The final two years of Coach Mark Helfrich and then the singleton year of Coach Willie Taggart put quite the sour taste in many of our canard craws. After the feast, we endured discouraging famine. At times like these, it’s a good idea to zoom out some. Let’s get a little perspective on where we have come from as a football program.
The Beginnings: Respectable
When the Ducks picked up the pigskin in 1894, Coaches Cal Young and J.A. Church led the inaugural team to a 1-2-1 season. Through the next two decades, seasons typically consisted of only five or six games, eventually settling on eight. The Ducks usually had winning seasons under some 17 different head coaches.
In 1916, Hugo Bezdek coached Oregon to win the third Rose Bowl on January 1, 1917. The final score was 14-0, as the Oregon Quackers beat the Penn Quakers. Bezdek would finish five seasons with a 30-10-1 record.
His replacement, Charles Huntington, put up a similarly respectable 26-12-6 record from 1918 to 1923. He took Oregon to our second Rose Bowl berth in 1919: a 7-6 loss to Harvard. It would be three decades and nine coaches later before Oregon would appear again in a bowl game, when the 1948 Cotton Bowl saw the No. 10 SMU Mustangs upset the No. 9 Oregon Ducks 21-13.
The Len Casanova Years, Then the Wasteland
When Coach Len Casanova took over in 1951, he inherited a team that had posted a 1-9 record the previous season. Sixteen years later, at the end of his tenure, his record was 82-73-8: the most wins ever by an Oregon coach to date.
The three bowl games under his tenure doubled the Ducks’ prior bowl appearances. A solid foundation had been set for future skippers to build upon. Unfortunately, the next three coaches (Jerry Frei, Dick Enright and Don Read) were unable to capitalize on that foundation.
Over the next ten years they combined for only a single winning season (6-4-1) in 1971.
I remember well the resulting despair in Eugene. The Register-Guard sports pages were damned painful reading for us during football season. The cumulative record of the three tapped out at 37-69-2 — essentially a decade of going 4-7 each and every soul devouring year.
Enter Rich Brooks
Rich Brooks was introduced as the new coach for 1977 during halftime of a Mac Court basketball game, (the Kamikaze Kids though, were giving us something to quack about). I remember sitting in those bleachers, listening to the announcement and thinking that our new head coach was doomed to be another slab of cannon fodder. That “4-7 decade” had removed any shred of hope I had that Oregon football could be remotely competitive. During those years we might beat the Beavs occasionally, and thus stay ahead of them in Steve Harvey’s “Bottom 10” of college football. When we did, we could at least hold our heads up: provided we didn’t cross the Oregon border anywhere.
Brooks’ first two years, both 2-9, portended nothing at all redemptive. Then a couple of back-to-back winning seasons perked our ears up a bit. Maybe there was a small window for hope. Maybe we weren’t the college football equivalent of the Jamaican Bobsled Team. But alas, reality roared back, and another pair of two-win seasons bludgeonly reminded us of who we were. The LA Times sports writers were probably right. Maybe we really didn’t belong in the Pac-10.
And then the unthinkable began happening: we started playing consistent .500 ball year to year, for five years or so! Heady stuff! Brooks seemed to be getting things moving in the right direction. Finally, in 1989, the agonizingly long drought ended. Brooks finally delivered. After not enjoying postseason action for over a quarter of a century, at long last we were participating. The Independence Bowl baby! Chumps no longer!
And Brooks kept on delivering: four bowl games in his last six years, the last one being The Granddaddy… The ROSE BOWL! I was living in southern California at the time and was swamped with Oregon friends calling and asking if we had room to put them up. This would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Ducks in the Rose Bowl.
“Buy all the Duck-a-phenalia you can afford, because almost assuredly there wouldn’t be another opportunity like this one any time soon. If you want to be able to wear a Rose Bowl T-shirt with a Duck logo, best get it NOW! The chance may never come again.”
We hosted some 17 rabid Duck fans in a 1450 square-foot house: wall-to-wall sleeping bags!
From the Wasteland to Respectability
When Brooks hung up his (college) whistle at Oregon, tension was in the air. He had turned the corner for the Ducks, but what was to come? Could his successor Mike Bellotti actually sustain momentum?
Yes. He did. In spades.
In the 14 years that Coach Bellotti headed our program, only TWO went without a postseason bowl!
“Are these actually the Ducks!? I could really get used to this!”
Brooks lifted us up from the bottom 10, to pecking at the door of the top 25. Bellotti grabbed the baton, and took us to being a solid top-25 team on a regular basis. If Brooks was our Moses, Bellotti was our Joshua.
Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Then cometh the Chip-ster, who sprinkled his magic dust, and we started living in Top-10 Land. We actually were consistently in the yearly discussions surrounding who would be the favorite for the “Natty” (a euphemism for which we owe a debt of gratitude to Cliff “We Smoked it All” Harris).
The four Kelly years, and then the first two of Helfrich, saw three Rose Bowl appearances (two of them wins) and two National Championship appearances.
I have to be honest folks, after all those demoralizing decades of mediocrity (or worse) leading up to the Brooks-through-Cristobal era, the Oregon football trend line has shown remarkable growth. If you had told me in 1976, my Senior year at Oregon, that future Oregon fans would be disappointed in last year’s 9-4 season, I would have thought you had abused way too much of the “Harris Herb.”
That year, 1976, we went 4-7 overall and 1-6 in conference. And yes … that solitary conference win was over the Beavs.
And boy, it was sweet!
Fontana, California Top Photo From Twitter
Chris Brouilette, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a current student at the University of Oregon from Sterling, Illinois.
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