It’s been awhile since Oregon has truly failed in football. Certainly, games have been lost and teams have failed to meet expectations over the years, but the simple fact is that since the early 80’s there have been few seasons when the Ducks have fallen flat. From 1984 until 2012 Oregon has had twenty-four seasons at or above .500, and only five seasons with more losses than wins. That’s nearly thirty years of winning. It’s no wonder Oregon fans have gotten a little spoiled.
The last time things were bad, they were very bad. From 1967 until 1983, Oregon was an underfunded, overmatched, and somewhat disorganized program. From the time Len Casanova left as head coach until Rich Brooks again found success, the Ducks went into a fifteen year swoon where wins were hard to come by and bowl games were a distant dream.
The Frei Era: 1967-1971: Jerry Frei, a successful recon pilot during WWII, came to be Oregon’s head coach after Len Casanova became Oregon’s athletic director. During his 5-year tenure, his teams compiled a 22-29-4 record, with no bowl invitations and one winning season. Notable players on the roster included future Hall-Of-Famers Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashad. His staff was loaded, and included as assistant coaches were future NFL head coaches John Robinson, George Seifert, Gunther Cunningham; future NFL defensive coordinator John Marshall, and Bruce Snyder who would later go on to be the head coach at the University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University. Frei left shortly after the 1971 season when he clashed with the Athletic Director over the suggestion that he fire some of those same assistant coaches.
From high school coach to college coach: 1971-1973: In what has to be one of the major college head-scratchers of all-time, the keys to the university football program were handed over to Dick Enright. Only two years removed from coaching high school football, he had been the offensive line coach under Frei before taking the reins. Enright famously and unsuccessfully tried to convert Dan Fouts, the epitome of a pocket-passer, into an option runner. In two years with Enright as coach the Ducks went 4-7 and 2-9 and he was fired after the 1973 season. Enright does have one enduring credit in Oregon history, however – the creation of the Daisy Ducks boosters!
The Longest Losing Streak, 1974-1976: After Enright was fired, the head coaching position was taken up by the quarterbacks coach, Don Read. During three years with Read running the team, boosters weren’t donating, football was losing money, and worst of all was the losing streak which stretched to 14 games — the longest in Oregon’s history. The Ducks went 3-18 in conference play, owned a single win over a team with a winning record and managed to get shut out seven times. Read was fired after the 1976 season, but would later redeem himself and salvage his name by winning a NCAA division I-AA national championship at the University of Montana.
The Rich Brooks era begins badly: 1977-1983 brought four two-win seasons in the first six years. Instead of wins, the program was drowning in scandals, pay-for-credit, illegal travel funds, and sexual misconduct were the headlines. How did Brooks get everything turned around? Thankfully the University remained patient and loyal, and gave him the time he needed. Coach Brooks rewarded their faith in him with a 1989 Independence Bowl berth and win, and from that point on, Oregon has been steadily climbing the ranks of elite programs.
It is amazing to think how many years now Oregon has been a truly successful program, and how used to success we all have become. The Ducks have had a single losing season in the last seventeen years, and have had winning seasons in 24 out of the last 29 years. It is even more amazing to realize that before this era began, the most unsuccessful era in Oregon Ducks history mercifully came to an end.