|MOURNING GLORY: Bury Oregon Ducks fans’ title hopes with Dennis Dixon’s wounded knee.|
When you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, many people at the table—maybe Uncle Izzy, maybe the second cousin you’ve always had a disturbing crush on—will not just be counting blessings. They will also be in one of the stages of grief. Maybe it will be Bargaining, perhaps Depression. If you’re lucky, your loved ones have worked their way through Anger and Denial. Acceptance, however, is too much to hope for.
Over the past month, the University of Oregon’s football team, the Ducks, roared toward college football glory. With Dennis Dixon, their quick-handed, brilliant quarterback, and a team that played a stylish, electric, slightly crazy brand of football, the Ducks didn’t just become a national sensation. They captured a piece of Oregon’s collective heart, soul and cerebrum. A state full of supposedly smart people living and dying by the fortunes of a bunch of muscled-up, scholarship-absorbing jocks? From any sensible perspective, it’s insane. The joy was real, though.
And now, so is the grief.
Up until last Thursday night, Oregon fans marinated in something they’d never quite experienced, except for maybe a brief glimmer in 2001: the delirium and angst produced by a run at college football’s national title. There’s no other sport quite like big-time college football. It’s a $1.8 billion industry masquerading as a purist amateur extracurricular activity, in which teams’ century-old histories and indelible local roots stir up intense tribal passions. The sport’s governing system is absurd. A single loss sends a team sliding out of the elite, and even undefeated teams can find themselves screwed by the mysterious Bowl Championship Series, the process that determines which two teams play for the title at the end of the year.
It is tailor-made for madness. If your team’s winning, a sense of mounting crisis and anticipation builds week after week. At Eugene’s Autzen Stadium, record crowds of nearly 60,000—almost 2 percent of Oregon’s total population, for God’s sake!—reached states of what can be described as rapture as Oregon piled up victories this season. Thousands more watching on TV found themselves swept up in the bread, circuses and kickass aesthetics of helmeted young men going ballistic in pursuit of a pointy little ball.
But that was then. Last Thursday, against the mediocre Arizona Wildcats, Dixon crumpled to the turf in the first quarter, his knee in shreds, his career as a Duck finished. Oregon proceeded to collapse in a 34-24 loss, bringing all talk of a national championship to a crashing halt.
Now, Oregon fans are in the grip of the most wrenching shift any passion can demand of us: the plunge from ecstasy to agony. Psychologists have done studies that suggest sports fans enjoy better-than-average mental health; intense love for a team, win or lose, seems to mesh with our hunter-gatherer hard wiring. It might seem stupid, to non-fans, but unalloyed misery has as much to do with why we’re obsessed with sports as any victory celebration, because surviving defeat helps a fan base bond together.
Cold comfort to Duck fans this week. They’re in shambles.
A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Great Migration that clogs I-5 South between Portland and Eugene several Saturdays each autumn. It’s like salmon returning to spawn, minus the natural grandeur.
On the day Oregon played Arizona State (those would be the Sun Devils, not the Wildcats), I found myself in the thick of this de facto caravan of Duck fans, riding in a German car with three green Oregon flags flapping from the roof. We passed a car with yellow duck-feet bumper stickers. A Subaru Outback had a wooden duck decoy mounted in the rear window. Several others sported one, two or more flags. One car was decked out with Oregon-yellow pompoms sticking out of its trunk and every door.
We Oregonians like to think of our state as a preserve of postmodern self-awareness, a place where we’ve evolved beyond the plebeian amusements cherished by the Alabamans and Nebraskans of the world. It takes about one minute in the vicinity of a Duck football game to realize what bullshit this is.
Just outside Autzen, I met a young man named Justin Gast. Gast is an educated professional, an environmental journalist who writes for eco-nerd publications like Resource Recycling (“North America’s Recycling and Composting Journal”). A Portlander, in short. He seemed like a civilized man. He was also wearing green and gold army fatigues and a combat helmet adorned with a cartoon painting of an angry, angry duck.
“I bleed green and gold,” the Oregon alum and Eugene native said. “When I was a kid, I got a paper route so I could pay for season tickets. Now, no matter where I am, if I see a guy in an Oregon shirt or a Ducks hat, he’s family—even if I never see him again.”
