Heisman hype used to be so simple. Back in the last century (say,
1997), if you were an underexposed school in the Pacific
Northwest (say, Washington State), you would just grab some
leaves, stuff them into envelopes, and then mail them to a few
hundred writers who vote for the award. Presto, Ryan Leaf for the
These days, a Heisman campaign requires far more than a little
ingenuity. Take Oregon. In June, still glowing from their first
10-win season, the national title contenders from Eugene began
promoting the candidacy of senior quarterback Joey Harrington by
commissioning a billboard. Not just any billboard, but a
10-story, leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound billboard. In New
York City. Right across from Madison Square Garden.
The Joey Heisman billboard cost Ducks boosters $250,000 and sent
the national title contenders at Oregon State, 37 miles north in
Corvallis, into a tizzy. After all, the Beavers, still glowing
from their first 11-win season, have an even stronger Heisman
candidate, senior tailback Ken Simonton, a Barry Sanders-style
slasher who could become the first player in Pac-10 history to
rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons. Those nouveaux riches Ducks
couldn't one-up them now, Beavers alumni roared. Six public
relations firms were invited to design Simonton-for-Heisman
campaigns, and the proposal that won included a dynamite hook: a
12-inch-tall action figure, Li'l Ken, with removable helmet and
pads, and a li'l Heisman Trophy that Ken could hold in his li'l
One problem: Li'l Ken was cute, and the Beavers don't do cute.
The p.r. firm was hired, but with a caveat: Lose Li'l Ken. "We
won't go the route of an advertising campaign," says Oregon State
athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "We're not some corporate giant
that can throw dollars at problems. Oregon has the Madison Avenue
look, and we're the ol' junkyard dog."
About the only thing these two schools have in common is their
sudden and unlikely national prominence. Last season, in the
Pac-10's most topsy-turvy year in decades, the Beavers and the
Ducks shared the league title with Washington. In two seasons
Beavers coach Dennis Erickson has gone 7-5 and then 11-1 at a
school that hadn't had a winning record in 28 years, while Oregon
has won more games (49) than any other team in the Pac-10 since
coach Mike Bellotti took over six years ago. Both schools' season
ticket packages are sold out, and both coaches have turned down
entreaties from some of the nation's most storied programs. (USC
wooed Erickson in December 2000, and Ohio State courted Bellotti
at about the same time.) This season's Oregon-Oregon State
showdown is so tantalizing that ABC has moved it back two weeks,
to Dec. 1, Championship Saturday, to be shown nationally between
the Big East and Big 12 title games.
It's the most fascinating rivalry in college football, 2001
edition, and in the drought-stricken Willamette Valley, venom is
more plentiful than water these days. From the Beavers'
standpoint, Oregon is a Grateful Dead-listening, granola-munching
hippie school with a high-gloss football team bankrolled by Nike
co-founder (and Ducks alum) Phil Knight. The Ducks regard Oregon
State as a redneck school with a suddenly potent football team
run by a renegade coach who gives free reign to renegade players,
particularly junior college mercenaries.
The Ducks and the Beavers: They sound as if they'd be so playful
and Disneyfied--but then the players open their mouths. "We're a
classier team. Oregon State is more the clowning type," says
Oregon cornerback Rashad Bauman, pointing to Oregon State's 41-9
Fiesta Bowl win last season over Notre Dame, in which the Beavers
racked up 18 penalties, five of them for personal fouls or
taunting. "We don't need to showboat and get out of hand for our
crowd to get into the game. We carry ourselves in a different
The Beavers' response? "People always want to put the rap on
Coach E, that he's always getting thugs," says Simonton. "But you
know what he does? He gets dudes who want to win--at all costs. I
had those J.C. transfers runnin' up mountains last summer. You
can take your prissy little four-year college boys with trust
funds, and I'll take these J.C. dudes who are hungry to win, and
we're gonna go bust their heads."
Is it any wonder they call this rivalry the Civil War?
The top three reasons that Beavers are better than Ducks:
1. Beavers worry about time of possession. Ducks worry about time
2. Beavers know being called "The University of California at
Eugene" isn't a compliment.
3. Beavers grow their crops outdoors.
How did the state of Oregon, home of loggers and joggers,
displace Southern California as the epicenter of Pac-10 football?
