The 1970s and early 80s were a tough time for Oregon football, a 20-year stretch of futility and hard luck that didn’t start to improve consistently until the Musgrave-era. However, for two years the tide appeared to turn, Oregon had back-to-back six win seasons in 1979 and 1980 thanks in large part to the addition of a junior college transfer quarterback that rewrote the Oregon record books, Reggie Ogburn.
An undersized but gifted athlete, Ogburn traveled far from his native Florida to shine in rainy Eugene, one of the few places that believed in his abilities. Oregon gave Ogburn an opportunity few others would consider, a chance to play quarterback, and he went above and beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Ogburn brought some much needed light to Oregon’s dark ages, raising hopes in Eugene that the Ducks could compete in the Pac-10.
Ogburn was small in stature but cast a giant shadow as one of the premier play-makers in the Pac-10, a threat to score with every touch of the ball. A combination of the running ability of Jeremiah Masoli, with the arm of Akili Smith, Reggie Ogburn remains to this day the only player in UO history to have led the team in both rushing and passing in the same season.
“I wasn’t selling myself to the NFL, I was trying to win for Oregon now.“
-Reggie Ogburn, on his no fear all-out approach to football
His football career long over, Ogburn has since settled down back in his home state of Florida, where he has watched the rise of Oregon football from afar over the past few decades while proudly knowing he played a huge factor in the rise of the program. Not much has been heard from Reggie Ogburn in the public for some time, but the FishDuck team had the pleasure of becoming the first Oregon media affiliate in well over a decade to interview Mr. Ogburn; learning all about his time at Oregon and what he has accomplished with his life since.
To the Oregon faithful, please welcome home our long lost prodigal son, Reggie Ogburn.
What drew you out of junior college to the University of Oregon, given their limited resources and facilities at that time, and that Oregon through the 70’s was not a successful program?
Coming out of high school, we had gone to the state championship. Most of my teammates got offers from major I-A schools like Miami, U of Florida, Oklahoma, etc. Being a quarterback of my stature, the only chances I had at that time would have been Oklahoma or University of Florida that ran a type of option offense. However, they already stacked their deck and their future was already set. I had a chance to go to smaller schools (Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, etc.) but I didn’t think they deserved my talent. I was stellar enough for a more competitive league.
All of a sudden, I got a call from a guy out in California at College of the Canyons who said ‘Hey, come out here, a lot of eyes will be on you and you WILL go to a Pac-10 school.’ That’s what I wanted. My mother got upset that I was going so far, but I decided to venture out there. After my two years there, just about every school wanted me. BUT, the only two that wanted me to play quarterback were the Ducks and the Beavers. After visiting both, I chose Eugene. After seeing the film and the offense they ran, I said, ‘They’re just an inch away from being a winning team, and I could contribute.’ So, that’s what brought me to the University of Oregon and I never looked back to the east coast for the next 2-3 years.
How much of an adjustment was it coming all the way to Eugene and the University of Oregon from Florida?
My hometown is a small town in Georgia, that’s actually where I spent most of my childhood, in the Georgia Country. So, in Florida, I wasn’t really a city guy even though I lived in a big city. When I visited Oregon, it reminded me of the Georgia Country for the most part. I liked that atmosphere based on my upbringing, so it wasn’t too much of an adjustment.
I’ll tell you though, the weather was different. I remember on my first day of class, there was a sheet of ice on the sidewalk. I had on wood-bottom dress shoes, and my boots went up in the air like a cartoon and I hit that ground! I had to get some hiking boots like everyone else wears. I’m walking around in polyester pants and the wind was blowing right through them, I needed to get some jeans and dress like the Romans do. That was the big adjustment I recall.
You came to the UO in 1979 when people like Don Pellum, Steve Greatwood and Nick Aliotti (now coaches) were players or Graduate Assistants. What is it about the University of Oregon that creates such unique football minds throughout its history?
