It was almost as if Kellen Clemens felt compelled to apologize.
"I come from a small town," said the native of Burns, Ore., "and
things like this just blow me away. Sometimes it seems like a
bit much." It was two days before the biggest start of his
career, and Oregon's sophomore quarterback stood at his stall in
the Ducks' preposterously posh, two-story, Internet-wired $3.2
million locker room. ¬∂ "I've got shelf space for toiletries,"
Clemens said, motioning to a tube of toothpaste. "And here's a
little lockbox, for valuables." Pointing at a gleaming vent at
the bottom of his Jetsonian locker, Clemens noted that fresh air
circulates through it day and night. "That keeps odor under
control, which is nice, especially with some of the guys who
don't do their laundry as often as maybe they should."
He glanced toward a trio of offensive linemen, center Dan Weaver,
left guard Nick Steitz and left tackle Adam Snyder, who were
sitting on a sofa playing Xbox on one of three 60-inch
plasma-screen TVs. When asked if such opulent surroundings might
make them, well, a bit pampered, the three hogs took slight
umbrage. After making the point that Oregon players are put
through "one of the toughest fall camps around," Weaver added,
"Just because we have a nice locker doesn't make us soft."
"Every program has to rise up sometime," added Steitz. "The
Michigans and Ohio States were powerhouses from way back. For
Oregon, I guess, it took a little longer."
Usually it's the other way around. The Beaver State has long been
in the vanguard of change, from legalizing euthanasia to voting
by mail. This nonconformity extends to Oregon football--Ducks
coach Mike Bellotti is a wizard of the passing offense--and to
the way it's packaged. Between plastering pictures of players on
Times Square billboards, donning buzz-generating jerseys and
erecting palatial new facilities, Oregon is hands-down the most
creatively marketed team in the nation. "Hopefully," said
Clemens, "our play is gonna put us on the map pretty soon."
September 28, 2003
Mission accomplished. Michigan arrived in Xanadu--er,
Eugene--with a 3-0 record and a No. 3 ranking. The Wolverines
were coming off a thrashing of Notre Dame and entertaining hopes
of their first national championship since 1997. The Ducks were
3-0 but less impressively so, having allowed a combined 57 points
in their first two wins, against Mississippi State and Nevada.
Even taking into consideration the storied raucousness of Autzen
Stadium, magnified by a recent $90 million makeover that added
12,000 seats, this one had the makings of an early-round knockout
for the Big Ten. Instead, Michigan found itself knocked out of
the national-title picture after a 31-27 loss best explained by a
single integer: minus-three. That's how many rushing yards the
On third and long with 1:14 remaining, Wolverines quarterback
John Navarre completed a 12-yard pass to tight end Tim Massaquoi,
moving the ball to the Oregon 41. From within a lonely knot of
maize-clad Michigan fans in the stands behind the west end zone,
one of the visitors shouted, "Hey, Knight, how do you like that?"
Down on the field, minding his own business and dying a thousand
deaths as his Ducks clung to their precarious lead, stood Oregon
alum and Nike founder Phil Knight, who has been the patron of the
Ducks football renaissance. It was clear, after Oregon stopped
Michigan and time expired and Knight joined the joyous mob
storming the field, embracing players and congratulating coaches,
that he enjoyed it very much.
A local columnist had likened Saturday's matchup to a clash of
old and new money--the tradition-bound Wolverines versus the
arriviste Ducks, whose nouveau riches come to a large extent
courtesy of Knight. It's worth noting that even though one of the
stalls in their Taj Mahal locker room is reserved for him and a
plaque on the wall dedicates the room to Knight, he donated none
of the money for that building. Which puts it in the distinct
minority. He has donated more than $50 million to the university
and has been especially generous to the football program, writing
a check that covered a sizable chunk of that $90 million Autzen
upgrade. (Other private donations covered the rest of the
According to Clemens, jealous rivals have accused the Ducks of
trying to buy success. But Oregon athletic director Bill Moos,
who took the job in 1995, makes no apologies for attempting, as
he says, to "level the playing field." For decades coaches at
other Pac-10 schools had too easy a time running down Oregon. No
more. "The USCs and UCLAs of the world ask recruits, 'Why do you
want to go up there where it rains all the time and you can't
work on your game?' How do you neutralize that? You build a
117,000-square-foot indoor facility [the $14.6 million Moshofsky
Center]. They can tell recruits, 'If you go up there, no one's
ever going to hear about you.' Hey, guess what? We'll put you on
a billboard in Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York. We'll
market you in ways no one ever imagined."
