan a few years back and Tony Washington. Now, the way that they turn the defensive ends loose and are aggressive at going after the quarterback, it would have really suited my style of play. If I could have done that, I would have had a ball.
Q. WHAT DID YOU THINK OF U OF O AS A STUDENT?
A. It was great. It does take a while to get acclimated to the rigors of maintaining the grades. Then when you include practice, getting taped and so forth is a lot of work. Coach Brooks was always emphasizing heavily the need to make sure that we pulled grades. It certainly wasn’t like it is today, with all the resources that they have. It was a lot of work, but a great experience.
Q. WHAT MAKES AUTZEN STADIUM SO GREAT?
A. It’s like what I said about stepping on the field for the first time there. The enormity of it all and all the fans was an incredible experience. We didn’t have nearly as many fans at the games as they do now. It was loud and when coming from a small Eastern Oregon town of 2,000 people, it made it totally different experiencing over 35,000 fans.
Q. WHAT WAS YOUR AREA OF STUDY?
A. After a couple of years, I had my counselors take a look at my transcripts and where my strength of study was and they suggested psychology. I found myself fascinated by the biochemistry of the brain and that has a lot to do with psychology. I like to joke that I was a psychology major because that’s four years of multiple choice tests, so that was a nice smooth path.
Q. IT’S HARD ENOUGH TO BE A STUDENT; BUT STUDENT – ATHLETES ALSO HAVE CLASS, PRACTICE, FILM STUDY, MEETINGS, TRAINING, ETC… CAN YOU DESCRIBE THAT LIFESTYLE CHANGE?
A. The level of responsibility that you have to assume for yourself was bigger and you couldn’t make any excuses. Coming from a small school, the change was a lot of work. However, I managed to get through it alright.
Q. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO LEAVE THE DUCKS AND GO INTO THE NFL?
A. Well, when it came to the draft, I couldn’t pick where I wanted to play. The Detroit Lions may not have been my first choice, but I made the most of the opportunity. Things are faster, a lot bigger and have a lot more significance in the NFL. You’re being paid to do a job and have a lot of responsibility. Being late for a team meeting, for example, would cost you a $1,000 back then. It’s a lot more now because they make more money.
Q. WHAT YEAR WERE YOU DRAFTED AND HOW LONG DID YOU PLAY FOR THEM?
A. I was drafted in 1984 in the third round. I had five credited seasons with them. I played five years and had three head coaching changes. My body felt it even after that short of a time period. I made a position change during that time as well, which was difficult. The “Fridge” was doing his thing in Chicago and everyone else was looking for players that were big and athletic enough to play fullback or tight end. Learning how to pass block in the NFL, after never doing it, was a hard transition.
Q. WHAT IS YOUR BEST MEMORY WHILE PLAYING FOR THE LIONS?
A. Oh, easily playing against the Bears. Playing against guys like Jim McMahon, Richard Dent and Walter Payton. I tackled Payton on the goal line in Chicago at Soldier Field. It made the 1986 Lions Highlight Film and having Darryl Rogers call me the best short yardage player he had ever seen made me feel great.
Q. WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE NOW?
A. I live back out in Eastern Oregon, in Moro, with my fiancée Debra. I work in sales out of my home as my full time job. We established a bed and breakfast out here called The Craftsman Inn Moro. It’s a beautiful 1917 home that’s been fully restored. We have some venues that we pull from. There’s a race track out here in Grass Valley and we also have the Maryhill Winery close by.
Q. DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR DUCK FANS?
A. I would like to say thank you for your continued support of the team; especially the fans that were around during the lean years and stuck around to share the success that they are having now.
What was the team Nickname for you? Baackman
Best thing about your time with Oregon football? Never losing to the Beavers
Who do you think were the best players on the team during your time with the Ducks? Bryan Hinkle, Mike Walter and Steve Brown.
Toughest opponent (player) you faced while at Oregon? Bruce Matthews at USC
Toughest opponent (Team) you faced while at Oregon? Washington
Teammate or mates that you learned the most from? Scott Shepard
Did you have a pregame ritual? Listening to music.
Favorite game? Beating the Huskies 34-10 when they were ranked No. 13.
Team loss that you could turn to victory? The 0-0 tie against the Beavers.
Favorite U of O athlete for all time? Mac Wilkins
You can’t live without? Being able to work out.
Family? Fiancée Debra, son Brian (26) and daughter Lexi (19)
Q. Anything you would like to add?
A. With the interest and fan base that the Ducks now have, it’s nice to see all of the sites pop up, to be able to keep up with recruiting and news. I like what Charles Fischer has done with helping the average fan by breaking down plays for those who don’t understand exactly what it takes. I really like what FishDuck has done.
Top Photo by Steve Baack