At long last they can party with the people who created their defiantly ludicrous mascot. The Oregon Ducks are going to Disneyland.
The world's most famous theme park will be on the Rose Bowl-week agenda of college football's least likely 1994 conference champion. Oregon's first Rose Bowl bid in 37 years wasn't assured until the penultimate play of last Saturday's rainy Civil War, as the Ducks' annual battle with Oregon State is known, when a last-gasp pass by Beaver quarterback Don Shanklin splashed down, incomplete. The Ducks took over on downs, ran out the clock and then scattered, ecstatic, to the four corners of Parker Stadium, Oregon State's home field in Corvallis. Sprinting along the edge of the bleachers, tailback Kevin Parker bellowed at the crowd, which had trouble understanding him because of the long-stemmed rose clinched in his teeth. On the field, wide receiver Cristin McLemore used his one unmangled hand, the right, to shake a yellow rose in a reporter's face as he shouted, "We're going to Pasadena, and nobody can tell us we don't deserve it!"
Chill out, Cris. No one said the Ducks haven't earned the right to have their gizzards eaten by Penn State on Jan. 2. The new Pac-10 champs came into the season with average talent and an underachieving quarterback, Danny O'Neil, whose unpopularity among Oregon supporters was exceeded only by that of his coach, Rich Brooks. For the first month of the season Duck fans were baying for Brooks's head. Now he's a finalist in everyone's Coach of the Year contest.
O'Neil, a senior from Newport Beach, Calif., was booed by Oregon fans as the Ducks lost two of their first three games this season, at which point he was 0-16 in games in which Oregon trailed at half-time. O'Neil's circle of friends began expanding a few weeks later, on Oct. 22, when he drove the Ducks 98 yards late in the fourth quarter for the game-winning touchdown against Washington. In the fourth quarter a week later, against Arizona—in a matchup of SI's preseason No. 1 and No. 74 teams—he hit tight end Josh Wilcox with a game-winning, 15-yard TD pass. Successive routs of Arizona State and Stanford, in which O'Neil threw for nine touchdowns, left Oregon on the brink of winning the conference. All it had to do was beat Oregon State.
November 28, 1994
But the Ducks had lost two of the last three Civil Wars. Although lacking the jihadlike passions of the Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl, the little rivalry in Oregon is nonetheless a testy one, at the core of which lie genuine differences in lifestyles and philosophies. Bob Baum, Oregon class of '73, who now writes for the Associated Press, says, "When I was at Eugene, there were antiwar protests pretty much every day. We knew the war was getting really unpopular when they finally had a protest in Corvallis."
On Thursday afternoon David Thorn, managing editor of the student-run Oregon Daily Emerald, paced the paper's offices as he composed the Top 10 reasons that Oregon is better than Oregon State. The Emerald had just seen The Barometer's, list of its Top 10 reasons that Oregon State is the better place, including "Protesting is not a college sport" and "The only acid we drop is in chem class."
Among the ripostes Thorn and his staff sent zinging back were "Nothing cool rhymes with Beaver," "The main topic of debate on our campus isn't 'Ford vs. Chevy' " and "Alice in Chains would never play in Corvallis."
The Beavers raised the stakes on Friday, covertly distributing in Eugene the Emeroid, The Barometer's annual lampoon of the Emerald, featuring a photo of the "varsity Hacky Sack team" and a sophomorically suggestive story on the Duck football team headlined GANG GREEN SHARES THE SECRET OF SUCCESS: PLAYER BONDING. The Emerald exacted revenge by running a catalog of Beaver jokes, including the one about Oregon State's being the only school offering a dual major in biology and agriculture "so its students can graduate knowing their asses from a hole in the ground."
"They criticize us for protesting," says Thorn, "but a lot of people here think protesting is an important part of living in a democracy." Indeed, Oregon students proudly point out that Mother Jones magazine recently recognized theirs as the nation's top activist campus and claim that no school in the nation registered a higher percentage of its students to vote than the 39.2% signed up by the Oregon student government for the Nov. 8 elections.
This preoccupation with political causes also helps explain why Oregon students are fair-weather football fans. Says Duck offensive tackle Steve Hardin, "Too many hippies." While the Grateful Dead sold out a Saturday show at 41,678-seat Autzen Stadium last summer, Oregon's game against Iowa on Sept. 24 drew only 29,287. But once the Ducks started stringing wins together, the students started coming to games. "You could call us fair-weather fans," said student body vice president Mark Rhinard last week. "I prefer to call it subdued enthusiasm."
And despite the exchange of barbs in print, the enthusiasm remained subdued on the Oregon campus last week, even in the face of the biggest football game in nearly four decades, but this time the restraint may have had less to do with apathy than it did with uncertainty. O'Neil's theory was that "the students have never experienced this kind of success. People aren't sure what to do."
