It's not cool, you Californians. Sorry, you Washingtonians.
There's no new material to warrant a revival of University of
Oregon football jokes. In fact, the only prudent one-liner is
this: If it looks like a Duck and it walks like a Duck, then it is
probably a Pac-10 contender again.
Those reports you've heard from Eugene are true: The notoriously
mediocre Oregon Ducks, who went to the Rose Bowl last season for
the first time in 37 years, have indeed lost their coach, their
four-year starter at quarterback and three fourths of their
kamikaze secondary. But coming off Saturday's spring practice
game, the defending Pac-10 champion Ducks, the 11th-ranked team in
the country last season, appear to be anything but one-year
wonders. Something serious, something meant to last, is under
construction in that former nowhere zone between California and
Washington, the two traditional Pac-10 power states.
Gone is the Rodney Dangerfield mind-set from the Oregon athletic
department, now housed in a facility that ranks with any jock
palace in the nation. Says Mike Bellotti, Oregon's former
offensive coordinator who replaced Rich Brooks, now of the St.
Louis Rams, as coach in February, ``The players' perception is
that we can and should challenge for the Pac-10 championship
again. Going back to the Rose Bowl is a very attainable goal for
our team. There is no reason why we should not compete for the
conference championship for the next couple of years.''
Yes, things are looking up. Oregon is halfway home in a $150
million fund- raising drive, begun last September, even though the
state has only 2.8 million people. One reason for the quick
success: the energy that football's rise brought to this
intellectually serious campus. At this time last year the school
seemed populated by 16,600 Rip Van Zappas, who woke up 20 years
later with residual hippie indifference toward football.
Some of that hippie mentality--though not the indifference--has
filtered down to the team, most notably in junior tight end Josh
Wilcox, the free spirit of the Oregon offense. Wilcox has
emerged as the Ducks' leader since catching 11 passes for 135
yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, even while suffering two
On Wilcox's massive left biceps rests an ominous symbol for
rivals up and down the West Coast: a tattoo, with the
circumference of a grapefruit, of a skull bearing a rose in its
teeth. In fact, the tattooed guys from the Rose Bowl team--all
10 of them, along with their attitudes--are coming back. The
blood-red rose on senior inside linebacker Jeremy Asher's right
ankle is more elegant, and more typical of the Ducks' tattoos,
than Wilcox's. But all the tattoos are statements, reminders
that Oregon means business when it comes to football.
``There is,'' says Bellotti, ``a dogged commitment to get back to
the Rose Bowl, and to do it right the next time.''
The last time the Ducks went to Pasadena, just four months ago,
they received their unlikely invitation after a 9-3 season. For
three quarters they stayed with undefeated and second-ranked Penn
State before falling 38-20. The bitter defeat, Wilcox says, ``was
like waiting in line for concert tickets and then having them
close the door right in front of your face.''
Says Oregon senior cornerback Alex Molden, ``I would like to have
another shot at Penn State.'' Tall talk. But, he adds, ``there's a
difference between cocky and confident.''
There are good reasons for the Ducks' confidence. Junior
quarterback Tony Graziani, who replaces Danny O'Neil, isn't
completely new as a starter--he led Oregon to its 22-7 upset of
Southern Cal last season--and, according to new offensive
coordinator Alan Borges, could actually turn out to be better
than his predecessor. True, the 6'2", 188-pound Graziani had
some spotty performances as a substitute, and he admits he
loathed the backup role, but Bellotti says that last year,
``when Tony was the guy, he stepped up his level of play.''
Graziani played like ``the guy'' during Saturday's game at rainy
Autzen Stadium, completing 15 of 24 passes for 172 yards and a
touchdown. It certainly helps that all of Oregon's
wideouts--senior Cristin McLemore, junior Dameron Ricketts,
sophomores Damon Griffin and Pat Johnson--are back. Also
returning to the offense is senior tailback Ricky Whittle, who
was All-Pac-10 and gained 1,031 all-purpose yards last year.
On the other side of the ball, the defense looks just as
promising, despite losing safeties Chad Cota and Jeff Sherman and
cornerback Herman O'Berry to graduation. Molden, an All-America
candidate, and sophomore Kenny Wheaton, the other cornerback,
should keep the defensive backfield solid. Just how good could
Molden be? Says new defensive coordinator Charlie Waters, who saw
a thing or two as a safety for the Dallas Cowboys from 1970 to '82
and as the defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos in '93 and
'94, ``Let me put it this way. I would have liked to have had him
in the NFL last year, O.K.?''
One Duck weakness is likely to be a lack of depth. In Saturday's
game the starters thrashed the backups 41-6, leaving the Oregon
coaching staff wondering what would happen to the Ducks if they
were hit by a rash of injuries. Depth, however, may not be such a
problem in the future because Oregon's recruiting efforts have
gotten a huge boost from the visibility that has come with the
Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl appearance.
``In the past, I had to really work at getting kids to visit,''
says assistant head coach Neal Zoumboukos, who has been at Oregon
for 15 years, ``but if we go to another New Year's Day bowl and
finish in the top 15 once again, I think it could have kids
saying, `Gee, I want to go to Oregon.' ''
Joe Schaffeld, who played on the Ducks' 1958 Rose Bowl team and
who has been an assistant coach at Oregon for the last 21 years,
says negative recruiting from rival coaches has hurt the Ducks in
the past. ``They'd tell the kids, `Oregon? Who are they trying to
kid? They're never going to a bowl.' Well, we don't have that
Says Bellotti, ``We've been to four bowl games in six years,
capped off by the Rose Bowl. I don't think winning is a part-time
thing here anymore.''
``It's gonna be really weird in that first conference game,'' adds
Wilcox. ``We play at UCLA. And they're not the defending Pac-10
champions, we are.''