Saturday, January 15, 2011

Everybody Duck

It was -- for the University of Oregon football team and Duck fans around the world -- a season for the ages.

On Monday, January 10, the Ducks slugged it out with Auburn University, the champions of the Southeastern Conference, in the apex of the college football world, the BCS national championship game. Contrary to conventional wisdom that pointed to a high-scoring affair, the game defied the form chart with a defensive donnybrook.

The exciting and tightly-contested outcome had to please both ESPN executives and advertisers alike. Viewed in millions of American homes on ESPN, the game would not only become the highest-rated program in the network's history, but the highest-rated cable television show ever with a 16.1 rating, according to Nielsen.

Pac-10 champions for the second straight year, Oregon battled toe to toe with Auburn for four quarters, but the Tigers eked out a 22-19 victory with a field goal at the buzzer. Despite the loss, Duck fans everywhere can be proud of their team: the University of Oregon finished the regular season with a 12-0 record and became one of the few to ever win the conference with an undefeated record.

And most were. However, the malcontents emerged almost immediately after the game with their vindictive, spiteful venom. Said one Register-Guard poster, signed "Donald Duck" (a pseudonym):"Two years in a row, and I must admit that (Duck football coach) Chip Kelly choked. Last year, it was the Rose Bowl: this year, the national championship. Chip is simply not ready for prime time. Sad, sad, sad."

Sad? The best season ever in Duck football history? You must be kidding. I have little patience for such sentiment.

Fair-weather fans like "Donald Duck," who only seem to be increasing in their numbers, clearly lack perspective. For those of us who have been following Duck football since they had only two sets of uniforms, there's a lot to like about this program.

It's been a long road from the outhouse (the Toilet Bowl, also known as the 1983 Civil War, the last 0-0 tie in college football history, an exercise in futility that included double digit turnovers and no points) to the penthouse (the BCS national championship game).

I first started following the Ducks in the 1960s, toward the end of the coaching reign of the legendary Len Casanova. My parents both attended the University of Oregon during their freshman year in college, though they both finished their degrees in the City of Roses, at the University of Portland and Marylhurst College.

The Ducks would play the occasional football game in my hometown of Portland, usually against USC, Oregon State or Washington. Hayward Field on the UO campus in Eugene only held 22,000, while Multnomah Stadium in Portland held 35,000, so it made more financial sense to play some games in the larger venue.

During my college years in the early '70s, the oft-coined expression by inebriated students was "the Ducks suck!"

That was the extreme view, not unlike our aforementioned "Donald Duck," the erstwhile fan.

However, despite all the adversity we faced as Duck fans, we always loved our Ducks, win or lose. I always believed that being a Duck was more real life. In real life, you don't always win.

During one Duck football game in the early 70s, a particularly excruciating loss to Cal, I turned to my j-school classmate, Jeff Foreman, and asked: "do you think we will ever go to a bowl game in our lifetime?" He shook his head "no."

Right then and there, we made a blood pact that if the Ducks ever were to go to a bowl game, we would be there to support our team -- anytime and anywhere.

About 14 years later, in 1989, the Ducks were invited to the Independence Bowl in -- of all places -- Shreveport, Louisiana. Jeff and I met my brother Robert, who flew in from Philadelphia, at the bayou bowl game.

Down two touchdowns in the third quarter, the Ducks rallied to win behind the passing of quarterback Bill Musgrave for the 27-24 win over the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

With that modest success, the Independence Bowl would lead to bigger and better bowls. In 1990, we actually went to a warm weather bowl in Southern California, the Freedom Bowl.

After a couple of down years, some fans started grousing; they wanted to fire Head Coach Rich Brooks.

"Ditch Rich" signs were ubiquitous in the Autzen parking lot after the Ducks started the season 1-2 in 1994. But both Coach Brooks and the Ducks responded to their critics by finishing the season with a 8-1 run to win the league title outright and punch their ticket to Pasadena.

The University of Oregon would represent the Pac-10 Conference in the Rose Bowl, their first trip since 1958, and face the Penn State Nittany Lions in the "granddaddy of them all."

In 2001, the Ducks played in their first BCS bowl game, stampeding the University of Colorado Buffaloes and finishing as the #2-ranked college football team in the country.

Over the next 10 years, the Ducks appeared in a succession of lower-tier bowls until 2009, when they returned to the Rose Bowl, and this year, when they played in the BCS national championship game.

Aside from the game itself, there was a lot to like about the Ducks' first appearance in the big game. This season -- even with the loss to Auburn University -- was a victory.

The collective awareness of the University of Oregon generated by all the media attention during the 30-plus days of coverage leading up to the game is incalculable -- it would be virtually impossible to buy that level of exposure. Major coverage, in a very positive way.

And as they say: "a rising tide lifts all boats." The game not only helped raise the profile of the football team, but the University of Oregon itself. The Ducks were "feelin' the love" from sea to shining sea, and even Jimmy Fallon weighed in on the subject on his show.

And, like it or not, the Ducks have become the gold standard of college football. Oregon is now one of the top ten programs in the nation: they are successful, they are recognizable and they are in a position to stay there.

It's been a long and winding road from Shreveport, Louisiana to Glendale, Arizona. And to those "nattering nabobs of negativism" (the fair weather Ducks like "Donald Duck," the aforementioned Register-Guard poster), I say this: loyal fans of the University of Oregon will always love their Ducks -- unconditionally.

As Head Coach Chip Kelly says: "we'll be back," and Duck fans have every reason to believe him.


Keldon said...

...and they said you weren't a fucking sportswriter. Numb nabobs from hell, they are... rip their lungs out Gonzo!

Keldon said...

Dr. Nadir says "Go Duckth!"

Gonzo said...

Funny you should note the "sportswriter experience," Herr Inkbone. I gave up a sweet gig as a forestry technician at the Lake Wenatchee Ranger District to accept a job as a "sportswriter" at The Brookings-Harbor Pilot in Brookings, Oregon in June, 1977. Turns out my heart was still into being a wilderness stranger, for I returned to the Wenatchee Valley in April, 1978.

Gonzo said...

Yeth, printheth! By the way: "range 700, maximum firepower!"

Anonymous said...

True Duck Fans of the world unite! I am glad to be among such company, and I am proud to call them friends!

Well done Brother, I salute you Homey!