Around Eugene these days University of Oregon fans are being advised that love of their Ducks is best evidenced by outbreaks of Quack Attacks. An incredibly wonderful and wacky TV and radio promotion campaign that's aimed at increasing ticket sales—tickets, naturally, can be put "on your bill"—says that Quack Attacks constitute a "strange new mallardy." And the cause of this sudden epidemic of interest in Oregon football is indeed linked to a weird malady: The vaunted Pac-10 has fallen on such ill times that a few weeks back the Ducks were at the top of the conference standings. Oregon's lofty station inspired visions of spending New Year's in Pasadena for the first time in 26 years. Duck fever has proved so virulent that at each of the Ducks' two most recent home games 10,000 quackers (cost: 15¢ each) were given out to Duck fans to blow. As a result, a disconcertingly joyous, quacking din has been heard from Autzen Stadium on Saturday afternoons.
Of course it's silly, and of course it's fun for the Ducks, who have had precious little to quack about in recent years. But, above all, something as dizzy as this promotion is perfect for the Pac-10, which has gone absolutely qwazy this year. In 1982, the league had an out-of-conference record of 26-10-1 (.716); three of its teams were among the top seven in the final wire-service polls, with UCLA fifth, Arizona State sixth and Washington seventh; each of those won its bowl game: Rose, Fiesta and Aloha, respectively; and an extraordinary 55 of the conference's players were drafted by the NFL. All of which made the Pac-10—no argument—the best major conference in the land. This year, it is—no argument, please—the worst.
The Pac-10's record against non-conference opponents stands at a modest 14-18-1 (.439). On the other hand, the non-conference mark of the Southeastern Conference is 30-13-3 (.685), the Big Eight 20-12-1 (.621), the Big Ten 12-8 (.600) and the Southwest 14-12-1 (.537). Washington (No. 19) is the sole Pac-10 representative in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Top 20. USC Assistant Coach Foster Andersen says of the league, "In truth, we're not what we have been in total quality. You watch the pro draft this year. There won't be a whole lot of players from the West Coast taken."
However, UCLA Coach Terry Donahue disputes the contention that the league has quacked up. "Last year our success was almost ridiculous," he says. "But you can line up five teams in this conference that are real good and they can play with any five teams from any conference."
Sure you can, and the Pac-10 will lose four of them, maybe all five. Consider that the triumvirate that is the traditional heart and soul of the league—USC, UCLA and Stanford—has amassed a record against non-conference opponents of 0-9-1. Southern Cal has fallen on such hard times that it's widely rumored that the Trojans have dropped football but haven't told anybody. On Saturday USC's record fell to 4-5-1 after it lost to Washington, 24-0, the first time the Trojans have been shut out in 187 games. Says USC's first-year head coach, Ted Tollner, "We have some outstanding products at USC, but they're all in the National Football League." And John El way-less Stanford is 1-9, but that mark is misleading; the Cardinal isn't that good. After Stanford lost on Oct. 9 to Oregon State, which hadn't won a conference game since 1979, someone asked beleaguered Cardinal Coach Paul Wiggin what he had learned from the films. Growled Wiggin, "We burned them." Last week, Stanford burned Wiggin, by firing him, effective at the end of the season. UCLA, with a record of 5-4-1, beat Washington, which probably has the best team in the Pac-10, but the Bruins did nothing more than throw mild scares into Nebraska and Georgia earlier this year.
Conference Commissioner Tom Hansen says, "We haven't been embarrassed." That would seem to indicate a tolerance for embarrassment on about the Rodney Dangerfield level. To wit:
Was it not embarrassing when Washington—seemingly the one bastion of ability and stability in the league after a sturdy win over then No. 1 ranked Michigan—rolled into Baton Rouge and was demolished 40-14 by an LSU team that has yet to win its first SEC game?
Was it not embarrassing when Southern Cal went to Columbia, S.C. for a little hit-and-giggle contest with the unremarkable South Carolina Gamecocks, and got blitzed 38-14?
Was it not embarrassing when Oregon lost its opener to Pacific, a hell of an ocean but an unknown football team, 21-15?
And within the conference, was it not embarrassing when Oregon State's defense ended up with too many men on the field—to be exact, 15 in all—and Arizona's Tom Tunnicliffe still completed an 11-yard pass?
As futile as the Pac-10 has been outside the conference, the wonder is that all the games inside the conference don't end in ties. Some do, of course. Arizona, with the talent to be a national championship contender, got itself knotted up 33-33 by Cal. Two weeks later, the Wildcats got beaten by—get your quackers ready—Oregon, 19-10. In Tucson.
On Nov. 5, Arizona State, a team then 4-2-1 and in the thick of the fight to get to the Rose Bowl, played Cal, which traditionally is in the thick of the fight not to humiliate itself. Cal won 26-24. On and on it goes.
