UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
College Football

Polar opposites off field, Oregon, Stanford becoming fierce rivals on it

Photo:

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota threw for 207 yards and ran for a TD in last year's 17-14 loss to Stanford.

Some things just can't be rushed. Before a college center becomes a dominating player, the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano once explained, he must undergo "a long gestation period, like an elephant or a whale."

Jimmy V would probably say the same of a robust college football rivalry, which explains why there will be a spite shortfall, a kind of toxicity deficit, surrounding the Pac-12's game of the year: No. 2 Oregon (8-0) against fifth-ranked Stanford (7-1) in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7.

The first of the 76 times these teams played, Oregon didn't fly to the Bay Area, not to save money but because it was three years before the Wright Brothers pioneered air travel. Yet it's only over the last few seasons that Ducks-Cardinal has taken on a significance outside the Pacific time zone. Two years ago running back LaMichael James went off in a 53-30 Oregon upset, knocking Stanford out of the national title hunt. Last season the Ducks were on a glide pattern to the BCS championship game until Stanford stunned them in overtime 17-14. (So we got Alabama-Notre Dame instead. Thanks, Cardinal!)

Even as the stakes have risen, the animosity between the teams and their fan bases has yet to achieve liftoff. It's been 23 years since the Leland Stanford Junior Marching Band offended Oregonians by poking at a controversy involving the logging industry and the northern spotted owl. (The band's formations that day included a chain saw.) It could be that players and fans have only enough malice to fuel their primary rivalries -- Cal, in the case of the Cardinal; Oregon State for the Ducks. More likely, the students at either school are in fact-finding mode, still learning to loathe one another. Let's take a deep breath and be patient.

Besides, acrimony excepted, this game will have everything. It's Oregon's second-ranked offense, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, against inside linebacker Shayne Skov and Stanford's 25th-ranked D. It's a play-in to the Pac-12 title game, and the latest dramatization of the conference's power shift from Los Angeles. It's a clash of fashions -- the Cardinal's basic red-and-white versus whatever space-age design the Ducks are rocking -- and of philosophies reflected by those unis: Stanford's old-school, smashmouth power game versus Oregon's no-huddle, hurry-up Blur attack. It's also a matchup of former offensive coordinators who succeeded their more extroverted bosses, who are now in the NFL: Oregon's Mark Helfrich, who has made the Quack Attack, if anything, more prestissimo than it was under Chip Kelly, while Stanford's David Shaw continues to grind down foes, Harbaugh-style, with an embarrassment of riches on the offensive line but without Andrew Luck.

The Ducks have won 12 games in each of the past three seasons; the Cardinal, 12, 11 and 12. The Ducks have been to four straight BCS bowls; the Cardinal, three. Both teams' ascent to the college football aristocracy has come (relatively) recently -- spurred largely by a couple of sugar daddies. Call it the Nouveau Riche Bowl. John Arrillaga (net worth: $1.8 billion), who played basketball at Stanford in the 1950s and developed much of the real estate that is now Silicon Valley, has given at least $251 million to his alma mater, where six buildings bear his name. Nike shogun Phil Knight (net worth: $16.3 billion) has kept his name off the architecture in Eugene, but he's been even more generous, bestowing at least $300 million.

Knight may be the main thing these two programs have in common. In 1961 and '62, after running track at Oregon but before founding Nike, Knight went to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, to which he has donated $105 million. He took some great classes and saw some bad football -- though not as dreadful as he remembers. "In my two years at Palo Alto, the team won two games," Knight recounted in an email to SI. (Arrillaga, while less affluent, is more reclusive. An interview request elicited this response from a Stanford spokesman: "No shot.") The Cardinal actually had four victories in '61, five more in '62. It's possible that Knight remains traumatized by Stanford's 0-10 record in 1960 -- the school's last winless season.

The 1960s, of course, was part of the long dawn of SoCal football. The Trojans, the Bruins. The San Gabriel mountains rising behind the Rose Bowl, the iconic arches of the Los Angeles Coliseum. Palo Alto was where you went for a business degree; Eugene to test your rain boots.

