The Oregon Ducks have lost their edge. Fans know it. Opponents know it. And, most importantly, the rest of the country knows it.
At the start of the decade, the Ducks were undeniably the coolest team in the land. They captured the hearts of fans from all over the country, creating a culture based on trailblazing innovation and effortless style. Oregon football became an extravaganza that opposing programs envied and Duck fans adored. For a while, Eugene became the epicenter of the college football universe.
That moment in time sure seems like a distant memory now. The once-revered Oregon “brand” is losing its shine, and opponents across the country are licking their chops.
This season, the Ducks must recapture all of the elements that once made them the ultimate trendsetters. Otherwise, the golden age of Oregon football may be nearing its end.
The Ducks Built the Biggest Brand in the Sport
As the Ducks rose to prominence under Chip Kelly, they evolved into a college football brand that swept the nation. They became must-watch television every time they took the field. Whether it was because of the exhilarating offense or the slick uniform combinations, audiences from all over the country made it a priority to see the Ducks in action.
Traditionalists scoffed at the “gimmicky” tactics that the Ducks employed throughout their program to gain attention, but they still couldn’t help noticing what was happening in the Northwest.
The Ducks changed the game. Their facilities were closer to space stations than weight rooms. The mascot, Puddles, became the most popular figure in the state. They even made extra points exciting.
All of these factors helped the Ducks create a brand that became the most popular in the sport.
Then, something changed.
The Rest of the Country Caught Up
By 2015, just as the Ducks were beginning to struggle on the gridiron, their once groundbreaking innovations had become commonplace. Other teams had caught up, recreating the formula that made Oregon football so captivating. They became a victim of their own success.
Now, nearly every team has outlandish uniform combinations, Kelly’s version of the spread has been adopted in some variation by teams throughout the country, and facilities like the Ducks’ are popping up like weeds in a garden.
So far, the Ducks have failed to counter.
Not so long ago, the Ducks had an aura that would instill fear in their opponents before the first snap. There was a mystique that surrounded the program which gave the Ducks a psychological edge, without ever stepping on to the field. Fast-forward to 2018, and that sense of awe is nowhere to be found. The Ducks are now “just another team.”
Some may ask if it makes any difference whether the Ducks look like Kelly’s squad of the early 2010’s or the Iowa Hawkeyes. Winning is what matters, right?
Sure, winning is the goal, but a large part of the Ducks’ ascension to the college football elite was due to the stylistic advantages they created through their cutting-edge innovations. The Ducks simply don’t share the geographical or historical advantages of traditional powerhouse programs. In order to keep up, the Ducks must give high-profile recruits alternative, worthwhile reasons to choose Oregon over their elite competitors.
The atmosphere that the Ducks created under Kelly helped make up for their disadvantages. Recruits from Florida, Texas, California and other states wanted to be a part of the spectacle that Oregon football had become. Look no further than the legendary signing of De’Anthony Thomas. He was a heavy USC lean, but he chose to take his talents to Eugene, and went on to become a college football superstar.
However, as the Ducks grow more and more ordinary, recruits have less and less incentive to come to Oregon. The recruiters on staff are doing a fabulous job of bringing elite talent to Eugene for now, but the less Oregon football is able to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack, the more of a challenge it will be for the coaching staff to convince kids to commit.
That’s why re-establishing a culture of innovation and excitement this season is just as important as achieving on-field success.
I’m not referring to a specific schematic change on the field. The Ducks ran essentially the same offense under Mark Helfrich that propelled Kelly’s Ducks to their successes, and the program still began to lose clout.
What I’m referring to is the program-wide ingenuity that helped the Ducks burst onto the scene in the first place. For years, football purists preached that a team had to look, act and play a certain way in order to be successful, and Oregon football challenged that notion. They were the Silicon Valley of college football teams. They created trends that are now commonplace in the sport, and they did it with sizzle.
It was this combination of uniqueness and bravado that sparked the birth of the most successful era in Oregon’s history. Oregon needs to continue to find new ways to evolve and innovate as a program, so they can recruit successfully against the blue-bloods of college football and sustain national relevance.
The Ducks’ rise to fame left a mark that will not be forgotten. They had an influence on the sport that rivaled that of the Miami Hurricanes in the ’80s. Now that the rest of the country has adapted — due in large part to the success that the Ducks were able to achieve — how will the Ducks respond?
The answer to that question may determine the success of Oregon football for years to come.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Kevin Cline