If this is family, the game-day reunion takes place at the Moshofsky Sports Center, an 89,100-square-foot monstrosity next door to Autzen that looks like the central hangar for a minor national airline. During the week, this is the Ducks’ state-of-the-art indoor practice facility. On home game days, it transforms into a vast picnic where thousands of Ducks fans inhale beer and curly fries.
Inside the Moshofsky Center, everyone sports at least one piece of branded Oregon merchandise. It’s a good place to sort through the different types of Oregon fan—because, as with any team (or, yes, family), the fan base divides into amicable but distinct factions. Such as:
Portlanders: Probably arrived here in imported cars or SUVs with an “O” on their trailer hitch. Likely wearing tasteful dark green windbreakers with a subtle “O” emblazoned on the breast and bright yellow Oregon “Livestrong” caps ($20). Probably alums.
AARPers: Male. Wearing loosely fitting sweaters in any of approximately 1,000 Oregon-branded designs. Or, in one case I observed, a Hawaiian “Go Ducks” shirt. Possibly alums.
Mardi Gras Bead Babes: Female, often married to the AARPers. Bedecked in green and gold Mardi Gras beads, presumably not earned in the traditional New Orleans fashion. The beads match their Oregon visors.
Face-Painters: Students. Clean-cut, enthusiastic, might as well have the Greek letters of their frat or sorority tattooed to their foreheads.
Valley Rednecks: Non-students. Maybe not alums, either. Scrubby facial hair, Oregon hoodies or battered Oregon ballcaps. Cast jaundiced eyes on the liberal-seeming Portlanders and campus types.
Concept Costumers: A self-selected breed. Mysterious. I see one guy in black football pads, black cape and headphones who calls himself “Duck Vader.”
Green Wiggers: Exclusively prepubescent boys.
Stocking Cappers: Students, male and female. Wear ski-lodge-esque beanies with “O”s embroidered on the dangling earflaps. Seem like Eugene hippies making a good-natured effort to get into it.
Hardcores: Distinguishable by gear adorned with the Fighting Duck, the cartoonish mascot largely retired from Oregon’s merchandising scheme a decade or so ago. Also by their long memories—I met one man who’s been a Ducks fan since they went to the Cotton Bowl in 1948.
Of these tribes, the Hardcores are the most interesting. They have suffered. That the Ducks might stake a plausible claim to being the best team in the country seems as strange to them as seeing a fundamental law of physics in reverse.
“To be in this situation now,” a longtime fan told me after Oregon gobbled up Arizona State, “is just surreal.”
Yet here it is—or more correctly, there it was. Fun fact: On Nov. 12, the Ducks became the No. 2 team in the nation. That had never happened in the middle of a season before.
Oregon first fielded a football team in 1894. The school’s subsequent gridiron chronicles read a little like the history of Russia, with brief glimmers of hope amid long periods of gloomy stagnation.
“My primary memory is watching defeat in the rain,” says Jeff Stone, a 44-year-old who says he has missed a grand total of five home games in the past 35 years. “I remember when we lost a game 5-3. Newer fans don’t realize that these are the good old days.”
Between 1963 and 1989, the Ducks did not make it to a single bowl game, the Yuletide showcases named for warm-weather agricultural products that reward college football’s great, good and just-OK teams at the end of every season. In fact, the Ducks were usually dreadful; Autzen Stadium was a sad place to be.
Larry Tuttle, an environmental watchdog from Portland, first attended a Ducks football game in 1964. “The idea of having to get season tickets never occurred to anyone,” he says now. “You could walk up to the stadium 15 minutes before the game and get great seats.” Longtime Ducks fans remember when University of Washington fans filled half of Autzen’s stands, because they could actually get tickets down here. Now, the Ducks sell 43,242 season tickets a year and sell out every game.
Oregon State, the Ducks’ partners in eternal mutual loathing, often sucked wind just as badly, making the whole state the college football equivalent of Tuvalu’s U.N. delegation. Many years, the two schools’ sole definition of success consisted of whether they could beat each other, and sometimes they both managed to fail even at that. In 1983’s so-called “Toilet Bowl,” Oregon’s two major football programs played to a 0-0 tie in a Eugene rainstorm.
In the late ’80s, Oregon’s mojo began to turn. Some would say the defining moment was “The Pick.” In a 1994 game against Washington—an opponent loathed by Duck fans as Oregon’s richer, better-looking, very arrogant older brother—freshman Duck defender Kenny Wheaton intercepted a pass in the final seconds and gamboled the length of the field for a touchdown. The play, and its hysterical accompanying radio commentary (“Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score! Kenny Wheaton is gonna scooooo-re! Kenny Wheaton! Kenny Wheeeea-ton!”), mark a decisive turning point in many fans’ eyes because it started that year’s Ducks run to the Rose Bowl. The giant video screen at Autzen shows the replay before every game.