Whatever, it has all been so qwazy that when Oregon whipped Cal and Arizona on successive Saturdays and shared the league lead—briefly—with a 2-0 record. T shirts were printed up on which the O in Oregon was filled with a rose. But even after beating Stanford 16-7 on Saturday, the Ducks are 3-3 in the conference and obviously will do their bowling only at the Emerald Lanes on Oakway Road.
There are other measures that show how far the Pac-10 has nose-dived. NCAA Director of Statistics Jim Van Valkenburg says. "The Pac-10 is having a big passing year. That tells me they're not doing very well. You pass to catch up." The fact that the Pac-10 leads the nation in average passing yardage per team per game (216.1 yards) is bad news. Within the conference, Cal (2-4-1) is first in passing offense (279.6 yards a game).
But why did the Pac-10 tumble so far so fast?
The central reason is the loss of 128 seniors who started the last game of 1982: indeed, of the 28 players chosen to the all-conference team last year, 22 were seniors. In comparison, only 88 seniors started for the Pac-10 teams last Saturday. Especially devastated were Arizona State, which had 13 senior starters last year and now has only four, and USC, with 17 last year and eight this. The stars of last season's graduating group made up a whopping 25% of the first three rounds of the NFL draft. And the 38 draftees from USC, Washington, UCLA and Arizona State were more than the total from any other entire conference.
Besides the loss of so many outstanding players, USC also is fighting the double whammy of probation for a ticket-scalping scheme involving some players and an assistant coach—the Trojans are ineligible for the conference title and any bowl this year, and cannot appear on television until the 1984 postseason—and the arrival of a new coach. Arizona, also on probation, has crumbled despite lofty preseason dreams—SI picked the Wildcats third—and further deterioration may set in. No matter what coaches say, probation is almost always an imposing opponent. It makes recruiting tougher and cuts down incentives for players already on hand.
Another of the Pac-10's shortcomings is that while seven teams have their top '82 quarterbacks back, only Washington's Steve Pelluer and Cal's Gale Gilbert have performed up to expectations. Especially disappointing has been Sean Salisbury at USC; he is fifth in the conference in passing efficiency. At UCLA, Donahue benched his starter, Rick Neuheisel, on Oct. 1, in favor of junior Steve Bono. But after Bono separated his right shoulder, Neuheisel was born again. He responded by leading the Bruins on a string of five consecutive victories, which ended with a 27-24 loss to Arizona on Saturday. Both Oregon quarterbacks, Mike Owens and Mike Jorgensen, fought injuries all season, and two weeks ago Jorgensen broke a bone in his right leg.
Coach Jim Walden, who gets high marks for bringing respectability to Washington State, which other members of the Pac-10 seem to think is located somewhere in Idaho or Montana, believes the quality of the West Coast athlete—whence the Pac-10 recruits almost exclusively—is off and has been for several years. Further, he notes, "You had the Arizona schools coming into the league [in 1978], and they showed no particular respect for the hierarchy." Walden, who also has demonstrated a distinct disregard for the old order, says that when a team loses, "it loses a little bit in mystique. You let me beat you once, and my guys will know that they can do it. Then they'll think they can do it again. That's called confidence."
Further, the Pac-10 does labor under a league rule that allows each school only 90 scholarships versus the 95 allowed by the NCAA. Pac-10 coaches scream that this limitation puts them at a competitive disadvantage, and they're right; the university presidents say live with it and save the money, and they're right. But more important in the long run, this means that each year the Pac-10 loses a total of 50 players to the competition.
When USC was upset 26-20 by Kansas in September, the Jayhawks' star was Quarterback Frank Seurer from Huntington Beach, Calif. At Illinois, five starters were pulled out of the California talent pool. Speaking of recruitment of Californians by non-Pac-10 schools, Neuheisel says, "Too many people have found the fountain." Southern Cal Linebacker Jack Del Rio thinks his conference is losing an increasing number of players who would rather play right away at smaller schools, particularly the ones in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, than spend two or more years in the Pac-10 waiting their turn.
And, with the notable exception of Washington and perhaps UCLA, conference schools generally have not depended on redshirting and/or the use of walk-ons to build depth. Some, like USC and Stanford, are too expensive—tuition plus room and board at those schools runs to nearly $13,000 per year—for many walk-on players to be able to pay their own way. Some, especially Cal and Stanford, are too academically rigorous to encourage walk-ons. And the rest, especially the Oregon schools and Washington State, are so short of depth that redshirting is not a very important factor.
Yet, for all these woes, nobody believes that these hard times for the Pac-10 will last. Southern Cal's Andersen says, "It's only down for this year. Next year, it'll be right back up there." He's probably right. Take Arizona State. The Sun Devils, who have been troubled by an inexperienced defense this year, will have 21 of their top 22 defensive players back in 1984. Among the players expected to return the Pac-10 to the heights are quarterbacks Gilbert and Stanford's hotshot freshman, John Paye. Then there are Washington Running Back Jacque Robinson, tailbacks Darryl Clack of Arizona State and Vance Johnson of Arizona. Likely as not, 1983 will seem only a dim memory, an aberration, and 1984 will be a year to go qwazy over. Probably.