For starters, both Oregon and Oregon State credit the NCAA's 1994
mandate limiting schools to 85 scholarships, preventing USC and
UCLA from stockpiling all the top Western talent. Nowadays, the
rest of the Pac-10 recruiters descend on the Golden State like
invading armies. "There are 3.4 million people in Oregon," says
Bellotti, "but there are three million people within a stone's
throw of the L.A. Coliseum." So the Beavers' and the Ducks'
rosters will boast nearly twice as many Californians as
Oregonians this fall. For the most part, though, Oregon and
Oregon State have taken different paths to success. To wit:
Oregon State's "Quick Fix" The best way to change Oregon State's
losing mentality, Simonton says, was simple. "It's just like any
business," he says. "You get rid of a lot of people. When we got
here as freshmen, most of the seniors were used to losing. Me and
[strong safety] Calvin Carlyle tried to organize Saturday
conditioning one time, and nobody showed up. So that spring
Calvin was walking around here like, 'I'm glad some of you
seniors are leaving.'"
When former Beavers coach Mike Riley left after a 5-6 season in
'98 to coach the San Diego Chargers, Oregon State hired Erickson,
who had just been fired after four mediocre years with the
Seattle Seahawks. Although he'd won two national titles during a
six-year stint with the Miami Hurricanes, Erickson, who is a
native of Everett, Wash., has always felt more comfortable
coaching in small Western college towns--places like Moscow,
Idaho, and Laramie, Wyo. He walked into his first players meeting
in Corvallis wearing the two national championship rings from his
Miami days and announced that his goal was to win the Pac-10.
"Our staff has been in the NFL," says Erickson, "and we've been
successful wherever we've been at the college level." He
installed his user-friendly spread offense, maximizing the
talents of Simonton (SI, Nov. 13, 2000) and quarterback Jonathan
Smith, and he beat the recruiting bushes, signing 16 juco
transfers during his first year.
"Quick fix" is a verboten term in Corvallis, especially after
ABC's Sean McDonough ripped the Beavers during the Fiesta Bowl
broadcast for signing so many juco transfers since Erickson's
arrival. "ABC didn't know what they were talking about," says
Erickson, and his boss Barnhart remains fiercely unrepentant.
"We're not gonna back down from recruiting junior college
athletes," says Barnhart. Whatever you may think of them,
Erickson's Beavers compete with a swagger reminiscent of their
coach's old Miami teams. "He lets us play with emotion, and the
guys have thrived on that," says Smith. "He has a leash on us,
but he doesn't tug it too tight unless we go way out-of-bounds."
Oregon's Building Boom Though the Ducks reached the 1995 Rose
Bowl under former coach Rich Brooks, their road to the elite
regions they inhabit today began in earnest with a January 1996
exchange between Bellotti and Knight soon after Colorado had
hammered Oregon 38-6 in the Cotton Bowl. "He said, 'What do we
need to be really good, to take that next step?'" says Bellotti.
"I said, 'We need an indoor practice facility. It would be the
first of its kind in the Western U.S., and it would also help for
bowl games and off-season practices.'"
The $15 million athletic center was completed in 1998, providing
what Bellotti calls "the wow factor" for their recruiting. "When
we didn't have the indoor facility, it was used against us," says
Ducks athletic director Bill Moos. "'Why would you come to Oregon
when you can't work on your game year-round?'"
Oregon's sugar daddy has been Knight, whose $20 million in
donations to the athletic program (and an additional $30 million
to the university) since 1995 rank him among the most generous
boosters in college sports. It has been a problematic
relationship, though, ever since April 2000, when the school
expressed support for the Worker Rights Consortium, an
organization that has been critical of Nike's labor practices
overseas. Knight stopped attending football games and announced
he would no longer donate money to the university. The school has
since backed away from the WRC; while Knight's wallet remains
closed, he resumed attending football games late last season.
Not all the building in Eugene involves facilities. Bellotti has
been hard at work building the Ducks to his own specifications. A
wide receiver during his college days at UC Davis (and an
offensive coordinator under Brooks at Oregon), he's the kind of
gridiron wonk who gets animated talking about bubble screens, fly
sweeps and double wings. "The key is to have your kids be fast,"
he says, "whether it's learning a scheme or playing." Still, he
knows that his task in Eugene is hardly complete. "We need to
work on our depth," he says. "Our first line can play with
anybody's, but we are vulnerable to key injuries. Part of that
comes back to the local population base. There aren't a lot of
good players in Oregon."
There are, however, a lot of new buildings. It's no coincidence
that indoor practice facilities are nearing completion at
Washington, Washington State and (should we have doubted?) Oregon
State, which is busy planning renovations for Reser Stadium.
Welcome to the arms race, Oregon style.
Q: Why did Oregon State choose orange and black for its team
A: So that on Friday the players can go hunting, on Saturday they
can play football, and on Sunday they can go back to work on the
prison road crew.
