Pac-12: Sun Also Rises

Oregon's rise is not temporary

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
10:52
AM ET
Shy Huntington surely never guessed it would take this long for Oregon to become a national power. After he grabbed three interceptions in the Ducks' 14-0 Rose Bowl victory over the Pennsylvania Quakers, he probably thought things were just beginning for the Ducks.

It was 1917.

From 1918 through 1988, however, Oregon would play in just five bowl games, winning one. Its first coach to win more than 33 games was Len Casanova, who went 82-73-8 from 1951-66. Oregon's next coach to post a winning record? Mike Bellotti.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireChip Kelly has the Ducks two wins away from their first undefeated season of the modern era.
Oregon is one of only 10 programs nationally to have played in at least 17 bowl games over the past 21 years, but it's clearly a member of the nouveau riche. The Ducks haven't finished unbeaten in the modern era and they've never won a national championship.

Yet now they are two wins away from doing the former and three from accomplishing the latter, starting with a home date with No. 21 Arizona on Friday.

This is uncharted territory for Oregon, but it also feels as if the arrival isn't temporary. The momentum -- having the right coach, great facilities, passionate fan base, national recruiting, a sugar daddy billionaire booster -- suggests Oregon is starting construction on a mansion in the neighborhood with programs like Florida, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and USC.

A character in "The Sun Also Rises" was asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That description is apt for the Ducks, only in the opposite direction. Oregon broke through in the 1990s under Rich Brooks. Bellotti won 116 games from 1995-2008 -- the most in program history by a wide margin -- and created a Pac-10 and national contender.

Second-year coach Chip Kelly? He's on the cusp of winning a second consecutive Pac-10 title and earning a second BCS bowl berth, only this time in the national championship game on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz. That qualifies as a good start to a career as a head coach.

For an Oregon fan in his or her 50s or 60s, this is a fairly shocking development. You remember cold, rainy days with only a few thousand fans on hand to watch the Ducks lose. You remember going down to Washington 66-0 (1974). Or tying rival Oregon State 0-0 in the 1983 Civil War (two bad teams, pouring rain, eleven fumbles, five interceptions, and four missed field goals, the last Division I game to end in a scoreless tie).

If you are, say, a 19-year-old freshman at Oregon, you grew up with the Ducks as a Pac-10 contender and a team that regularly appeared in the national rankings. Your first memory might be of Kenny Wheaton returning an interception 97 yards for a touchdown to beat Washington in 1994, the celebrated linchpin play of the Ducks' first Rose Bowl season in 37 years. You see your team headed for its sixth season with 10 or more wins since 2000.

You read about the construction of a new, $41 million, six-story, 130,000 square foot operations building for the football program that will begin early next year, and you (maybe) think, "About time."

"There is a difference between the people who have seen this program for 40 years and the people that have seen us for four years," Kelly said. "They obviously see it through a different set of eyes. This program wasn't always one of the top programs in the country... I still talk to some of the people who can remember the days gone by, when having a winning season was a big deal and making it to a bowl game was a really big deal."

Kelly adds that he's only known the good days. He arrived in 2007 as offensive coordinator, and Oregon has won 39 games -- and counting -- since then and finished each season nationally ranked, the last two in the top 11. Contemplating the present versus the past with nostalgia for days gone by? As he will tell you -- over and over and over and over -- he's only about winning the day, which is today and nothing else. Still.

"That's hard for me to fathom, this team struggling just to be bowl eligible," he said. "That's not the Oregon I know."

There is some respectful jealousy among other Pac-10 coaches. Want to know why California coach Jeff Tedford gets perhaps more understanding from sportswriters than Bears fans? Compare and contrast Oregon's facilities and the Bears'. It's major league vs. single-A (though Cal is -- finally -- in the process of a major stadium project that should help that).

Mike Stoops has led Arizona out of the Pac-10 cellar, but his facilities don't compare with Oregon's either. He noted -- indirectly -- that the Big 12's nouveau riche power, Oklahoma State, became a contender shortly after its billionaire sugar daddy, T. Boone Pickens, started to churn hundreds of millions of dollars into the program.

"They are both great examples of investing in your program, investing in your players and bringing first-class facilities to your program, and putting a lot of value to that," Stoops said. "You can see what's happened with Oregon. They continually won seven, eight, nine [games]. Now, all of a sudden, the last few years, they are competing for championships and competing for the national championship... Certainly, we are trying to do the same thing here in rebuilding our facilities as well."

Asked about whether he felt the powers-that-be at Arizona understood the value of facility upgrades, Stoops replied, "I can't erase 125 years of not going to the Rose Bowl. As much pressure as I can put on myself, I can't take all that responsibility. It can't be just all bad playing and all coaching."

(We, obviously, could start to debate the ethics and institutional value of the arms race in big-time college football when there are budget shortfalls on the academic side of things, but that prickly topic is for another day.)

Oregon's ascension also is fortuitously timed alongside the fall of USC. While the Ducks have won three of four versus the Trojans, the departure of Pete Carroll and the arrival of NCAA sanctions figure to benefit the Ducks as they tighten their moorings among the national elite.

Of course, the deal is not yet done. Irritated Washington fans, who have seen their Northwest supremacy taken away, would quibble: "Hey, win a Rose Bowl in the facemask era, would 'ya!" The Ducks haven't done that since Huntington's heroics. Two games remain in the regular season, and then there's the matter of closing the deal in Glendale.

But it's hard not to feel that Oregon is on the cusp of arriving. Consider this: Even if the Ducks don't win the national title game, when you look at what they have coming back in 2011, they are a good bet to begin next fall as the preseason No. 1.

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