We live in an era of lists. Go to almost any website and you’ll find a top 10 of something. In a random search just now, within seconds I came across lists of the top snipers in history, a list chronicling examples of confusing etiquette in other countries, a list of Church of Satan facts that “may surprise you,” and a list of “awesome” facts about South Korea.
But for some of us Duck fans, ranking the best seasons in Oregon history is no frivolous matter. After all, which season has earned the right to be called the greatest?
Before offering my own list of greatest Oregon Ducks football seasons, it is worth noting that there are not only countless different configurations a UO fan might favor, but there is more than one type of greatness. Are we talking about the most purely talented team, or are we talking about the greatest achievement?
After all, a season like 2007, for example, could be ranked quite highly on talent, for Oregon had a #2 ranking and a Heisman Trophy front runner before Dennis Dixon’s knee injury. But we’re ultimately talking about an 8-4 team that won a lower-tier bowl game. By the same token, it seems arguable that 2010 and 2014 would be a lock for the top two slots because Oregon played for a national championship these years. But were they unquestionably the most talented? Or were they even really the closest we got to a title?
The following list is just one person’s attempt to rank Oregon’s greatest seasons, and I have chosen a combination of achievement and talent as criteria. And while I have chosen 25 of the top Oregon teams, we’ll start with a few extras just beyond #25 that I didn’t have the heart to leave out.
2013: If not for one knee injury, we might have been talking about this as a national championship-winning season, or at least one that reached a marquee January bowl or secured a Pac-12 championship. Oregon rose to #2 in the country after a victory over UCLA made the Ducks 8-0, but Marcus Mariota was injured late in the game, and as a result the Ducks couldn’t beat Stanford a week later. When the team was shockingly blown out against Arizona two weeks later, fans were ready to declare our era of greatness over. But to Mark Helfrich’s credit, the team rebounded to finish 10-2 with an Alamo Bowl win over Texas. If not for the unfulfilled expectations of Mariota’s junior year, this would still be a top 25 season. Maybe it still should be.
1997: For nearly two years following Oregon’s successful Cotton Bowl season of 1995, Mike Bellotti’s team was mediocre at best, finishing 6-5 in 1996 (after a 3-5 start) and starting 1997 4-4. But behind stars like Akili Smith, receiver Pat Johnson and running back Saladin McCullough, the team rebounded to win on the road against sixth-ranked Washington as a 22-point underdog. Oregon’s first two offensive plays of the Las Vegas Bowl, a 41-13 blowout, were long touchdowns by those same two players.
1990: Bill Musgrave was at his best in this 8-3 regular season campaign, which included a marquee 32-16 win over fourth-ranked BYU and eventual Heisman Trophy-winner Ty Detmer. A 32-31 loss in the Freedom Bowl to Colorado State came after a questionable call. In the call, Musgrave completed a pass for the apparent go-ahead two-point conversion only to see it called back when the referee ruled the ball hadn’t crossed the plane of the end zone.
1962: Len Casanova’s squad finished 6-3-1, with its only losses to Texas, Ohio State and a Liberty Bowl-bound Beavers team.
1933: Under head coach Prink Callison, Oregon allowed only seven points in its first six games, including five shut-outs. USC was the only blemish on a 9-1 record. Oregon shared the Pacific Coast Conference crown with Stanford, but Stanford went to the Rose Bowl.
1922: Coach Shy Huntington’s team finished 6-1-1, with shutouts in four of the team’s eight games and only one opponent allowed more than three points.
1906: Hugo Bezdek’s team went undefeated at 5-0-1, giving up just 10 points all season.
And now, on to numbers 25 through 11 on our list …
#25 — 1959
Len Casanova’s squad finished 8-2, with its only setbacks a one-point defeat to eventual Rose Bowl champion Washington and a 15-7 loss to Oregon State.
#24 — 1895
It was 120 years ago, and only consisted of four games. But 1895 was a year of only four undefeated campaigns for Oregon, in which the team (then known as the Webfoots) gave up only eight points the entire season.
#23 — 1970
Though head coach Jerry Frei’s team finished only 6-4-1, there’s no denying that the 1970 Ducks fielded what may have been its most talented backfield in school history: future Pro Football Hall of Fame Dan Fouts at quarterback and Bobby Moore (currently known as Ahmad Rashad) at running back/receiver.
#22 — 1980
Oregon’s transition to a perennial winning program came in the late 1980s, but it almost happened a decade earlier. After taking over in 1977, Rich Brooks coached Oregon to two winning seasons in 1979 and 1980 before NCAA probation halted that progress.
Even so, quarterback Reggie Ogburn–a forerunner of Oregon’s future spread quarterbacks, able to run and pass with aplomb–led the Ducks to an impressive 6-3-2 finish in 1980. The most impressive game was arguably not a win but a tie against #1 USC.
