PASADENA, Calif.— When I boarded my early-morning LAX-to-Portland flight with dozens of other subdued Ducks fans the day after Ohio State beat Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl, I was disappointed but not devastated.
I'll explain: When I witnessed the Ducks lose 38-20 to Penn State in the 1995 Rose Bowl (at age 30), I was so damn giddy the team had made it to Pasadena for the first time in my life that I didn't care what happened as long as they didn't get routed. Last Friday's Rose Bowl will stick with me because Oregon has come far enough in the past 15 years that I now expect a win. And I will nurse deep disappointment over the loss for a while. (Obligatory disclaimer for the non-sports reader: I do realize there are more important issues plaguing society.)
But unless you're the kind of front-running asshole who roots for the Yankees or the Lakers, you know most of a fan's life is an endless slog of failures that leave your teams short of championships. Whether it's Washington's Mark Lee returning a fourth-quarter punt 59 yards in the Huskies' 21-17 win in 1979 over Oregon (after trailing 17-0) or Oregon State killing Oregon's Rose Bowl hopes in 2000, there's a lot of pain involved.
So winning the Pac-10 this season can't ever be tainted in the long view by losing the Rose Bowl to Ohio State. I confess to being surprised I wasn't devastated. Here's what else I learned at the Rose Bowl.
1. After an awesome NYE of drinking Jack-and-Diet-Cokes while overlooking the Pacific in Laguna Beach and a sunny New Year's Day morning with temperatures well en route to the 70s, I realized it's no wonder 24 million people live in Southern California. Naturally, all but four or five of them were in their cars as I drove to the game by taking the 605 to the 405 to the 5 to God knows what else from my Orange County hotel.
2.There's a major sartorial contrast between Ohio State and Oregon fans. Ducks fans sported 2010 Rose Bowl gear, elated to be there for the first time in 15 years. Ohio State fans wore classic Buckeyes hats and shirts unadorned with the Rose Bowl insignia. After appearing in 14 Rose Bowls overall and three national championship games in less than a decade, it's obviously "been there, done that" for them.
3. This game draws a different fan than at Autzen. When it's $145 per ticket, there's a high quotient of "casual fan with cash" whose knowledge of the Ducks is more limited than Kevin Lusk's arm was (non-casual fans know exactly whom I'm talking about here.)
4. Sports karma is powerful. As I heard my childhood friend Darrell shout my name while waiting and waiting in a scrum of people to get to my end-zone seat, I realized it was fitting that I should randomly run into him out of the 93,000-plus people there. When we were teenagers, he told me he'd give Oregon until he was 80 to make it to the Rose Bowl, and "if they hadn't done it by then, he was finding another team."
5. I usually don't give a rat's ass about marching/athletic bands. But Ohio State's has a big, cool band that made Oregon's look tiny.
6. My legacy of rooting for losing Ducks teams runs deeper than I thought. I felt insta-fear and déjà vu when Ohio State marched right down the field to score a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead—just like when Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter scored on the first play in the '95 Rose Bowl, an 83-yard run.
7. I've already collected a year's worth of barstool musing material: A) Wondering why Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli never looked comfortable in the pocket. B) Marveling at Ohio State's disciplined defense, which managed to stay in its lanes and force Masoli to hand off on his run reads. C) Still believing at halftime that despite trailing 16-10, Masoli would lead the Ducks to a comeback win.
8. When I saw Oregonian columnist John Canzano saunter past at halftime with KATU's Anna Song it reminded me of his column last week in which Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti mused about returning to coaching if Chip Kelly ever left. Memo to Bellotti: If your Rose Bowl coach ever wants to leave, your job as AD is to keep Kelly here, not be thinking about your own return to coaching. And stop second-guessing Kelly next season from the broadcast booth for his clock management. Do you remember how you flubbed the 2007 Oregon State game? DO YOU? Oh yeah, the Rose Bowl. Sorry about that.
9. How easily I expect a turnaround against a Top 10 team like Ohio State. I felt insta-vindication that Oregon was going to start rolling as I predicted when the Ducks opened the third quarter by going ahead 17-16.
10. The slow realization that Oregon couldn't stop Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor on third down, though trying to tackle the 6-foot-6 Pryor below the waist instead of at the shoulder pads might have been one option.
11. My early candidate for the worst moment of 2010: when LeGarrette Blount fumbled as the Ducks were driving for a go-ahead TD midway through the third quarter. All I saw was the football squirt out of the line and careen out of the end zone for what seemed an eternity. That's all I'll ever see of it since I have no intention of ever watching a replay.
12. The actual worst moment of 2010: After Ohio State scored a TD to go ahead 26-17 with seven minutes left: A middle-aged lady sitting behind me said to her companion, "Isn't that a beautiful sunset?" If I wasn't so optimistic about next season with 18 of the 22 Oregon starters returning and wanting to watch them from my Section 37 seats in Autzen, I'd have killed her.