That much was apparent at Friday's blink-and-you-missed-it pep rally in a student bookstore. A dozen band members, four cheerleaders and the Duck mascot took a lap around the store before stopping at the magazine rack, where the unholy racket drove away several disgusted browsers. Fourteen minutes after the music had started, it stopped. The band filed out. People had classes, it was explained by a drummer.
More seasoned Duck fans were simply too scared to celebrate. "I've lived in this state 20 years," said Thorn. "This team has broken my heart before." In his paper's offices Thorn posted a memo that decried the premature bandying about of "the R word." If you must speak of it, said the memo, "say only 'postseason action' or 'the bowl that shall remain nameless.' "
There were other things to deal with, anyway. Among Friday night's cultural offerings around Eugene were a production of the Seven Keys to Baldpate at the Very Little Theater, concerts by the Oregon String Quartet at Beall Hall and Skankin' Pickle at WOW Hall, and a Civil War bonfire in a parking lot outside Autzen Stadium.
It was a bonfire with a Eugene flavor. Because of strict city ordinances, bonfires are forbidden. Barbecues, however, are quite all right, so an hour before the conflagration, a fire marshal told Rhinard, "Look, I'm on your side here. But you've got to make it look like a barbecue." Rhinard forthwith dispatched several underclassmen to a grocery store for weenies and marshmallows.
The barbecue was a huge success, at least by Oregon standards. Forgetting himself, Rhinard seized the microphone and announced to a delighted crowd of more than 300, "This is the school's first bonfire since 1962!"
Said a 40-ish man at the edge of the pyre, "It is not, however, the school's first fire since then." The speaker was Jim Noel, class of '74, who pointed out that during the Vietnam war, Oregon's ROTC building had been torched.
A day before the celebratory bonfire, Noel, a lawyer for ESPN and still a devoted Duck fan, had been en route to Australia from Connecticut with his wife and three children for a vacation that had been a year in the planning. But when the Noels got to San Francisco, he told his family, "See you in a couple of days," and got on a plane for Oregon. "When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup last spring, someone held up a sign that said, NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE," Noel said. "That's how I'll feel if we win tomorrow."
It was certainly no lock. The Beavers, with a wishbone offense that is the bane of every defensive coordinator in the Pac-10, came into the Civil War flush with confidence after dominating Washington State 21-3 the week before. Oregon had had just two touchdowns against Oregon State in the last four years.
The Ducks eked out two more on Saturday. Both were pass receptions by tailback Dino Philyaw, the second of which had been set up by wideout McLemore, whose adventure-filled second half also included a guided tour of the Beavers' campus and a taste of the ill manners that attend the Civil War.
With his left hand ballooning after it was crushed by tailback Ricky Whittle's helmet in the third quarter, McLemore was taken by golf cart to the Oregon State infirmary for X-rays. "It took a good 10 minutes, and then they couldn't find an X-ray technician," said McLemore, who was jeered during the journey. "Their students were saying stuff like, 'There goes that great receiver. He's not so great—he's sorry. You suck, McLemore.' I was thinking, like, You guys are mean."
McLemore returned to action after his delayed X-rays came up negative. Trailing 13-10, the Ducks took over on their own 30-yard line with 4:42 to go. On first down O'Neil called a play-action pass designed for McLemore, who trapped the ball against his chest—sparing his bad hand—for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later O'Neil uncorked his prettiest pass of the day, a 21-yarder to McLemore on the left sideline. Two plays after that, with the defense overly conscious of McLemore, O'Neil lofted a screen pass to Philyaw, who bolted 19 yards for the winning score.
On its final possession Oregon State drove from its 15 to Oregon's 21—converting a fourth-and-one in the process—before losing the ball on downs. While most Ducks grabbed roses, several seized Brooks and bore him across the field. Brooks looked sheepish about the whole business and relieved when his players put him down. "One week you've got rope burns on your neck," he said, "the next you're somebody's hero."
O'Neil, the other Duck whose public-approval rating soared over the course of the season, was being interviewed by ABC and ESPN. And over in the north end zone, with his right hand clamped to his forehead as if he were in shock, stood a balding, middle-aged man. It was O'Neil's father, Dan, and he was a basket case. The O'Neils' house is 45 miles from the Rose Bowl. The game was five weeks off, but it wasn't too early to make plans. "We'll take the 405 right up to 5, then the 57 up to the 210," said Dan. His hand never left his forehead as he spoke in an unsteady voice for a generation of Duck fans: "We won, and we're going to the Rose Bowl. I was there. I saw it."