Friday, January 16, 2015

Requiem For A Heavyweight

For Duck fans, the 2015 football season featured the highest of highs and the lowest of lows: beating highly-ranked Michigan State, followed by a devastating loss to upstart Arizona, then running the table en route to Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships, a Heisman, and finally, a crushing loss to Ohio State in the national title game.

After the drubbing by the Buckeyes in the title game, however, those nattering nabobs of negativism -- also known as “fair-weather Duck fans” -- were out in force. As Dr. Seuss would say: “the Gree-Grumps were growling.” Regardless, those of us with some perspective will greatly appreciate this season for some time to come.

As a season ticker holder for the past 30 years and a perennial student before that, Gonzo would fall into the latter category. In a recent interview for a student paper, I was asked how many Duck football games I had attended so far in my lifetime. After some thought, my estimate was well over 200, including road games and bowls.

Therein lies the perspective. During my undergraduate years, the UO football team was a collective 13-31. Over a seven-year period in my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, we had four different coaches: Jerry Frei, Dick Enright, Don Read and Rich Brooks. Times were tough for UO football fans, but we still cheered for our Ducks.

I remember sitting in the end zone for one particularly excruciating game, along with an accomplice, a college chum who will only be identified here by his pseudonym: Mr. Duke. We were leading 21-0 at halftime, but eventually lost the game 27-24. It was an epic collapse. By the way, in those days, it always rained in Autzen Stadium.

“Do you think the Ducks will ever go to the Rose Bowl?” I queried the inimitable Mr. Duke. Both of us were dripping wet after nearly four hours of football. What had begun as a game with high hopes of a win invariably led to what can only be described as a stunning defeat. “No,” he said, definitively, and with not just a hint of disgust.

Right then and there, we made a blood pact. If the University of Oregon “Fighting Ducks” were ever to qualify for a bowl game, we were going -- whenever and wherever it might be. Years passed, then a decade, with no bowl game on the immediate horizon. By 1986, many of my colleagues at EWEB were ready to fire Rich Brooks.

Then, a freshman quarterback from Colorado would ignite a spark in the program. Bill Musgrave (above), a cerebral ginger with moxie, would lead the Ducks to the Promised Land. Following back-to-back wins over USC and Washington on two glorious, 80-degree Saturdays, and a winning record (6-5) in 1987, the future did indeed look bright.

In 1988, with Musgrave at the helm and a 6-1 record after yet another win over the Washington Huskies, the scent of roses was in the air and fans were openly making plans for a trip to Pasadena. Then Musgrave went down with a broken collarbone and the Ducks lost their last five games in a row. No Rose Bowl. No bowl game, period.

The next year, however, the Ducks finished 7-4 and were invited to an obscure post-season contest in Shreveport, Louisiana called the Independence Bowl, the first in 26 years. Mr. Duke and I, along with brother Roberto, booked reservations and by early December, we were winging our way to Bayou Country with 4,000 other Duck fans.

The Ducks would face the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. Due to an unusual weather system, the temperature at kickoff was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. With the Ducks down by two touchdowns in the third quarter, the outlook was bleak. Despite the adversity, Musgrave willed the Ducks to victory and the team won by a field goal.

With Bill Musgrave, we not only hoped -- but also actually believed -- we could win. The next year, we went to the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim. The UO football program was on the upswing. But as was the case with Rome, empires are not built in a day. The ascension to the apex of the college football world would be oh-so-incremental.

A few years later, the Ducks won the Pac-10 with a defense dubbed “Gang Green” and played in the Rose Bowl against Penn State. After another half dozen years, they won the Fiesta Bowl and finished ranked #2 nationally under the leadership of Joey Harrington (above). More big bowls, including BCS games, would follow.

This season started very well. But as injuries to key players mounted, the Ducks became vulnerable, particularly on the offensive line. The defense hadn’t yet found its mojo. Against Arizona, the team faltered and lost, and the malcontents in Autzen were grousing loudly. Bad enough watching what was unfolding: their criticisms made it worse.

But the “Webfoots” rebounded emphatically, winning the next eight in a row. They avenged their loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game, and followed that with a 59-20 thumping of undefeated Florida State in the Rose Bowl. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy -- college football’s highest honor.

So for the whiners who believe that anything short of a national championship is failure, and particularly to those critics in the stands at the Arizona debacle, I say: “bugger off, mates.” The UO is 80-14 in the past seven seasons. They have indeed become “heavyweights” in the world of college football. Win or lose, I'll always love my Ducks!