In 1984, Brigham Young University won the Holiday Bowl. It wasn’t a marquee January bowl game, let alone any kind of championship – or so people thought. The game was held before the traditional marquee of New Year’s Day. Many in the college football world, myself included, felt an overwhelming amount of skepticism about BYU being voted champion a week or so after the late-December bowl game. Though undefeated, the Cougars didn’t seem like college football’s best team, and it was easy to resent such a roadblock-free shortcut to topping the year-end Associated Press and coaches polls. The Holiday Bowl winner as national champion? Huh?
But make no mistake: deserved or not, the BYU program was changed forever by winning a national championship that year. No matter how many mediocre seasons in Provo have ensued since 1984, this school stands amongst the immortals of college football with powerhouses like Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, Michigan and Texas. So do other one-time champions, for that matter, who have won a single national championship but no dynasty. It’s ultimately very simple: there are programs that have won a national championship, and programs that haven’t. Maybe, for example, you think that Georgia Tech is no Georgia, let alone an Alabama. But the Yellow Jackets, even with their split 1990 title, have a ring that no amount of regular season blowout wins can surpass.
Before we start talking about Oregon’s chances of joining those ranks, let’s appease our superstitions. It should go without saying that no matter our undefeated record, regardless of our #1 human-poll rankings, and despite Chip Kelly’s branding as the most brilliant coach in college football, we should still call it unlikely the Ducks will be national champions at this season’s end. There are, after all, some gigantic obstacles in our way, especially the very tough games remaining on the regular-season schedule. And we have to hope that the BCS would reward the Ducks with a slot at the title game. Running the gauntlet takes not only skill and smarts but also some luck.
Yet that’s all the more reason it’s worthwhile sometimes to stop and dream, however briefly. What if the Oregon Ducks actually won the national championship? How would it feel, and how would it change us?
Naturally, the nirvana of scaling the top of the college football mountain would mean different things to each of us. Some would scream and jump for joy until their vocal chords and knee joints gave way. Some would collapse and shed a waterfall of tears. (Or, like me, some would do both, over and over and over again, deliriously.) Some would see the beginning of a dynasty in Eugene, while others would see a program peaking amidst Chip Kelly’s departure for the NFL and a return to our team’s historic role of being just pretty good rather than great. Either way, though, we’d have a banner, a ring: something that, barring harsh NCAA sanctions (which also, it must be admitted, still threaten Oregon), could never be taken away. I imagine a title not as so much the religious experience I did two years ago as the team made its way to Glendale for the BCS championship game, but instead as tonic for real life’s problems, and tonic for the tough years Oregon’s going to have in the future.
For me, and probably a lot of my fellow Duck fans who double as Portland Trail Blazers fans, in a certain respect it all goes back to 1977: the year the Trail Blazers won the NBA championship. I was five years old when Bill Walton and company claimed the title, which turned out to be old enough to vaguely recognize a moment of euphoria was happening yet too young to truly appreciate and savor it for myself. Ever since then, I’ve yearned desperately for a championship to call my own. Ensuing Blazer squads of the early ’90s and in 2000 came close, but none have been able to deliver that elusive second title. Even if you’re older than me and were able to savor that 1977 championship, or if you’re younger and weren’t born when it was won, or if you’re not a Blazer fan, it’s been 35 years since the state of Oregon experienced its only sports championship.
When the Ducks’ magical undefeated 2010 regular season put them in the BCS title game, it seemed like the heavens parting: a moment when an impossible dream could actually become reality. But if football is called a game of inches, our dream died by a millimeter or two. And though Oregon’s rise to power is incredible even without the title, the whole idea is to make it to the top of the mountain. One could argue, for example, that the Ducks’ greatest achievement wasn’t making it to the BCS title game in 2010, but earning the #1 ranking earlier that year: a visit to the top without being able to plant our flag.
Imagine for a moment, repellant as it may seem, how Washington Husky fans must feel: their once top-tier program is amidst a decade-long struggle just to reach minor bowl games, they’ve lost to their nemesis from Eugene nine years in a row, and after expecting to finally be competitive with Oregon this year the team was were blown out once more. But in the back of my mind as a Husky fan would always, above all else, remain one massive consolation: 1991, the year Washington won a national championship. Even though it was a split title with the Miami Hurricanes, Washington’s national championship is simply the one card that trumps every other one in the deck. With the possible exception of a Heisman Trophy, a national championship is the one and only ticket to college football immortality. “Okay, Ducks, you win again this year,” I’d say if I were a Husky fan. “You won last year, and the whole decade going back. We both know you’ll almost assuredly win next year too. But take a good look at this ring on my finger. It’s the end of the conversation.”
Of course as Oregon fanatics we want the Ducks to win every game. It’s never, ever fun to lose. But if, against the still long odds, Oregon won the 2012-13 BCS National Championship, even a decline of the program in the years to follow would feel acceptable, at least for me. If Chip Kelly had left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past off-season, it would have felt devastating. If he left after winning a BCS title, it would be unfortunate and foreboding, but a case of, “Oh well, at least we….” If Oregon had a national championship banner, it would hang not just at Autzen Stadium but also in our collective mental stockpile every time the team suffered a tough loss or a disappointing season. “We’ll always have 2012,” we’d say to each other. “We lost the day today against San Jose State, but we won the day when it was for all the marbles.”
Every team that wins a championship wants that lone title to transform into a multi-title dynasty. It still hurts that the Trail Blazers had a 50-10 record during the 1978-79 regular season before their MVP center succumbed to injury. Were Walton not so brittle, more rings could very well have followed. But there is so much less of a distance between winning one versus multiple titles than there is between winning none versus one. Go ahead and dream of Oregon winning a succession of titles like the Trojans or Crimson Tide or Hurricanes. Maybe it’s just the Duck fan in me that grew up in the program’s darkest days of the 1970s; still surprised just to stand proudly amongst the college-football titans. But I’d be deliriously happy, and eternally satisfied, just to finish atop the mountain a single time.