First, the level of education. I can’t say I was a great student coming into the University of Oregon, but I became one based on my environment. My entire offensive line (Greatwood included) were geniuses when it came time to classroom and studies. They may not have been the prolific athlete, but they had the knack of the game. They may not have run as fast as the USC/UCLA offensive line, but they were focused and rarely blew an assignment. We were a well-oiled machine as we practiced that way, film sessions, etc. When you get that type of coaching but may not be an NFL-type player, you can apply yourself to teach people. We didn’t have Ronnie Lott, Mike Neal, etc., but we had discipline.
The team went 2-9 in 1978; had back-to-back six-win seasons; and as soon as you left went back to a two-win season. What was it that you brought to the team that caused such an impressive turnaround?
It was mostly teammates that assisted in utilizing my talents. After a successful junior season, I got a little selfish headed into my senior year, thinking I wanted to go to the NFL and wanted to move to running back. Rich Brooks had a long talk with me, and he said ‘I need your leadership skills.‘ Guys like Bryan Hinkle and Mike Walter on defense (future NFL stars) rallied around every bit of juice I had. I was a little guy compared to the guys we were playing against. The line towered over me, they averaged something like 280 – ‘6’4. Being a 5’9 Quarterback, I had to find a lot of little alleys to throw that ball. But, because of those guys, no one could see me when I was throwing or running it, so I got ten yards downfield behind those great guys.
A lot of it was my competitive spirit. I mingled with both the offensive and defensive linemen. I didn’t look at myself as too big even though I had the talent, and I just made myself available to those guys and made sure they knew I was a normal guy too. Even though I was getting publicity and they knew the team wasn’t doing good when I was injured, I didn’t look at myself that way. I look at myself now compared to what I did as an athlete, and I’m still managing people. During the season, I coach pee-wee leagues and enjoy leading and managing people. They ask ‘are leaders born or are they made‘ and I’m a true believer that they’re born based on my experience. If you’re born to accept responsibilities, you will. I can teach leadership skills, but you have to have that sense of responsibility to learn.
The Offense at the time basically consisted of “Reggie run left, Reggie run right, or Reggie run around in the backfield for a while and chuck it deep.” What do you remember of the Oregon playbook at the time?
That was pretty much the gist of it. Coach Widmark talked to me when my knee was injured. He said ‘I’m just sick of this, every time you’re not up-to-par, we’re playing like crap!‘ I didn’t know if that was a compliment or if he had his hands tied because he needed me so much. I played hurt as much as I could, because I felt I was otherwise going to let the team down. Against Purdue, I was playing hurt and they were running an offense to surround me with the ball. Greatwood looked at me and said ‘Hey Reggie, that ain’t working, run it, run it!‘ So, I called a sprint-right. I didn’t know what to do, given that wasn’t what the coaches told me, but I ran and scored a touchdown! I got beat up for it on the sidelines, but I think the coach was happy. Those guys, they loved to see me run. It wasn’t often I got blindsided either.
[Note: in 1979 when Ogburn first arrived, Oregon traveled to Boulder, Colorado to face a loaded Buffalo squad. New Coach Chuck Fairbanks had just arrived at Colorado after consecutive Big-8 championships at Oklahoma and a coaching stint in the NFL with New England. Little and unknown Oregon was not expected to perform well in its season opener against a big-name coach. However, Ogburn and company went into the game with a lot of confidence and ran all over Colorado in a 33-19 upset. The headline featuring the upset read: ‘Reggie runs, spoils Fairbanks’ debut.’]
To begin your career in such impressive fashion with a major upset must have been huge. What do you remember of that particular day against Colorado, and what are your favorite highlights and big plays from your career?