A more boring and accurate answer to the question of the Ducks’ rebirth would be that the program made a slow good-to-great slog, first under coach Rich Brooks and now, since 1995, under Mike Bellotti. Bellotti is now the highest-paid public official in the state, with an annual salary of $1.256 million. (Ted Kulongoski, who you may know is the governor, makes $94,000 a year; a recent report showed that at least one college football coach makes more than the governor in 49 of the 50 states.). Like all college football coaches, Bellotti endures more scrutiny than a novice in a monastic order. If he wins, he’s a genius. If he loses, he’s something close to a war criminal. So far this year, genius status was winning, until Bellotti let Dixon play against Arizona with a major knee injury.
“There are people around here who say he could run for governor,” says Rob Moseley, a reporter who covers Duck football for the Eugene Register-Guard , before the fateful Arizona game. “They’re half-kidding about that, but that’s how popular the guy is.”
That was two weeks ago, of course.
You also can’t talk about Oregon’s football transformation without talking about Nike and its founder, Phil Knight. Knight ran track at Oregon; he now plows astonishing amounts of money into the school, particularly its athletic department: $100 million for a new basketball arena here, $45 million to upgrade Autzen there.
In the spirit of disclosure, I must say that in my life as a freelance hack, I have performed contract work for Nike. I am thus not the writer to say anything very hard-hitting about these matters. It is obvious, though, that Knight’s patronage helps make sure Oregon players lack for nothing. The team’s locker room, for example, which I toured a few years ago, feels more like a high-dollar day spa than a typical gridiron sweat lodge.
Meanwhile, Nike designers turn Oregon’s relative lack of football tradition into an asset, branding the squad as a racy, rocket-age team of the future. Ducks uniforms’ sleek tailoring makes players look more like killer military cyborgs, and Oregon almost never wears exactly the same uniform twice. Last year, USA Today estimated that the Ducks have 384 possible combinations of jersey, pants, helmet and accessories to choose from.
Fashion and fancy locker rooms don’t win football games, of course—but they don’t hurt, either, when you’re trying to persuade players from California and other warm-weather, gridiron-rich climes to spend their college years in Eugene, a rainy, glam-free town full of hippies and anarchists who hate the fascist game of football. Bellotti and his staff have become proficient miners of far-flung talent; many of the Ducks’ key players come from elsewhere, the Golden State in particular. (About a third of the roster remains homegrown, but against Arizona State, for example, only three Oregonians made the starting squad, counting the punter.) Recruits may not know much about land-use planning or Lewis and Clark, but they know a well-oiled juggernaut when they see it. Oregon has become the 10th-most lucrative football program in the country, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, with $18.9 million in annual revenues.
The paradox here—hardened cynics, feel free to skip ahead—is that while the football team sells as many tickets as physically possible and clocks huge donations, the University of Oregon appears to be in an academic swoon. The Carnegie Foundation last year dropped Oregon from its highest doctoral institution category to the second-highest, making Oregon the only Pac-10 school with that unhappy distinction. The school lost ground on other national scorecards as well. Spending per student and faculty salaries lag behind those at many comparable schools, as does Oregon’s overall graduation rate.
If there is one inconvenient truth about college athletics, however, it’s that a majority of fans don’t really care that much about the school attached to the team. Even fans who do concern themselves with the health of the institution often shut down that segment of their brains at kickoff. This is especially true when the team is winning, of course.
In any case, the Ducks have pulled off a remarkable and complete self-reinvention in the past 20 years. It wouldn’t be too fanciful to suggest that this entire history, stretching back to the Grover Cleveland administration through the win over Arizona State on Nov. 3, built toward this season’s No. 2 ranking—a Golden Ticket to the national championship. Last Thursday morning, before the Arizona game, the Register-Guard ran a story about Oregon fans “tying up phone lines at local travel agencies and surfing the Internet for plane fares” to the national title game in New Orleans. People were snapping up tickets for non-refundable deposits.
Non-refundable. Let’s hope they at least asked their significant others first.