#21 — 1999
Not many Oregon teams could boast two future NFL starters as quarterbacks on the same squad, but in 1999 Joey Harrington spent the first three games on the bench as starter AJ Feeley threw for a lot of yards. But after Feeley got injured and Harrington led the team to a triple-overtime win over USC, there was no looking back. Comeback wins against Arizona, Arizona State and Minnesota (in the Sun Bowl) cemented Harrington’s growing legend and began one of Oregon’s greatest three-year runs: A trio of bowl wins that culminated in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl victory.
#20 — 2008
It took this talented team some time to fully warm up, with three different quarterbacks seeing action early on before Jeremiah Masoli became cemented as starter. Once that happened, though, Mike Bellotti’s final team finished with a bang, including a 65-38 destruction of Oregon State (led by the school’s best-ever crop of defensive backs) that kept the Beavers out of the Rose Bowl. Bellotti went out with a bang, too, thanks to a 42-31 victory over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl.
#19 — 1957
Though Len Casanova’s team was only 7-3 in the regular season, the team’s biggest loss was by only seven points, as the team fell by a field goal to Pitt, in the Civil War against Oregon State, and most impressively of all, in a 10-7 Rose Bowl loss to undefeated and eventual national champion Ohio State.
#18 — 2005
In one of the greatest turnarounds in school history, the Ducks overcame a disappointing 5-6 campaign in 2004 (Bellotti’s only losing season and Oregon’s only losing campaign of the past 21 years) with an impressive 10-1 regular season mark. That was even more notable given that quarterback Kellen Clemens was lost for the season in October. Even then, backups Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf led the Ducks to four straight wins before a close 17-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Holiday Bowl.
#17 — 1963
In the 73 years between 1916 and 1989, Len Casanova’s 1963 team was the only one to record a postseason victory, in the Sun Bowl against SMU. In 1963 Oregon’s Mel Renfro became the school’s first two-time All-American. Bob Berry also cemented his status as one of the Ducks’ best quarterbacks. (He became an All-American the following year.)
#16 — 1919
Under legendary coach and former player Shy Huntington, Oregon made a return trip to Pasadena, losing 7-6 in the Rose Bowl to Harvard, then a college football powerhouse. Despite the loss, Huntington’s Ducks only gave up 40 points all season.
#15 — 1964
During his 16-year tenure in Eugene, legendary coach Len Casanova sported several excellent teams, most notably the 1957 squad that made it to the Rose Bowl. But that team finished only 7-4 and only went to Pasadena because of the conference’s no-repeat rule. (The Beavers were the real champions.) A better squad may have come five years later, in 1964, when the only losses in a 7-2-1 campaign were to Stanford by two points and Oregon State by a single point. Oregon also survived being kicked out of the conference a year earlier, showing that it belonged with the best.
#14 — 1998
Led by quarterback Akili Smith, 1998’s squad was an offensive juggernaut, opening the season with a 41-14 thrashing of Nick Saban’s Michigan State Spartans and undefeated at 5-0 before an overtime loss to UCLA. The loss saw star running back Ruben Droughns (heretofore averaging nearly 200 yards a game) lost for the season to a broken leg. Like 2007, 2005 and 1987, this was a better team than an injury-plagued ending to the season and the 8-4 mark indicates.
#13 — 1995
This season often gets forgotten because it came on the heels of the more glorious 1994 Rose Bowl campaign. But in Mike Bellotti’s first campaign, the team finished with an even better record at 9-2, earning a trip to the Cotton Bowl (which was lost to Colorado). Thrilling close wins against the likes of Illinois and UCLA showed that 1995 sported one of the Ducks’ greatest-ever defensive squads, led by defensive coordinator and former Dallas Cowboys star Charlie Waters, who returned to his native Texas after this sole campaign in Eugene.
#12 — 2009
Chip Kelly’s debut season in Eugene couldn’t have started worse, with a road loss at Boise State that included LaGarrette Blount’s punch heard ’round the world. But behind quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks won 10 of their next 11 games, including a thrilling 37-33 Civil War in which both teams were playing for a Rose Bowl berth. The Ducks won that game and were leading Ohio State in the third quarter in Pasadena before ultimately falling by nine points. It laid the foundation for an undefeated regular season campaign the following year.
#11 — 1948
This squad, led by a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, lost only two games: to eventual national champion Michigan, and in the Cotton Bowl to SMU and Heisman Trophy-winner Doak Walker. Head coach Jim Aiken finished his second season with a combined 16-5 record, but over his final two seasons Oregon won just five games.
In order to have room to talk about each of the teams, we have broken the list into two posts, covering numbers 25 to 11 today and the final top 10 in tomorrow’s follow-up post. What season will be number one: 2010, 2014 or another year? Stay tuned (Sunday morning).
Top photo by 1949 Cotton Bowl, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries
Brian’s book, Tales from the Oregon Ducks Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Ducks Stories Ever Told (Tales from the Team) is available here.
Brian Libby is a writer and photographer living in Portland. A life-long Ducks football fanatic who first visited Autzen Stadium at age eight, he is the author of two histories of UO football, “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline” and “The University of Oregon Football Vault.” When not delving into all things Ducks, Brian works as a freelance journalist covering design, film and visual art for publications like The New York Times, Architect, and Dwell, among others.
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