I remember all twenty-some plays that day! Remember what I said earlier about when I came out of high school and how these guys didn’t want me; so I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder. One play in particular, I rolled right and I cut back. I had a kid named Charlie playing opposite on linebacker who went to the same high school (as an underclassman when I was there). I remember him coming at me with his helmet on my thigh-pad, but I reached for the ground, held my balance, and ran for another 15-20 yards. It was a nice day – hot, sunny, and we were all fired up. Even though they were knocking me around, I just kept getting back up. I remember a time when my offensive linemen gave me a hand to get up and I’m seeing stars and counting birds. But, that was a great highlight when he hit me in the thigh but I kept going, I didn’t feel that until two days later, I was so pumped.
[Note: there was some bitterness after the football game, as Fairbanks was quoted saying “I don’t think Oregon is a very good football team” after losing to the Ducks by two touchdowns.]
A lot of quotes and other media & other team perceptions showed at the time that Oregon was not perceived as a very good football team, even after the Ducks just beat them. It was clearly frustrating, other teams had no idea how to stop little 5’9 Reggie Ogburn. How was that for your confidence, and what was your secret for being able to get under their skin so well?
When I came in that spring, it was like Coach Brooks had a second playbook. He ran the same offense and did the same thing Durando did the previous year, but I took it to the next level with my fakes. He gave me the opportunity to read defenses; we would run with guys totally unblocked and rely on my ability to fake them out. That took it to the next level, because they had no answer for that option. We didn’t look like an option team other than me any time you’d see me running; the lineup that we used did not appear to be the option. You couldn’t too well throw the ball in this formation but you could run it. We ran that semi-spread, professional-type offensive formation and we were able to run the option out of any formation. That’s where I became successful is that we could run that in disguise. Then, when they stacked the middle, we could throw the outside pass successfully. Rich said I could throw the ball, but wanted me to run more.
“When I got there, quite a few fans and students would tell me ‘we can actually stay the whole game without having to leave and get blasted!’ That was the joke at the time that people would stay in the stadium the whole time because I was around, that was pretty exciting to get those types of compliments.”
-Reggie Ogburn, on the enthusiasm he brought to the UO program.
As the season progressed, the Ducks struggled at first and it appeared to be on the verge of the then-typical Oregon season. Then, you won the last 4 out of 5, giving the program hope for the future. Was that a progression as Brooks recognized your skills, where things changed where you became the main threat and gained the ability to run the offense and lead the team in the second half of the season?
Absolutely. In reference to the year before, he needed a missing part to his offense; as the defense was second-to-none. We always had a great defense to stop people, but when I came in, the offense had struggled. I won the job in the spring. Going into the Colorado game, I was still a question mark. After that, he figured he’d have to put things into my hands more. All of a sudden, we went through a losing streak in the middle of the season of close losses where the offense stumbled. I said I would take it to the next level, and towards the end of the year, he kept calling my number and putting me in situations where I could run the ball.
That built my confidence. Then, we started doing some flea-flickers, reverses, and things of that nature to balance things out and overcome adversity. They were smart coaches, they took my ability and skill to get other players involved. That’s why I can’t say it was all Reggie; I had a bunch of great guys around me, I could never have done it without them. We took what I was capable of and combined it with everyone else’s skills, and offset what the defense were doing.
We played well against USC. We basically stopped them offensively with our defense. I always blazed the defense, and then they couldn’t wait to get me back on the field, they loved it. Our offense was one of those offenses that wasn’t quick striking, but would drag you down eating up the clock to get the first down. Since we didn’t wear them out, they would sit on the sideline thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get back in there and hit!’
What does it mean to you to knowing that of all the great QB’s to play at Oregon, particularly dual threat runners like Akili Smith and Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli, that you remain the only one to lead a team in both rushing and passing in the same season?
Well, it didn’t dawn upon me that Dan Fouts went to University of Oregon until my first spring game. Ahmad Rashad came to our spring game and got announced. Then, someone said Dan Fouts used to hand the ball to him. I’m like ‘whoa, I’m following some Duck that’s in the NFL!‘ I had some funny feelings about the statistics I had and not having the opportunity to be in the NFL. I see the history of QBs, mostly after me (and a few before me that had leather hats).