Oregon has long attracted players from outside the state; there
are 50 Californians on this year's roster. One measure of the
Ducks' recent success in recruiting is the itineraries of the
players coming to campus. "When I first got here," says Moos,
"our prospects were also visiting Mountain West schools, some WAC
schools, maybe Washington State and Oregon State. Now their other
visits are to USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas, Tennessee."
The Locker Room of the Future is designed as much to wow those
prospective players as to coddle the current ones. It has a
squint-no-more lighting system, calibrated to match conditions
outdoors; a space-age sliding door that whooshes open and shut
vertically; and a security system that reads players'
thumbprints. The desire to cater to the tastes of teenagers also
made Oregon eager to embrace the jaundice-yellow Nike jerseys the
Ducks broke out this season. "I showed the new uniforms to my
wife," says Moos, "and she said, 'Oh, these are terrible. You've
got to be kidding!' Then I showed 'em to Samie Parker"--the
team's star wideout--"and he said, 'I love these!' I guess you
know who won that one." As long as players, and potential
players, are nuts for those unis, in other words, Oregon doesn't
care what anyone else thinks.
If the jerseys, buildings and billboards are the sizzle,
Bellotti, 52, is the steak. "I would rather sell the product on
the field," he says. "I want to be known for the kids and the
teams and the wins." In 1995 Bellotti succeeded Rich Brooks, who
moved on to the NFL after having taken the team to its first Rose
Bowl in nearly four decades. Since then the Ducks have won more
games (71) than any other Pac-10 school, and Bellotti has been
wooed in recent years by Notre Dame, USC and Ohio State. One of
the reasons he stayed is that his job in Eugene isn't complete.
After finishing the 2001 season ranked second in the country, the
Ducks backslid last year, dropping six of their last seven games
to finish 7-6. Maybe building a dominant football program on the
banks of the Willamette was simply too tall an order.
Maybe, on the other hand, Oregon simply needed better play from
its quarterbacks and secondary. Before the season, senior Jason
Fife (the onetime heir to Joey Harrington) yielded his starter's
job to Clemens. But Bellotti has been using Fife as a spark plug.
In each of the three games going into the Michigan contest, Fife
had led the team to a touchdown on his first series. He did it
again last week, coming in with the Ducks up 7-6 in the second
quarter and engineering a three-play, 49-yard touchdown drive.
"At first it was really tough," says Fife, "since I was the
starter last year. But I know Kellen's a great quarterback. We
both are. There were never any hard feelings."
There were plenty of hard feelings in Duck Nation last season
toward a group of defensive backs that allowed 291.2 yards
passing per game. Oregon's secondary was inexperienced,
predictable and short. Although three of last year's four
starters are back this season, they look like a different crew.
They've responded well to the intensity of new secondary coach
John Neal and to the more exotic schemes introduced by defensive
coordinator Nick Aliotti, who was dispatched by Bellotti to
coaching clinics at TCU and Texas to bone up on zone blitzes.
"We're playing with more urgency, more edge," says cornerback
Steven Moore. "It's fun to play with the quarterback's mind, show
him different looks, make him think." The Ducks held Navarre to
87 passing yards through three quarters on Saturday, and though
Navarre found his rhythm in the fourth quarter, "by then," said
free safety Keith Lewis, "it was too late."
Whether Saturday's win was the most significant in the history of
the program, as some Ducks fans--including Moos--were proclaiming
it, remains to be seen. What seems more certain is that last
season, not 2001, was the aberration. As it pushed the Wolverines
all over the field, Oregon was the team with the look of a
perennial power. A win at Autzen this Saturday, against
Washington State, and the 10th-ranked Ducks (who don't face USC
this season) will be a bona fide national-title contender.
One of the last Oregon players off the field after the Michigan
game was Weaver, the Xbox-playing center. Now, euphoric and
exhausted, he stood in the tunnel and said, "Well, what do you
think? Has our locker room made us soft?"
Better ask Michigan.
More college football coverage, including Tim Layden's Insider
and a photo gallery from the week, at si.com/football/ncaa.
As long as players are nuts for those uniforms, Oregon doesn't
care what anyone else thinks.