The Ducks and the Dreaded S.I. Cover Jinx

Nathan Roholt History

It is one of the oldest curses in sports – the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.  On par and more historic than the equally dreaded Madden game cover jinx that dictates that whichever NFL player appears on the game’s cover will inevitably get hurt the next season; for the unindoctrinated, the famous “SI cover jinx” occurs when anyone appearing on the cover of the magazine is immediately subject to a poor performance or misfortune shortly thereafter.

There have been six Oregon Football players (technically Dennis Dixon was the seventh, but he wasn’t the feature) who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the magazine’s history.

Last week, De’Anthony Thomas became the sixth, leading to concern from superstitious fans who worry that a drop in production, or worse, (*knock on wood*) an injury might befell the young star.

And perhaps this concern comes with good cause, while the S.I. cover jinx has inflicted other players or teams heavier than Oregon, many fans don’t easily forget the events that have occurred following a SI feature, in particular one in 2003 that was so atrocious it seemed there had to have been a curse, broken mirror, black cat, and Coach Bellotti walking under a ladder pre-game for things to turn so sour.

So do fans need to worry in the wake of the most recent Sports Illustrated cover feature?
Let’s review all the cover cases to find out.

Akili Smith

How He Got On the Cover: The newly expanded Cleveland Browns franchise were looking to take a quarterback with the #1 pick.  Smith and co-cover man Tim Couch, the Browns eventual selection, were among the players being considered as draft picks by the organization.

What Happened to Him after the Cover:  Smith was drafted third overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1999 NFL Draft.  He had four rocky NFL seasons, losing nine of his first ten starts and finishing with 2,212 yards, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 22 career games before being released in 2002.  Stints in Europe and Canada followed, and he retired in 2007.

What Happened to the Team after the Cover: The Bengals missed the playoffs in all four of Smith’s seasons, bottoming out with a league-worst 2-14 record in 2002.  Granted the #1 pick in the following spring’s draft, the team selected the USC Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who later led the Bengals to the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 14 years.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply? Yes.  Cleveland nearly selected Smith, agreeing on contract terms with him before the team agreed with Couch.  Smith was passed over by the team picking next, the Philadelphia Eagles, who selected another dual-threat quarterback, Donovan McNabb.

Smith admitted in a 2009 interview with Sports Illustrated that his excessive off-season lifestyle partially contributed to his lack of success.  Being drafted by a franchise that didn’t monitor such behavior and a reputation for off-the-field partying and run-ins with the law didn’t help Smith, who had the physical tools to be successful perhaps with a more disciplined franchise keeping him focused.

Joey Harrington

How He Got On the Cover:  The first active Oregon athlete to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated since Gerald Willett dunking on UCLA’s Bill Walton in 1974, Harrington was the star of an Oregon team coming off a ten-win season and expected to contend for the Pac-10 title in 2001, needing to defeat its in-state rival, the magazine’s #1 preseason team, to do so.

What Happened to Him after the Cover:  Harrington would go on to be named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, the first Oregon player to win the award outright, and finished fourth in the Heisman voting, then the highest ever by a Duck.

What Happened to the Team after the Cover:  Oregon would go on to win its first outright conference title in seven years.  Its Fiesta Bowl win gave the school its first 11-win season and a #2 ranking in the final AP poll, the highest in school history.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply? No.  While Harrington and the Ducks had a stellar year, the same can’t be said about his cover mate, Ken Simonton, and his team, the Oregon State Beavers, who seemed to absorb the entirety of “the jinx”.  Coming off a stunning beatdown of Notre Dame in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, OSU was picked #1 nationally by the magazine despite losing some of the key JC-transfer players to the NFL that had made the 2000 team so successful (in particular receivers Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh, both of which would join the Cincinnati Bengals).

OSU finished with a losing record, one season after finishing fourth in the nation.  Simonton, needing 113 yards in the 2001 Civil War to become the first Pac-10 running back to have four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, fell 29 yards short, resulting in the worst statistical season of his college career.

Jason Fife

How He Got On the Cover: Fife’s 15-yard TD run gave Oregon the lead for good in a 31-27 victory over #3 Michigan, a game some would categorize as the biggest win in school history. The headline touting Oregon as “Rich, Cool, and 4-0” was hinting at Oregon’s arrival on the national scene as a perennial national powerhouse.

What Happened to Him After the Cover: After sharing equal time with fellow QB Kellen Clemens since the end of the 2002 season, Clemens eventually overtook Fife as the primary signal caller as the season progressed, a role Fife would never wrestle back. Both quarterbacks would make it to the NFL.

What Happened to the Team After the Cover: Fife and Clemens combined had the top QB rating in the nation, highlighted with the best TD-INT ratio in the country. It wouldn’t last, the Ducks next week at home would be thrashed by Washington State, 55-16, a game that was 38-2 at halftime, and wasn’t even that close.  In it Fife/Clemens combined to throw seven interceptions, part of an eight-turnover day for the Ducks. It was so bad, that in some parts of the country at halftime ABC turned off the national broadcast feed to the game, and instead of switching to another game instead showed infomercials in lieu of the 2nd half of the game.  It was the first of 11 losses in the next 20 games for Oregon.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply? Oh yeah, big time.  Karma, Jobu, Juju, and the cover jinx along with any other bad luck charm imaginable all combined to set Oregon back for years. Fife would have four interceptions in 2003, but three of them came against Washington State; although to his credit, it was still one fewer interception than Clemens threw in the same game.  Meanwhile, Oregon finished with a losing record in the remaining games that season, punctuated by a Sun Bowl loss to Minnesota.

