Oregon’s Turn-Around — The Beginning


“The Pick” by Kenny Wheaton is one of, if not the most memorable and iconic plays in Oregon football history. However, as great as it was, it did not necessarily signify the turning point of the program. That notion belonged to Joey Harrington, and to our delight, it was also the downfall of the Washington Husky program.

Akili Smith in uniforms before the involvement of Nike

John Giustina

Akili Smith in uniforms before the involvement of Nike.

Before Marcus Mariota, it was Harrington who had the distinction of being the greatest QB to play for Oregon. Following the magical run in 1994, there were various quarterbacks who came through the program. However, none of them lived up to the success of that season, not even the one-year run of Akili Smith.

Every few years, they had a decent season, but nothing special was ever expected of Oregon. You never saw them on the cover of Sports Illustrated or being highlighted on ESPN – it was a time of mediocrity and generally low expectations. This all changed, however, when Harrington took the reins of the offense and drove the program to new heights.

Rueben Droughns in the new Oregon uniform

John Giustina

Rueben Droughns in the new Oregon uniform.

Following their recent success, in 1999, Phil Knight and Nike began influencing the program by providing a modern look for the football team — but it came at the price of high expectations. When fans and donors begin to expect more from the program, wherein the pressure to win is increased — that is the true mark of a successful program.

But this mark did not occur until 1999, and more specifically, when Mike Bellotti and Jeff Tedford made the switch at QB from A.J. Feeley to Harrington — that season was capped with the upset win of No. 12 Minnesota. Jerry Thompson’s DVD, Mighty Oregon, explains in detail this transformation and we are grateful at FishDuck.com to him sharing parts of his incredible DVD of Oregon Football history with us. (You can get one too; perfect gifts!)

Following the 1999 season, Harrington was the unquestioned starter with a top-10 ranking for the Ducks for most of that season. It might not seem like it now, but back in the early 2000s, it was unheard of for Oregon to be ranked, let alone be in the top-10 and competing for conference championships.

His junior season was capped with a classic game against Texas in the Holiday Bowl, where he had one of the program’s most defining plays that we see before every home game. Oregon won the game 35-30, which was a signature win for the program.

Entering his senior year, Oregon was hyped like never before — for the first time, they had a Heisman candidate.

To generate publicity outside of Oregon and nearby areas, the university and Nike started an iconic campaign where they posted a banner of him on a rented 10-story space in Times Square, N.Y.C. – and just like that, everyone knew the name “Joey Harrington.” Unfortunately, he finished fourth in the voting behind Miami’s Ken Dorsey, Florida’s Rex Grossman, and the winner — Nebraska’s Eric Crouch.

The famed Joey Heisman campaign poster

Stephen Chernin

The famed Joey Heisman campaign poster.

The following season was unlike any other experienced at Oregon – they entered ranked in the top-10 and were undefeated entering October. Unfortunately, they lost a heart-breaking game to Stanford, which deprived them of competing for their first national title.

Harrington’s final game was against an old rival, Colorado, in the Fiesta Bowl. The performance was Harrington’s finest work in an Oregon uniform, as he tore the defense apart for 350 yards and 4 TDs. This intensified the controversy of the BCS because Oregon defeated Colorado – who soundly defeated Nebraska by 26 points – the team who went on to lose a forgettable game against Miami, 37-14. Despite not having a shot at the title, Oregon finished 2nd in the nation – their best-ever rank.

Joey Harrington throwing up the O

Bruce Ely

Joey Harrington throwing up the “O.”

Harrington was drafted 3rd overall by the Detroit Lions, and although he did not experience the success he had in college, he was, and still is, regarded as an Oregon Duck icon.

What made Harrington truly special was not the wins and records he compiled, or the Heisman campaign with the giant banner in Times Square. It was the fact that he was a home-grown talent.

The difference between Harrington and the likes of Mariota, Dennis Dixon and Darron Thomas was that the others were all from outside Oregon state lines. It was great that they all decided to come to Oregon, and we won’t forget the contributions they made to the program. But there’s just something special about a recruit that was born, raised and recruited within the state, as Harrington was a Portland native who went to the Central Catholic High School.

If it were not for the accomplishments of Harrington, who knows where the program would be today. It can only be assumed that they may not be enjoying the run of success that they have recently come to expect.

Feature Photo by Bruce Ely

Article Inspiration from Mighty Oregon DVD

To order this amazing set of DVDs inexpensively?  Go to http://www.mightyoregondvd.com/

Mighty Oregon

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Henry Swift

Henry Swift

Born and raised in Springfield, Oregon, I am a Lifelong Duck fan. I have been following the football team since the Joey Harrington years. I am a senior at the University of Oregon, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Business Administration. I am also a former member of the University of Oregon cheer team, which has allowed me to travel to the past four bowl games and the inaugural college football playoff. I am always the one asking my friends if they have heard the latest sports-related news, and am the one who usually ends up informing them on the subject. I look forward to talking with my new friends about the latest sports news.

  • Weston

    I just loved the griping by the Texas fans after that Holiday Bowl. It all amounted to, “Well, THAT’s not big boy football. Just a bunch of tricks.” Ha! Your team LOST. Whether it was smash mouth play or fru-fru West coast trickeration football, Oregon scored more points than your team. That’s sorta kinda the objective of the game.


      Yeah I agree and those kind of statements always crack me up. Look at the scoreboard stupid you lost no matter what kind of play you couldn’t defend. Oregon is still a school everone HATES as even the NCAA hates Oregon which they have proved time and time again for their disdain for this team from Eugene to keep climbing the ladder to TOP 10 Football program. They didn’t even want the Ducks in the Natty against OS. Oregon did get screwed by the NCAA when we should of played Miami in the Orange Bowl. Texas makes me laugh as their Football IQ is much like SC as they always have an Excuse for why they lost to MIGHTY OREGON! ESPN is a hater most Coach’s negatively recruit against Oregon and why a kid would even listen to Coach’s who do this aren’t Oregon type players. Sarkisian was 1 who did this with regularity even though we beat his A** 4 times by double digit’s. I say this keep up the Hate because it just motivates this program and like a lot of other people tend to agree the Duck’s will sooner rather than later win their 1st College Football Title and of coarse with the excuses to follow. Go Ducks!

  • Dan

    If I recall correctly, it was Joey Harrington and his classmates that actually believed that Oregon could compete for the National Championship. This was unthinkable just a few years prior.