All of a sudden, starting with Chris Miller, it was one after another going to the NFL. But, I focused on my chances at the moment. Masoli is probably the best comparison to what I brought to the team. For example, when I looked at when I had the chance to run but would pass it. He was sitting there thinking of his future as an NFL QB, throwing passes while he had every opportunity to run. Same thing for the kid they had last year (Thomas.)
I didn’t think twice about running that ball if space was open. I wasn’t concerned about looking like the prototype NFL star. I wasn’t selling myself to the NFL, I was trying to win for Oregon now. I see them sometimes apprehensive about using their athletic abilities because of that. That’s what kept us afloat. I wasn’t concerned about forcing the ball down. If they weren’t wide open, Reggie is taking off. I can get 25 yards running just as effective as I can throwing. I didn’t have a very bad pass/interception ratio, and I didn’t throw it away every time. I used the running ability I had, it may sound undisciplinary of a QB with my abilities, but we won. At the end of the day, we could say we won.
[Note: Going into Ogburn’s senior season (1980), Oregon faced NCAA sanctions. Oregon games were rarely featured on television; but the Oregon Athletic Department worked hard to change that. Prior to the start of the 1980 season, the schedule had been reworked and the Stanford game was moved to the season opener to gain national exposure. The game was featured in the press as Reggie Ogburn vs. John Elway as a battle to determine the best QB in the Pac-10. However, NCAA rules violations left Ogburn ineligible for one game, the opening battle against Stanford. All other Pac-10 coaches were aggravated that Stanford was the only team that got to play an Ogburn-less Oregon.]
How frustrating was it not being able to play in the 1980 season opener vs. the Elway-led Stanford Cardinal?
An interesting fact is that we beat Stanford the year before that. Elway was now the starting quarterback. Honestly, that is one sick place in my stomach…I just had to watch him. The whole theory was, I wasn’t going to let him on the field. We were going to go ball-control, and we were going to run – four yards, six yards, first down; and he wasn’t going to see the field. That was the guy, he had a great arm. But, I feel as a team player I may have been better. That would have been great on my resume to have beaten John Elway. But, that was sickening being so politically done.
I looked at him for years in the NFL and thought, ‘you lucky son of a gun! You could have been a notch on my belt knowing I beat you in college!’ Kevin Lusk didn’t do a bad job in that game as quarterback, It was a great game, but Lusk scored too quick to let them back on the field and wear our defense out. That’s one of the things that can hurt you if you pass too much. For example, I look at Aliotti today, and he knows he has to rotate players because the offense is going to score every two minutes.
[Note: Ogburn beat Oregon State both of his years in the Civil War. In 1980 as a senior, Ogburn and company defeated then-nemesis Washington soundly, 34-10 in Seattle. It would stand as the only time Oregon would win in Seattle for 15 years. Oregon was unsuccessful in Seattle until the rise of the mid-90’s when in 1995 Oregon escaped Seattle 24-22, one year after “The Pick.”]
After that loss to Stanford, you really rebounded well. Especially in our rivalry games; in those days in particular, everything revolved around beating Oregon State and Washington. During your time at Oregon, you went 3 of 4 in the big rivalry games (only blemish in 1979 against UW). How good was it to avenge the 1979 loss, going to Seattle and beating Washington so soundly? (Especially given Oregon was unsuccessful again for 15 years?)
First of all, the game that we played in 1979 when they beat us, the whistle blew after I had handed the ball off. I stopped, but got hit. That was when I got the cartilage tear in my right knee that I feel to this day. Going back up there, I felt there was a lot of revenge on my part personally; because they took me out in the first or second quarter and I tried to go back in, but my knee would not allow it. That entire year, I continued to not be able to practice in full until about Wednesdays, because my knee would swell. I didn’t even find out I had torn cartilage until the end of that year. So, going back up there the next year to play them, the only thing I could think about was how unbearable they made my first year at the University of Oregon in terms of not being able to practice five days a week. It was great to get revenge that year!