The following season the team endured horrible tragedy, as a highly-touted incoming freshman, Terrance Kelly, was shot and killed a day before he was to report to fall camp for the start of the 2004 season. The team then struggled that year with injuries and heavy hearts over their fallen teammate, ending with the only losing season (5-6) during Mike Bellotti’s entire coaching tenure as head coach at Oregon, the first losing season since 1993 (5-6).

The S.I. cover jinx started a sharp downward spiral of events that became one of the darkest times in Oregon’s recent history, necessitating drastic changes–Coach Bellotti scrapping the pro set system that had worked so well at Oregon for decades in favor of converting to a new spread offense attack.

Despite two ten-win seasons (2005 and 2008), and being the best team in the nation for half of another (2007), Oregon wasn’t featured on another cover until 2009.  Once that drought ended, it began a string of the Ducks averaging a cover per season. 

Jeremiah Masoli and Jordan Holmes

How They Got On the Cover:  Coming off arguably the most exciting bowl game of the 2008 season (Holiday Bowl vs. Oklahoma State), Oregon was one of the favorites to challenge for a Pac-10 title in 2009.  The new uniforms didn’t hurt getting them a spot, either.

What Happened to Them After the Cover:  Masoli had the best season of his college career, becoming the first Oregon quarterback to start a Rose Bowl since Danny O’Neil in 1995.  He was eventually dismissed prior to the 2010 season.  Holmes was a two-year starter at center who anchored the offensive line in back-to-back BCS bowl games.

What Happened to the Team After the Cover: Oregon suffers a disastrous loss to Boise State to start the season, the first game after the cover launched and the first with Chip Kelly as head coach.  The game ended in embarrassing fashion with a disastrous post-game punch from starting RB LeGarrette Blount that nearly incited a riot and caused a nationwide media backlash against the Oregon program that permeated all season, and continues to haunt Blount to this day in his pro career. Oregon recovered from the opening game loss, winning the Pac-10 title, and going to its first Rose Bowl in 15 years.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply?  Maybe.  The season opening loss against Boise State was bad, but Oregon did go on to be the first team to win the Pac-10 by two games in years.  And Masoli’s dismissal after the season had nothing to do with luck.  It appears the jinx was a short-term yes, long-term no.

LaMichael James (twice!)

How He Got On the Cover: By being the best player on the AP-ranked #1 team in the country.

What Happened to Him After the Cover:  Despite missing the season opener, James still managed to lead the nation with 1,731 yards, finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting – the highest finish for a Duck ever, and won the Doak Walker Award (awarded annually to the nation’s best running back.)

What Happened to the Team After the Cover: Oregon had its first undefeated season and first BCS Championship appearance in school history, although they failed to capture the title in a game the featured some questionable officiating and came down to the final play of the game.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply? Not really.  It could be argued certainly that the cover jinx affected Oregon, but Cam Newton was on just as many covers as James that season, and we know how it ended for Newton.  (Although there was that fumble…and the wrist was down too.)

De’Anthony Thomas

How He Got On the Cover: By having the collective rosters of Oregon non-conference opponents appear seemingly incapable of tackling him.

What Happened to Him After the Cover: After running mostly untouched through three games, Arizona held Thomas to 58 yards from scrimmage, the first time he had been held under 100 yards all season.

Against Washington State last Saturday again De’Anthony Thomas was held in check, though it was the first time all season that any team was brave enough to actually kick-off to him, Thomas never managed to break open. He did get a rushing touchdown, but on the ground and through the air Thomas barely had 50 yards total, as it was Kenjon Barner carrying the load against the Cougars.

What Happened to the Team After the Cover: The Ducks pitched their first shutout against Arizona since 1964, despite six trips to the red zone by the Wildcats. It was the first team shutout since 2003 vs. Stanford, though Oregon SHOULD have had a shutout in 2011 vs. Colorado if not for a dumb safety on a punt return by Cliff Harris, his final play as an Oregon Duck before being dismissed from the team. Against Washington State the Ducks got a bit of a scare in the first half before pulling away in typical fashion in the 2nd half.

Did the SI Cover Jinx Apply? If it is going to affect the Ducks, it hasn’t shown up yet, though De’Anthony Thomas has been largely contained for two weeks in a row ever since appearing on the cover.

Final tally:
Two yes, two no, one sort of, and one inconclusive.

When Sports Illustrated addressed its cover jinx in 2002, they noted that for every example of the jinx occurring, there were just as many examples where absolutely nothing happened.  They measured jinxes occurring at 37.2% rate, or approximately three in eight. The near-equal likelihood of jinx-or-not seems less a product of luck and more of a “regression to the mean”; an outlier returning to a regular level of performance, which seems in line to what Oregon has experienced when “cursed” following its Sports Illustrated covers.

So perhaps there is no jinx, just a lot of positive attention for a well-deserving team. Yet for any fan with a good memory and superstitious mentality, the thought of another player appearing on the cover may be met with a cringe rather than excitement, dreading the carnage to come. Like a broadcaster praising a kicker about his consecutive streak of kicks moments before he shanks one, somehow it always seems inevitable, whether or not it comes to fruition.
Or not, if history is any indication.

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