The Oregon Football Season of Surprising Sophomore Success

Jim Maloney History

The year 1928 was a bright one for Oregon sports but was also a decisive one for the United States as 1928 was a presidential election year. Republican Herbert Hoover versus Democrat Alfred Smith was the main event, but there was also a socialist candidate, Norman Thomas, in the mix. The Democrats tried to claim Hoover was not a United States citizen, however, the strategy backfired and Hoover was elected, only to preside over the collapse of the economy a year later. (Interesting … the similarities to recent events, but we don’t go into politics on FishDuck!)

In Oregon, a debate was underway whether to adopt an income tax as a means of property tax relief. (I think we all know how that debate turned out!) On a local level, if you were a kid you could dress up as Buster Brown and win prizes at the Rex Theater in downtown Eugene. This was the peak of the Roaring 20s, before the beginning of the Great Depression in the United States.

Oregon’s football team was coming off three losing seasons and featured a young team loaded with sophomores. This particular team was coached by John “Cap” McEwan, who had been a three-time All American center at Army and also coached for the cadets for three winning seasons before moving to Oregon. (Following his tenure at Oregon, McEwan would go on the coach Holy Cross and the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers.)

John “Cap” McEwan was the head coach in 1928.

The 1928 season would open against Pacific (Ore.) with a resounding 45 to 0 victory. After that confident start, the Ducks found themselves going up against a powerful Stanford team coached by the immortal Pop Warner, and Oregon was expected to lose because of its youth and inexperience. Lose they did, but by a respectable score of 26 to 12. Despite the loss, the Ducks got a very favorable review on the editorial page of the Eugene Register-Guard following the game.

Next up was a trip to Salem to face Willamette, and the Ducks had to overcome distractions from local newspapers that were focused on the following weekend against the hated Huskies in Portland. Overcome them they did, dispatching Willamette 38 to 6. The distraction game also ended well—in 1927 the Huskies had edged the Ducks 7 to 0, but Oregon’s 1928 team set the world right with a 27-0 dismantling of Washington.

The remainder of the regular season would see Oregon victories over Western Oregon, Oregon State, Montana, and UCLA with the only other loss to California. However, there were two more games to be played, with Oregon finishing out its first-ever 11-game season with two consecutive games in Hawaii.

The Ducks sailed from San Francisco in mid-December, as there were no airline flights in 1928. Players were required to study the entire trip, including relevant classes at the University of Hawaii during their stay. Their first game was scheduled for Christmas Day against a local all-star team made up of ex-college players and locals. Despite heavy wind and rain the Ducks prevailed 13-2, only yielding a safety on a blocked punt.

The next game was New Year’s Day against the University of Hawaii, and Oregon would prevail in a hard-fought game 6 to 0, resulting in a 9 and 2 season.

Roy “Wrong Way” Reigels in the Rose Bowl.

National polls taken following the regular season ranked USC, first, California second, Stanford fifth, Oregon sixth, WSU seventh, and Washington fourteenth, a tremendous showing for the conference. It’s unclear how USC won the conference but California went to the Rose Bowl, losing to undefeated Georgia Tech 8 to 7. The Cal loss was the result of the infamous wrong-way run by the Golden Bears’ Roy “Wrong Way” Reigels.

The 1928 sixth-in-the-nation version of the Ducks was not without its stars in that season or the next two. John “The Flying Dutchman” Kitzmiller, a star on both offense and defense, was named All-Pacific Coast Conference in 1928 and 1930, and an all-American in 1930. Dutch spent one season with the New York Giants before returning to coach at Oregon and is a member of the College Football National Football Foundation halls of fame.

George Christensen was another star who would go on to play professionally with Portsmouth and Detroit and was named an all-star several times. George Stadelman, a center, and Austin Colbert, a tackle, were also named All-Pacific Coast Conference during their careers.

Oregon would not have the success of these nine win teams until Ricky Whittle in the 1995 Rose Bowl.

In all, 1928 was a great year for Oregon sports, as the Ducks were the northwest champions in football and baseball, finished second in basketball, and even added the sports crowns of tennis and swimming. This would prove to be a peak for Oregon football until the famed 1933 team emerged five years later. Two nine-win teams within five years was an astounding stretch for Oregon football and would not be achieved again until over 60 years later when the 1994 and 1995 teams posted consecutive 9-win seasons.

It makes one appreciate the great Oregon teams, as things can change quickly—each generation of Oregon fans should savor the success of Our Beloved Ducks when they achieve it.

Jim Maloney
Ellensburg, Washington
Top Photo by UO Photographic Collection

Brad Nye, the Volunteer editor for this article, conserves land for Deschutes Land Trust in Central Oregon.

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In mid-August of 2024, we will go back to the seven-days-a-week of articles during the football season as we did in the football season of 2023.

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