"Hey, that's Take Five," says Joey Harrington, correctly
identifying the Dave Brubeck Quartet jazz tune playing in a
reporter's car. On the next track, a trumpet takes over. "Miles
Davis--So What," he says. The man knows his jazz. A pianist since
age four--first classical, then jazz--Harrington is no doubt the
only Heisman candidate who hires himself out for banquets and
birthday parties. While his teammates gorge on rap and heavy
metal for their pregame music, Harrington listens to Herbie
If the Civil War is a rivalry fueled by contrasts, the most
dramatic may be at quarterback. A 6'4", 220-pound alpha male,
Harrington was all but born with a fuzzy green O on his chest.
His father, John, quarterbacked the Ducks in the late 1960s, and
his extended family includes seven other signal-callers. You
could say that the Ducks got to Joey early: Shortly after he was
born, a "letter of intent" arrived in the mail, courtesy of
longtime Oregon coach Len Casanova. Harrington is college
football's version of Shane Battier, an Academic All-America
(with a 3.3 GPA in business) who spends his winters leading the
boisterous student cheering section at Ducks basketball games,
dressing up in a flowing red wig with a troupe called the Mac
Court Mullets. ("We're the Cameron Indoor Stadium of the West,"
"A lot of people dream about playing for the Cowboys," says
Harrington. "I always dreamed of playing college football. I'm
having the greatest time in the world--living with some of my best
friends in a town that adores everything the University of Oregon
does." Mocking Harrington's squeaky-clean image, Ducks tight end
Justin Peele gave him the nickname Princess.
In an age of game-breaking, multiple-threat quarterbacks of the
Michael Vick sort, Harrington knows his limitations. "I'm not an
athlete; I'm a quarterback," he says. "I don't have great speed,
and I can't throw 90 yards down the field. I win games because
I've done the mental preparation."
Harrington's most impressive stat isn't his Pac-10-leading 22
touchdowns and 247.3 yards passing per game of 2000; it's his
14-2 record as a starter. The mythmaker was the Ducks' 56-55
double-overtime win at Arizona State last year, in which
Harrington led Oregon back from a two-touchdown deficit with less
than six minutes in regulation. Says Bellotti, "When it's crunch
time, it doesn't matter what he's done to that point, Joey will
put the ball where it can be caught or make the audible or get a
first down on a scramble to keep the drive alive."
If Harrington is the Princess in this fable, Beavers quarterback
Jonathan Smith would be the Frog. Standing a gnomic 5'10"
("five-eleven in socks," he says), Smith never attracted serious
interest from Division I-A schools as a senior at Glendora
(Calif.) High. Only when Riley's recruiters started pursuing
Smith's Glendora teammate, offensive lineman Dustin Janz, did
they notice the tiny signal-caller, and even then their pitch was
lacking. "They said, 'You'd be just like a scholarship player,
except you'd be paying for it,'" says Smith, whose best
scholarship offers had come from Division I-AA UC Davis and
So he walked on at Oregon State. During his redshirt season,
Smith dutifully ran the scout team, and the following spring he
surprised everyone by earning the backup job behind incoming
junior college All-America Terrance Bryant. That fall, something
magical happened. With Oregon State down 21 points at Washington,
Smith came on in relief and gunned a 90-yard touchdown pass. Then
he completed an 80-yard pass for another touchdown. By the time
it was over, Smith had passed for 469 yards in barely more than a
half, and although the Beavers lost 35-34, the quarterback nobody
wanted had won the job. And a scholarship.
Erickson admits that when he first met Smith, he thought he was
an equipment manager. "He's not a real big guy," Erickson says,
"but he's smart, he's accurate, and he probably understands the
game better than anyone else in college football." Smith had a
huge game against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl--305 yards and
three touchdowns--but he says last year's 23-13 triumph in
Corvallis meant even more. "Notre Dame was great," he says, "but
there was something special about beating your rival for part of
the Pac-10 championship." What's more, Smith outplayed
Harrington, who was intercepted five times and fumbled once. "I
get physically ill when I think about last year," says
Harrington, who concedes that he thinks about it every day.
Yet even Civil Wars have their moments of detente. In June,
Harrington and Smith, the Princess and the Frog, rode together in
the back of a Pontiac convertible, greeting 350,000 screaming
Portlanders as the co-grand marshals of the Rose Festival
Starlight Parade. They talked about family and school and
golf--and the strangest thing happened. "It was a really fun
deal," says Harrington. "Jonathan is a nice person, and it was
good to see him outside the football atmosphere."
A pregnant pause follows. "Of course," says Harrington, "on
December 1 that's out the window."
Oregon State's coach and players are renegades.
Oregon's longtime coach mailed him a "letter of intent."