That’s what we always talked about (beating our rivals, UW & OSU). There were certain games you just had to win, it was all about bragging rights. Michigan State beat us the first year and you could almost get away with losing to them, as technically everyone thought they were a better team at the time. After that first year when we almost went to a bowl game but came just shy, the confidence of all the players shot through the roof. The following year going into my senior season, we felt we were just as good as any team we were going to play. It was a prerequisite to win those rivalries. It was like this is for the entire northwest bragging rights, we had to win them. We were psyched.
[Note: Oregon had other big wins in 1980. After losing to Michigan State in 1979, Ogburn and company gained revenge on Michigan State, winning in impressive fashion 35-7. Oregon also faced a tough USC team with Marcus Allen, finishing in a 7-7 tie. Both Washington and Oregon State were defeated in impressive fashion, and Oregon finished 6-3-2, barely losing several games.]
In that 1980 season, is there a particular game that stands out as your personal favorite?
I’d have to say the UCLA game in the LA Coliseum. A lot of people I went to school with at College of the Canyons were able to see me. I had a kid at CC who followed me, and I was his hero; and he was at the game to show me he had a scrapbook of me and had been pulling articles on me all the time. But, that UCLA game against Matt Neal, Tom Ramsey, etc., was huge to show that crowd I could show Oregon was THE team. Not only that, but UCLA tried to recruit me as a running back, and I wanted to show they should have taken me as QB. (Terry) Donahue was their coach at the time, and I wanted to make him think about that! To beat them 20-14 on their home turf was huge.
What does it mean to you seeing the success of the program today built upon the success generated from your era, and improvement of facilities and national recognition of the UO?
I’m excited. I can go to the park, be at work, or hanging with my friends; and go ‘Hey, I started something there!‘ It had been a long time since Oregon had winning seasons when I got there. I don’t regret one thing I did in coming up to Oregon. I felt like there was a lot of heritage long before me, and I can say I contributed. A lot of people would fill the stadium at the beginning but be in the parking lot at halftime. When I got there, quite a few fans and students would tell me ‘we can actually stay the whole game without having to leave and get blasted!’ That was the joke at the time that people would stay in the stadium the whole time because I was around, that was pretty exciting to get those types of compliments. Especially from people who had been die-hard Oregon fans forever.
What do you think you could do in the type of system Oregon is running now, given your running and scrambling abilities?
All I could tell you is, I would be like a kid in a candy store! The hairs on my arm stand up when I watch those kids, that offense is so dynamic. Most of my plays were sprint left, sprint right, or quarterback draw. A lot of times there wasn’t too much deception. I look at the deception now, (Masoli, Thomas, Dixon, etc.) they’re out by themselves just tearing it up.
Tell us about your post-Oregon days. We know you went into the USFL and CFL for several years following your time at Oregon. What are your memories of pro football pursuits, and the difference between the college and pro game for you?
I was like a fish out of water when I got to Canada. That Canadian field is wide. No exaggeration, sideline to sideline feels like goalpost to goalpost in American Football. That was a shock to me. I got drafted by Winnipeg and played a few games in preseason with them, before I had the opportunity to play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They moved me to defensive back, and I feel I did pretty good. I was down and out at first, but I adapted pretty well. After a while, they felt I was a little too risky or didn’t know what I was doing. It didn’t last in the CFL much because of the big difference from college to the wide fields.
I remember in the CFL Vince Goldsmith (a teammate at Oregon – co-team MVP in 1980 with Ogburn) was such a hard hitter. When I went to the Roughriders, we had a game against him at Winnipeg. He was already at Saskatchewan. They had me run a Reggie-Right, when guess who was coming at me? Goldsmith! This is why I never wanted to practice against him, but he was so low to the ground like me, he would get me. He tackled me for a 10 yard loss, and I was like, ‘Thanks a lot, Vince!’
