Anybody who has been watching college football over the past decade knows the Oregon Ducks. They have been one of the game’s most entertaining teams to watch, from the high powered offenses to those quirky uniforms (more on that at the end of this post). By their visibility you would think their program has been in the upper echelon for a long time.
Oregon has finished in the top 10 of the final polls (Coaches and AP) only four times: 1948, 2000, 2001, and 2008. No national titles, and only two consensus All-Americans. ‘Big-time’ bowl games have been rare: 1948 Cotton, 1957 Rose, 1994 Rose, 1995 Cotton, 2001 Fiesta, and 2009 Rose (years are the season, not the game).
They’ve had to live in the long, dark shadow of Southern Cal and to a lesser extent UCLA and Washington over the years. The school’s athletic successes have been in cross country and track and field, not on the gridiron.
One thing that stands out for me about the program is the patience exerted by the athletic department in Eugene. It’s been a long, hard slog to get to be one of the premier programs in the college game. Rich Brooks, better known to Vol fans as the recently-departed coach at Kentucky, was the head coach of the Ducks for 17 seasons (1977-94), compiling a less-than-stellar 91-109-4 record. Brooks took over a rather pathetic football program that had finished a season as a ranked team only twice before (1948 and 1957). The program continued to struggle under Brooks, including a nationwide recruiting scandal in the early 1980s when the program was placed on probation. Regardless, the school hung with Brooks (I’m sure part of it was his 14-3-1 record against bitter rival Oregon State) until the Ducks surprised the college world by finishing the 1994 season atop the Pac-10 with an 11th-place national ranking, and playing in their first Rose Bowl in 37 years.
Brooks took the opportunity afforded by that 1994 season to leave for the NFL, and the future of Duck football arrived in the form of Mike Bellotti who had been serving Brooks as his offensive coordinator for six seasons. All Bellotti did was lead Oregon to their first 10-plus win seasons (4 times: 2000, 2001, 2005, and 2008) and a 116-55 record in his 14 seasons at the helm. Belotti’s Ducks only had one losing season (2004), but could win the Pac-10 outright only once (they tied in 2000).
Bellotti left the head coaching position after the 2008 season to become the Oregon AD. But after only 9 months in his new job, having to deal with multiple disciplinary issues, he resigned on March 19 this year to join ESPN as an analyst.
Enter Chip Kelly.
Like his predecessor, he cut his teeth in the Oregon program as the offensive coordinator (2007-08). Prior to moving to Eugene, Kelly had been head assistant coach and offensive coordinator at New Hampshire where he became known for his explosive offensive teams. Last season, Kelly began his new post as head coach by losing to Boise State (bringing a little bit of the past to Neyland Stadium this Saturday), but followed that with winning 10 of next 11 toward the Pac-10 championship, the first outright Pac-10 crown by a first-year head coach, and the Ducks’ first Rose Bowl appearance in 15 years.
Running the football is the hallmark of Chip Kelly’s teams. His philosophy is to attack, attack, attack in order to stretch the opponent’s defense. That’s why Oregon football is so much fun to watch. In a strange way, they are reminiscent of the Oklahoma teams of the early 1980s that never let up offensively with multiple running threats covering the expanse of the gridiron, completely exhausting opponent defenses.
There will be no surprises Saturday in the way that Kelly’s Oregon Ducks will approach the contest. Let’s just hope that Justin Wilcox can out-scheme the Duck offense as the Vols defensive coordinator, just as he did as Boise State’s DC last season.
The only unknown is what uniform the Ducks will unveil for their first trip to SEC-land since 2003 (a win at Mississippi State, 42-34).
Last season, Oregon played in 13 different uniform combinations (see them here). Apparently, coach Kelly leaves left the uniform decisions to Casey Martin (read an interview with him here), Oregon’s golf coach and former PGA tour pro (Martin was the golfer who became famous when he successfully sued the PGA for the right to use a golf cart during competitions – Martin suffers from Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome, a rare congenital condition).
Whatever combination Martin comes the players come up with to complement the orange and white on the green expanse of Shields-Watkins field, it should be entertaining college football on Saturday night. [The players have choosen the combinations for this season — thanks to a commenter for the correction]
Let’s hope we give the Duck Nation something to talk about on their long flight home. Remember Cal’s visit in 2006? That’s what I’m talking about.