Sometimes you just know everything is about to fall apart. When Boston Red Sox fans saw the ball squirt through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, they knew the Sox were doomed in Game 7. Likewise, when Dennis Dixon hit the deck in Arizona last Thursday, writhing in pain, thousands of Ducks fans watching the nationally televised game felt the sickening descent of their stomach floor.
Brian Libby, however, was not one of those fans. His TV was turned off.
They say knowledge is power, but sometimes it’s better not to know too much history. Libby, a Portland journalist (and former WW contributor), knows way too much; he just wrote a book, Tales from the Oregon Ducks Sideline , tracing the entire path of Oregon football. He is now subject to a level of neurosis that can only come through near-DNA-level identification with a team.
“At the beginning of the game, I watched Dixon take us down the field, and then I turned the TV off for a while,” he said on Black Friday. “I do that a lot during Ducks games. I get too nervous. By the time I turned it back on, Dennis was hurt.”
The day after found Libby deep into Bargaining, thinking about the Ducks’ still-viable Rose Bowl hopes if immobile backup QB Brady Leaf can master an offense designed for the speedy Dixon. Still, he hadn’t quite licked Depression.
“There’s no getting around the fact that this could have been the greatest season in 113 years,” he said. “As much as you try not to get your hopes up—try not to think too much about Dixon winning the Heisman, or about buying tickets to New Orleans for the national championship game—you inevitably do think about those things.”
When I talked to him on the phone, Libby had all of his Oregon-branded paraphernalia in the washing machine. Dirty or not, it now needed cleansing. From a purely objective standpoint, it’s ludicrous to expend this kind of emotion on a football game. Life is a vale of tears as it is. So why bother?
The answer is that for true fans, a team isn’t just a team. It’s an endless narrative shared by a community. Ducks fans may have nothing in common in “real life,” but right now they can bond over the questions that linger from last week. (If Dixon was so fragile, why didn’t Bellotti devise an offensive strategy suited to Leaf, the backup QB? Can the Ducks pull it together to snatch that Rose Bowl berth, or are they left “looking forward” to the Holiday Bowl in sunny San Diego? Will that guy who sits in Section 37 finally shut up about how Leaf is a better quarterback than Dixon?) In better times, they can savor The Pick, the heyday of Joey Harrington, and their shared love for the Fighting Duck.
We’re all fans of something. Some worship the arias of great operatic tenors; others write erotic fiction featuring Buffy the Vampire Slayer characters. These enthusiasms marry the ridiculous to both the sublime and the bittersweet. Our favorite bands break up (or should). Our favorite novelists die. The Pacinos, De Niros and Nicholsons of the ’70s become the Pacinos, De Niros and Nicholsons of the ’00s. Fandom may be an escape, but that doesn’t make it easy.
“The thing about sports is, as much as any victory or championship is a self-contained thing that you can celebrate forever, the same is true of a defeat,” Libby says. “To watch a season crash and burn like this is hard. I do know that if Oregon ever, in my lifetime, wins a national championship, I’ll think back on moments like this and how I feel right now. And I’ll say to myself, it’s about goddamn time.”
Traditionally, big-time college football had only a “mythical” national champion, chosen through a number of different polls of coaches and sportswriters. The Bowl Championship Series averages rankings in two old-style polls and uses a computer formula to factor in the strength of each team’s schedule to determine the top two teams. This system works so well, it has been revised at least a half-dozen times since 1998. See bcsfootball.org.
An alternative plan to use the Hogwarts Sorting Hat to choose the champion has yet to be given the serious consideration it deserves.
Oregon’s 34-24 loss to Arizona dropped the Ducks to second place in the Pacific-10 Conference, behind Arizona State. Wins against UCLA on Nov. 24 and Oregon State on Dec. 1, coupled with a loss by ASU, would secure the Pac-10 Championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl, college football’s oldest, most prestigious bowl game.
One measure of how devastating Oregon’s loss to Arizona was: On the independent Ducks blog Addicted to Quack, an Oregon State fan posted sincere condolences: “Sorry from Corvallis about the outcome; it would have been good for the state to have the Big Green Ducks playing for the national crown.”
The Ducks last won the Rose Bowl—which before the BCS idiocy was the game to shoot for—in 1917. The Ducks finished second in the country six years ago after winning the Fiesta Bowl.
Research shout-out to our colleagues at The Oregonian: The author found lots of useful context regarding the business of college athletics via O reporter Brent Hunsberger’s “Playbooks and Profits” (blog.oregonlive.com/playbooksandprofits).