I came back to Eugene after football. I wanted to seize the opportunity there since I was so well-liked and known. I was in the lumber industry building homes. The economy started getting bad, and the timber industry started going down. So, I then took a job as a loan officer at US Bank. Then, coach Widmark asked if I still wanted to play, and pointed me to a coach for the Oakland Raiders so I drove down to Oakland. I stayed there until the last cut. That 5 am knock on the door I’ll never forget, it gives you an upset stomach. I went through five roommates before I got cut. All those guys told me I was going to make it. They moved me to wide receiver, and I was making it happen in practice. The veterans were telling me I was going to make it, but they had too much money invested in the people they had.
They had me play for a semi-pro team in San Francisco and would call me back. I was there for a few weeks thinking they would, but well, they never did. I told the owner of the semi-pro team I needed a job at his construction company. He had just hired someone, so I just quit the team and went home.
A lot of memories fade, and the common theme we hear these days is that Oregon football didn’t really start until 1994. So, what do you want people to remember about the 1979-1980 seasons, and specifically Reggie Ogburn?
If there wasn’t a Reggie Ogburn in 1979 and 1980, the recruiting page wouldn’t have opened for the University of Oregon. When I saw the talent they started getting after I had left, I felt a sense of pride that I had put them out there to let kids know there’s an opportunity here. First of all, a successful black quarterback made other kids want to go to school there. Everyone knew where I was and what I did, and saw the opportunity Oregon had. Then, you’ve got successful guys like (Don) Pellum from Los Angeles; he goes back home and tells people all about it, before his return to coach there. I feel like I helped to put coaches in front of people to make them want to go there. When I would tell people ‘I’m going to University of Oregon‘, they’d go, ‘what’s there?’ It was an education, back then there was no partying like there was in Los Angeles. I was only the second in my family to graduate from school.
That’s what I would say, is that football started then. I didn’t go there because Dan Fouts was the QB, but I saw opportunity to start and make a difference. The 1994 team has an argument too, either you win it all or you don’t. We didn’t win it all, but we had a good time winning what we did, and finished with a winning record.
The University of Oregon’s 1980 recruiting video prominently featured Ogburn’s on-field highlights as well as an extensive interview with Reggie.
Reggie Ogburn today:
Since hanging up the cleats and returning to Florida, Ogburn has found as much success in the business world as he did on the gridiron. He worked various jobs managing a Wendy’s Restaurant, selling insurance, and eventually with UPS. Within nine months of working at UPS, Ogburn got into management thanks to his degree and education from Oregon. He utilized his degree as a manager in the transportation department at UPS for 15 years; and has been in the transportation business ever since, working for Federal Express, and now for SAIA Freight.
Ogburn oversees all South Florida operations for SAIA, remaining a leader at what he does to this day. He enjoys leading and directing the many people under him in his district, continuing to utilize his education and on-field leadership he began as Oregon’s quarterback.
“Here I am again, leading and directing people, setting examples to do the right thing. A lot of that was attributed to the education and my athletic sprawls at Oregon. Just being a leader now in the transportation business is huge, going home and knowing you did a good job. Just like a game, at the end, you can know you did good whether your team won or lost, that is what is so in common with the transportation business. It’s business, but you know whether or not you did your job at the end of the day.”
Aside from his career, Ogburn has a family – all very well educated. His wife (of 28 years) is obtaining her Ph.D in the upcoming weeks after serving 26 years as a director of human resources for local schools. Mr. And Mrs. Ogburn have one daughter, age 26. Thanks to Reggie’s experience on and off the field at the University of Oregon, the Ogburn family knows the importance of a good education. “It’s been a beautiful life, I haven’t had any regrets about it.” He continues to follow Oregon Football loyally to this day, knowing he never would be the big man he is today without his days as a Duck.
Reggie Ogburn says he plans to fly to Eugene to attend the Washington-Oregon game this year, his first trip back to Autzen Stadium since 1982.