*****

At first glance on this sun-splashed Saturday morning in Palo Alto, you might jump to the conclusion that Glenn Witherspoon is another typical chardonnay --sipping Stanford grad, tailgating with his fellow alums a couple of hours before kickoff. And you'd be wrong. That's not a chard in his glass, it's a reserve St. Supéry sauvignon blanc. Other than that, yeah, with his preppy getup and strawberries with crème fraîche, he's pretty much straight out of central casting.

Two hours before the Cardinal's workmanlike 24-10 win over UCLA on Oct. 19, Witherspoon explained the provenance of the two-by-three-foot photograph hanging from the oak tree and casting shade on this party. It was a picture of the scoreboard at the L.A. Coliseum on Oct. 6, 2007: USC 23, STAN 24.

"That game was the turning point for our program," he said. "It was Harbaugh's first year. We were coming off our 1-11 season. Tavita Pritchard threw a touchdown pass" -- to Mark Bradford, on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds to play -- "and I took that picture in the end zone. That's what turned our whole program around."

The modern history of Stanford football resembles an EKG: The occasional spikes -- Jim Plunkett and the Thunderchicken defense taking the Pac-8 title in 1970; Bill Walsh going 9-3 in '77; a conference championship under Ty Willingham in '99 -- were inevitably followed by extended dips. Until recently. The run begun by Harbaugh shows no signs of flatlining. Shaw, the soft-spoken, quietly intense former Cardinal receiver, has won 30 of 35 games since his promotion and takes umbrage when asked if he can sustain Harbaugh's success. The fact is -- and Shaw would never say this -- he already has. He's won more games in 21⁄2 seasons than Harbaugh won in four.

What is it about that question that irks him? "It implies that the success can't possibly be sustained," Shaw says. "It implies that it's just too hard, that you can't keep finding good players who get good grades. But they're out there. And most of them are being groomed for a place like this. They just haven't seen it yet."

Once they visit the Farm (as Stanford's campus is known); once they stroll under its palm trees and feel the kiss of the sun; once they realize that they are among their peers -- gifted young adults with superlative transcripts and killer test scores -- an epiphany often takes place, says Shaw: "They realize, Wow, this is where I fit."

*****

Just get them on the plane. This is something else these programs have in common: the belief that once a student-athlete has made the journey, seen the campus, met the people, the deal will be sealed. It's O.K. that both sides feel this way, since they're not really recruiting from the same pool. It's no slight to the Ducks to point out that few of their players could have gained admission to Stanford. That holds true for nearly every other school in the FBS.

When the subject of weather arises, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens seems eager to change it. "People use [the weather] to negatively recruit," he says, "but this is an awesome college. We have a fantastic and passionate fan base, a wonderful university."

The Ducks have been able to recruit nationally, to triumph over the elements, due in large part to the athletic department's unofficial motto: If You Build It, They Will Come. Looming over Autzen Stadium is the newest and most ostentatious edifice in a long line of gleaming structures expressly designed to induce teenage males to say, Wow!

It is the brand new "HD," Oregon's 145,000-square-foot Hatfield -- Dowlin Football Performance Center, a three-building monument to opulence and overkill, its black-glass façade at once postmodern and sinister -- not unlike the Blur, come to think of it. Not surprisingly, Knight plays down the importance of his philanthropy. "The secret is not the money." Even with his gifts, Knight believes, Oregon has less to work with "than any of the traditional powers. The secret is management."

The metallic helmets, the constantly changing uniforms -- these are beside the point, he believes. The HD, with its weight-room floor made of Brazilian walnut, its barbershop in the locker room, its cryogenic pools through which players wade as they come off the practice field -- all this is a sideshow, an enticement to get highly gifted teenagers from all over the country on a plane to Eugene.

Helfrich, for his part, makes no attempt to downplay the importance of the program's palatial, Nike-subsidized infrastructure. Just as there were untold wonders at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, there's "a lot of cool stuff" to see on a recruiting visit to Oregon. Like Wonka, the Ducks' coaches keep a sharp eye on the visitors taking the tour. Says Helfrich, "We need the guy who's going to take advantage of that cool stuff." They want Charlie Bucket, not Augustus Gloop.

