Without a doubt, the transformation of the Oregon football program into a budding national power is one of the more intriguing–and least talked-about–story lines in all of college football.
Recall that this is a program that did not go to a bowl game between 1963 and 1989. From 1965 through 1988, it did not win more than six games in a season.
But things started changing incrementally under Rich Brooks.
The Ducks had losing seasons every year from 1971 to 1978. But Brooks took over in 1977 and, by his third year, Oregon was 6-5. The 1980s saw the Ducks win six games or more five times. The decade culminated in a trip to the Independence Bowl as Oregon won eight games for the first time since 1963.
The 1990s were even better for Oregon. The Ducks had only two losing seasons, won nine games three times and, in 1994, went to their first Rose Bowl since 1957.
In short, Oregon had gone from being a dead program to becoming a Northwest power, challenging Washington for the hegemony of that region.
Brooks left for the NFL and things could’ve dropped off, but his successor, Mike Bellotti, took the program to even greater heights.
In his 14 seasons in Eugene, Bellotti’s teams won at least nine games seven times and finished in the top 12 of the AP rankings four times, including a No. 2 ranking in 2001. Two Ducks finished in the top five of the Heisman voting during his tenure.
Bellotti built on what Brooks had started and made the Ducks into a Pac-10 power, a team that could challenge for conference titles.
The hand off to Chip Kelly after Bellotti retired went smoothly. Kelly won 10 games and went to the Rose Bowl in his rookie season and now, in year two, the Ducks are No. 1 in the country and in position to become a permanent fixture on the national scene.
How did Oregon do it? The state isn’t exactly overflowing with talent. Historically, the Ducks’ tradition doesn’t match up with most of the other Pac-10 schools. The weather isn’t exactly balmy.
Well, a few things happened to bring this about.
1. Smart Recruiting. Like most of the Pac-10, the Ducks mined California–especially Los Angeles–for talent. Most of their recruiting classes weren’t filled with high-profile stars, but Oregon did a good job over the years of finding the right guys and coaching them up within a set system, which gave the Ducks a chance to compete and, eventually, go to bowl games.
2. Facilities. Oregon invested heavily in its athletic infrastructure. The Duck locker rooms are legendary. The weight room is state of the art. The stadium is an amazing place to watch a game and the fans are some of the loudest around. These kind of amenities can more than make up for a few rainy days.
3. Nike. Some would say Oregon is Nike. The association with the famous shoe company is an invaluable recruiting tool, not to mention a key source of funding via Uncle Phil Knight. Nike helped make Oregon cool.
4. Track Town USA. There’s no city in America that loves its track and field more than Eugene. Hayward Field is a mecca for the sport. Having this kind of environment surrounding the football program is helpful in attracting speedy two-sport athletes.
5. The Marketing. Few schools have been as adept at marketing itself over the last decade as Oregon has. People scoffed when the Ducks put Joey Harrington on a Times Square Billboard back in 2001, but it got people talking about the school and provided a face for what was, to most of the country, a relatively unknown program.
6. The Uniforms. What do you do when your school lacks tradition? You take advantage of it. Instead of staying ramshackled to an old uniform (complete with Donald Duck decal) that had no visceral connection with most fans, the Ducks decided to go with style and flash. How many uniform variations are there? Who knows? But people talk about it and anticipate every little change. A recent poll of college football players found that the Ducks had the No. 1 uniforms in the sport. Now, tons of schools change their uniforms with regularity.
7. Style of Play. Especially under Kelly, the Ducks have stood out for how they play the game. Oregon’s fast-break offense is the sexiest in college football and the prime reason the Ducks are No. 1. The Ducks play like their hair is on fire and people love to watch. Offense sells tickets…and may just win championships, too.
One result of all this is that Oregon is starting to attract recruits not just from Oregon or California, but from all over the country. The Ducks grabbed four players from Texas in 2008, including LaMichael James. It snared LaGarrette Blount from Mississippi. In 2010, there were three players from Texas, two from Florida, one from Michigan and one from Illinois. The class for next year includes two four-star players from South Florida and three highly-regarded players from Arizona.
Being able to recruit high-profile players nationally is the sign of a program that is beginning to become a national power. So is competing for Heismans. I think it’s clear that Oregon is on the verge across the board. If it plays its cards right, it has a chance to be the new Nebraska.
The parallel with the Cornhuskers is this: Both Oregon and Nebraska are talent-poor states, so there’s little in the way of a recruiting base in place for each school to exploit. Both schools didn’t do a whole lot for a large stretch of time–before Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, Nebraska was pretty much irrelevant (just like Oregon was before Brooks and Bellotti). But both schools emerged thanks to outstanding coaches (and coaching stability), superior facilities, dedicated fan bases and innovative, machine-like offensive systems that helped them become a whole lot better than they otherwise would’ve been.
I’m not saying Oregon is going to go on the same kind of tear as the Huskers did under Osborne, but some of the same elements that enabled Nebraska to succeed are present with the Ducks.
So if Oregon ends up winning the national title, or a Heisman, we’ll know how they got there.