University of Oregon football fans used to celebrate Homecoming in Eugene by building towering bonfires and staging chainsaw-screaming "noise parades" that would echo for miles along the Willamette River. That was in the '50s and '60s, when coach Len Casanova was finding ingenious ways for the Ducks to win. In 1958 he led them to their only appearance in the Rose Bowl since 1919. But Homecoming has become tamer since the mid-'60s, when the city banned the bonfires, and 1971, when an ordinance prohibiting noise pollution was passed. True, in recent years Oregon football hasn't provided much incentive for the fans to let 'er rip; the Ducks were 48-95-4 from 1971 through '83. But they're 4-0 in '84 and one of 21 Division I-A teams in the land still unbeaten and untied. They haven't opened with four victories since 1964. And noise ordinance or not, Autzen Stadium reverberated last Saturday as Oregon beat Pacific 30-14, with 19-for-28 passing from sophomore quarterback Chris Miller and two interceptions by strong safety Doug Judge.
But not even the most ardent Oregon fans are talking Rose Bowl. The Ducks' opponents so far—Long Beach State, Colorado, California and Pacific—have a combined record of 3-13, and only the Pacific game was easy. Oregon was out-gained by each of its other opponents, and outscored Long Beach and Colorado 31-8 in the fourth quarter in come-from-behind wins. And next come Arizona, USC, Washington, Washington State, UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State. A 6-5 season, everyone admits privately, would be just fine.
"Our fans would like us to win, but more than anything they don't want to be embarrassed," says coach Rich Brooks, who has endured at Oregon for eight seasons—he has a 28-49-4 record—by rarely getting blown out, never losing to Oregon State and never promising more than his team could deliver.
After a playing career under Tommy Prothro at Oregon State in which he came in on defense for Terry Baker and was his backup at quarterback, Brooks, now 43, coached at his alma mater and UCLA in the Pac-8 and for the Rams and 49ers in the NFL before going to Oregon.
Although he emphasizes fundamentals and defense, Brooks is not averse to a little razzle-dazzle. Since 1971, his kicking teams, pro and college, have gotten a first down on fake punts 38 out of 40 times. He usually installs at least one gimmick play a week "to make it fun for the players and to make us harder to prepare for."
This squad is young and undermanned, with only 12 returning seniors, none indispensable. Before the season, Brooks decided not to set a numerical goal. "I found that could get discouraging," he said, reflecting on the 2-9 and 2-8-1 seasons he had in 1981 and '82. "This way, we don't really know how good we can be."
He knows all too well how bad they can be. The only offensive conference records Oregon players even share are those for most passes intercepted—game: George Shaw, 6; season: Dan Fouts, 24. Chances are that molding a winning team will always be an uphill struggle because the state's population base is small, the athletic program doesn't receive state aid and the advanced recession in the region's lumber industry has kept gate receipts down. Recruiting and fund-raising were hampered by a phony-transcript scandal that broke in 1980 and resulted in a two-year probation that also cut off needed television revenues. Autzen Stadium, completed in 1967 to replace Hayward Field—now used for track and field—has been filled to its 41,009 capacity only seven times.
While they still lack depth, the Ducks have talent at the skill positions this year. Miller, a 6'2", 191-pounder who was a three-sport hero at Sheldon High in Eugene, has a quick arm, quicker feet and an ability to stay just beyond the rush until he can pick out a man. Miller was a redshirt last year until Brooks, desperate for someone to move the team, put him in against UCLA in the ninth game. Miller responded with a touchdown pass in a losing effort and directed the Ducks to a 16-7 win over Stanford the next week. He won the starting assignment when he came in for Mike Jorgensen in this season's opening game against Long Beach with the Ducks trailing 17-7 in the third quarter. Miller completed 12 of 17 passes for 129 yards in a 28-17 victory. He has yet to throw an interception and has a .609 completion average and four touchdowns.
"Boy, I was nervous, man," Miller says of his abrupt promotion to starter. But he has emerged as a leader. "There is an attitude change on the team because of Miller's performance," says Brooks. "Before, when we got behind, it was like we were locked in jail and someone had thrown away the key."
Of Miller's emergence as a starter, Jorgensen, a senior, says, "The more I want my job back, the better Chris is going to get." Jorgensen, of Ontario, Ore., is at once an overachiever and a prankster whose practical joking once got him taped to a goal post and covered with molasses and feathers. Says flanker and offensive captain Lew Barnes, perhaps more revealingly than intended, "Jorgie has everything you want in a quarterback—leadership and all the guts. He's just missing the ability."
Size—certainly not ability—is about all Barnes is missing. He's 5'9", 164 pounds, and he can run the 40 in a 4.4 clip. Coming off a season of 30 catches, with an average of 20.8 yards per reception, he's Oregon's best All-America candidate and the most exciting. "He's the most talented receiver I've ever been around at college level," says Brooks. "If we don't do everything we can to get the ball in his hands, we're stupid." Against Pacific, the Ducks' first play was a double reverse to Barnes that went for 24 yards.
If Barnes was a known quantity, Dean Otto, a 22-year-old former rugby player from South Africa who came to Eugene in May for an extended visit with a cousin, is pure serendipity. Otto had never even seen a football game when he showed up at Oregon's practice field in late August after being encouraged by some players who'd seen him practicing rugby kicks back in June. Brooks, desperate for a kickoff man who could get the ball into the end zone with some height on the kick, gave him a look-see three days before the Long Beach opener.
"Wednesday before the first match, I decided to have a go," is the way Otto puts it. "They were pretty keen to have me, actually." In the Long Beach game, three of his five kickoffs landed in the end zone. Brooks promptly gave him a four-year scholarship.
Eugene has always been keen on the Ducks and if the team stays hot, who could blame a Eugenian for revving up the old chainsaw? In the privacy of his home, of course.