Standing in his corner office on the fifth floor of the six-story HD building, which opened in August and still smells new -- with its undertones of Ferrari leather -- Helfrich points to the southwest: "I was raised about two hours from here, in Coos Bay, home of Steve Prefontaine." Helfrich's parents went to Oregon; his father, Mike, was an offensive lineman. Growing up, Helfrich made frequent pilgrimages to Eugene on football Saturdays. He was in the stands at Autzen in 1982 when Oregon tied Notre Dame 13-13. "Oregon fans were going crazy," he recalls. The Ducks went 2-8-1 that season, but everyone counted the tie as an unofficial victory.

In those days the squad practiced on a single, muddy field across the street from Autzen. They had to get across four lanes of traffic to get to and from practice. "The joke," says Helfrich, " was that depending on whether you'd won or lost, the cars might or might not slow down."

Locked in a Sisyphean battle against the elements, against Pac-10 foes with far bigger budgets, better athletes and superior facilities, the plucky Ducks fought the good fight until coach Rich Brooks had a breakthrough in '89, when his team won eight games, including the Independence Bowl, Oregon's first bowl victory in 26 years.

That was Mike Bellotti's first year as an Oregon assistant. In 1995, his first season as coach, he built off the team's 1994 Rose Bowl appearance and led the Ducks to a 9-2 finish and a slot in the Cotton Bowl, where they were waxed by Colorado. At the postmortem party, he had a fateful conversation with Phil Knight. "He said, 'What do you need to take this to the next level?' " Bellotti recalls.

"An indoor practice facility," replied Bellotti, who'd been deeply frustrated trying to get his team ready for a New Year's Day bowl on a muddy field in December. A year later the school broke ground on the 117,000-square-foot Moshofsky Center. "It made a huge difference," says Bellotti, "both in our preparation and in our ability to recruit skilled athletes who wanted to go to a place where they could practice unimpeded by the weather, year-round."

In 2003 came a new, two-story, Internet-wired locker room -- with ventilated stalls, to keep the place from smelling like a locker room. Opulent to the point of embarrassing then ("Sometimes it seems like a bit much," quarterback Kellen Clemens admitted to SI at the time), it seems spartan compared to the locker room in the HD, with its coded keypads and shower tiles of Carrarra marble, quarried in Tuscany, and, yes, ventilated lockers.

Next came the Athletic Treatment Center and the 37,000-square-foot, $41.7 million Jaqua Academic Center, with its vast atrium, the first-floor café warmed by an open-air gas fireplace, and the etched steel mosaic of Albert Einstein composed of thousands of photos of Ore-gon athletes. Because when the lifeblood of your program is recruiting, when you live and die based on your ability to induce awe in teenagers, subtlety and understatement are not your allies.

*****

Each groundbreaking, each ribbon-cutting, every bright, shiny upgrade generated a fresh round of buzz. As the football team improved, so did Oregon's marketing savvy. In 2001, still euphoric over the first 10-win season in school history, a half-dozen donors forked over the quarter million it cost to put up a 10-story billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington near Times Square. The idea was to create Heisman buzz. But it was also part of Oregon's strategy to build its "brand" outside the Pacific Northwest. Frustrated that no one could see the Ducks back East, the athletic department purchased time on the YES Network, a regional sports network owned by the Yankees.

"We were on at two in the morning," recalls Jim Bartko, an executive senior associate in the athletic department. "No one watched it live, but recruits, or their parents, could tape it." They could see what Oregon was about, where they might fit in. They could get a look at the Ducks' avant-garde outerwear. Starting in 1998, the team had begun a collaboration with Nike. Players would sit down with the company's designers and create uniforms the team would wear the following season.

"We aren't Alabama or Texas or Penn State or USC," Bartko explains. "We didn't have a century of winning tradition, the same uniforms down through the years. We didn't have that. So what was our niche? Our niche was going to be: Let's be innovative. Let's create something new, every year. Let's change. Let's don't have a niche."

This emphasis on creativity and innovation tracked nicely with what was going on in the Ducks' offensive meeting rooms. To help him install a spread offense, Bellotti brought in Gary Crowton after the 2004 season. Soon after he was hired, Crowton said, "Of course!" when asked to share his wisdom with a bright young FCS coach who was in Eugene on a fact-finding mission. At the time, Chip Kelly was offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. When Crowton bailed after two seasons to take the OC gig at LSU, he suggested to Bellotti that he take a look at Kelly.

