While the flash and the marketing of the program is enjoyable, but the most important factor the Oregon football program employed, either consciously or subconsciously, was the mindset of an underdog; the guerrilla fighter, or the biblical David. This is precisely the ethos and the psychology that turned around a stumbling and mediocre football culture. Historically, this is the approach that has enabled vastly under-resourced armies to defeat their high-powered and vastly better-equipped opponents.Underdogs instinctively know, or they come to find out through hard-won lessons, that they could not beat opponents while employing the same strategy and tactics that most befit their opponents’ inherent strengths. Oregon football finally realized that it could not compete with the traditional powers on the same playing field, as it was far from level. Instead they exploited underutilized resources and discovered new ways to compete.
If you play to your strengths and do not attempt to match your more fully-equipped opponent head-to-head, then you have a great chance at success. In Oregon’s case, you don’t run a pro-style drop-back quarterback offense, because you do not have access to that type of player. History is awash with examples. In the aforementioned Biblical account, David’s victory over Goliath is commonly held to be an anomaly that’s rarely duplicated.
Yet the “Davids” win over the “Goliaths” much more often than our society will often acknowledge. To better our understanding, the political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between stronger and weaker combatants.
The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time. This is because the underdog understood the terms of battle and did not engage the superior forces in its strong suit.
In the David and Goliath story, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet while he girded himself with a sword: initially preparing to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath, before stopping. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said and picked up five smooth stones, with the outcome well-known. The conflation of the biblical and warfare with modern college football may be a bridge too far to some, but human behavior and attitudes drive both enterprises. In a battle for resources or players you must adapt or perish.
What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, the David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win often, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.” Arreguín-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won, but most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the 202 lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s conflict database, the underdog chose to go toe-to-toe with Goliath the conventional way 152 times—losing 119.
In 1809, the Peruvians fought the Spanish straight up and lost; in 1816, the Georgians fought the Russians straight up and lost; in 1817, the Pindaris fought the British straight up and lost; in the Kandyan rebellion of 1817, the Sri Lankans fought the British straight up and lost; in 1823, the Burmese chose to fight the British straight up and lost…and you get the idea.
In an American history context, George Washington did the same thing against the British during the American Revolution, by abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had served the colonists so well in the conflict’s early stages. “ As quickly as he could, Washington devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. He went from unconventional to conventional, and as a result, he was defeated time after time, and nearly lost the war.
In the 1940s, the Communist insurgency in Vietnam bedeviled the French until, in 1951, the Viet Minh strategist Vo Nguyen Giap switched to conventional warfare—and promptly suffered a series of defeats. Of course, the Viet Cong later chose unconventional warfare against the overconfident and vastly better-equipped American military, promptly winning its fair share of battles and ultimately gaining a draw militarily, but a win for the nation. The historical evidence is abundant, and Oregon’s early football failure was predicated on similar mistakes and a disregard of the innate differences between programs and environments.
What must also be kept in mind is that despite Oregon’s football success and their control of the PAC-12 Conference, they have not yet dominated college football proper. They are 2-2 in their last four BCS Bowl appearances. The sad truth is that underdogs can dominate similar opponents and opponents that run traditional systems in an unspectacular way, but chances are they will always be .500 against the well-equipped, powerful opponents.
The fact is a dynasty in the manner of the Alabama Crimson Tide is not in the works. Eventually, teams figure out how to adapt to the underdog and the balance shifts back. This should be not something to lament for Oregon football fans, rather its victory is in the admiration of those who are truly in the know and the hopeful adoption of some of its tactics by its establishment detractors. For enduring Oregon football fans this should feel like a long-hoped-for triumph.
The success of the Oregon football program in the last 20 years has raised fan expectations to perhaps an unreasonable level, creating a gap between assumptions and reality. Perspective among fans is often lost among the excitement, as many believe that the graph line will continue trending up. It is only natural that once a select group is given a taste of prosperity, they only want more. The resources provided cannot continue to raise the program forever.
Eventually, the environment reaches the law of diminishing returns and more resources will no longer guarantee higher results. While the program cannot overcome its inherent limitation in location, it can succeed on its own unique terms.
To see the other article in this series, click here.
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