By 2009 Kelly was the coach. In '10 the Ducks lost by a field goal to Auburn in the BCS title game. True, creativity and innovation helped Oregon triumph over the remoteness of its campus, and the inclement weather that sometimes comes calling, but it also helps to have a billionaire in your corner.

But it bothers Oregon people when you chalk up their success solely to Knight's largesse. They have a point. As Helfrich says, "It's not the uniforms, it's the guys in the uniforms."

It is one guy in particular. No offense to the other Ducks, but Mariota is the straw that stirs Oregon's drink. The 6' 4", 211-pound third-year sophomore is 20-1 as a starter, and has yet to be intercepted in 225 throws this season. As UCLA players walked up the tunnel at Autzen before halftime of Oregon's 42-14 win last Saturday, linebacker Myles Jack turned to Bruins coach Jim Mora and said, "Man, that dude can run. He is fast."

It was Mora who'd made the midweek prediction, after immersing himself in Mariota tape: "He's going to rip it up at the next level. He's ripping it up at this level. He's special."

*****

Their faces etched with dread, the Burghers of Calais stand in Memorial Court, near the entrance to Stanford's Main Quad. Immortalized in bronze by Auguste Rodin, they depict six leaders of that French city surrendering to their British executioners to save the lives of their fellow citizens.

Their faces etched with dread, members of the 2006 Stanford team made the five-minute walk from their locker room in the Arrillaga Center to the stadium, where they would face ninth-ranked USC, looking as happy to be there as the Burghers of Calais. They were beaten before they stepped on the field. That team finished 1-11. It wasn't all coach Walt Harris's fault. Stanford's administration had refused to pay assistant coaches market value. That, coupled with the price of real estate in the Bay Area, forced coaches to live far from campus. "Some of our assistants were commuting an hour, an hour and a half each way," recalls Bob Bowlsby, Stanford's athletic director from '06 to '12, when he became commissioner of the Big 12.

Small wonder five of Harris's assistants bugged out after the 2005 season. The following year Bowlsby persuaded his superiors to open the purse strings and pay assistant coaches market value. Of perhaps greater significance, the university purchased a number of residences -- houses and townhouses -- near campus, with a boost from Arrillaga and other donors. Bowlsby also negotiated for more strength coaches, a better training table and upgraded practice fields-- "a bunch of little stuff," he says, that added up to a lot. But it was the real estate that made the biggest splash with the coaches.

Last Saturday in Corvallis, the Cardinal escaped with a 20-12 win over No. 25 Oregon State. While quarterback Kevin Hogan looked shaky -- completing 8 of 18 passes for just 88 yards -- running back Tyler Gaffney picked up the slack, rushing for 145 yards and three TDs. And the defense was stellar, sacking quarterback Sean Mannion eight times. Afterward, Shaw offered some pointed criticism, saying Saturday's performance in Corvallis "wasn't good enough to beat Oregon or good enough to be in the game against Oregon."

Two nights earlier the coach had stood at the edge of the practice field, gazing north. "Our housing is just on the other side of that field. I think we only have two coaches who drive to work. Two of them have golf carts. Everyone else rides a bike."

Now, most of his assistants "can walk their kids to school before they come in in the morning. They can go home at lunch, go home for dinner. Instead of 'I'll see Daddy on Sunday and Thursday,' kids see them every day. It's been a game-changer."

Even though they must travel to Palo Alto, Oregon will be the favorite. Then again, the Ducks were three-touchdown favorites against Stanford a year ago. That game was the last one played at Autzen before it underwent its latest, tasteful face-lift, the so-called Zen North project, featuring two man-made waterfalls and some 78,000 plantings.

One particularly inspired element of that project is the collection of stakes driven into a belt of soil girdling the northwest corner of the stadium -- one stake for every game played at Autzen. Each stake is painted in the color of the winning team. For a century or so, it's a rainbow. As one arrives at the 2000s, the field of stakes becomes solidly yellow, even more so in the portion representing the Kelly era. Over the past two seasons there's only one lonely non-yellow stake. That one is Cardinal red.

More College Football

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.