by David Wharton, Los Angeles Times –
EUGENE, Ore. — The clanks and booms of heavy machinery interrupt an otherwise quiet, gray morning.
This is what winning football sounds like at Oregon.
A few hundred yards from where the Ducks practice, construction crews are erecting yet another athletic building, a team complex that — bound in black metal and glass — will rival anything the NFL has to offer.
It is easy to view this program’s recent success in terms of brick and mortar, to credit Nike co-founder and university alumnus Phil Knight for funding an array of facilities and a stadium renovation.
“It’s the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “Bling sells and they’ve gotten kids’ attention.”
But as No. 2 Oregon faces No. 18 USC at the Coliseum on Saturday, Neuheisel and others see more than a construction boom.
The slickly packaged Ducks, with their warp-speed offense and multiple-color uniforms, have transitioned from novelty to perennial contender. And they’ve done it their way.
“They literally said, ‘OK, the old rules don’t apply anymore,’”“ said Allen Wallace of SuperPrep magazine. “They’ve somehow managed to create their own kind of excellence.”
Not many schools can match Oregon’s record over the last five seasons, the team going 53-13 with appearances in two Rose Bowls and the 2010 season’s Bowl Championship Series national title game.
By comparison, Alabama has gone 55-12, Louisiana State 53-14 and USC 50-14.
That is good company for a program that struggled for decades. From 1967 to 1976 under three coaches, the Ducks were 37-69-2. The change started under Rich Brooks in the early 1990s but really took off when Mike Bellotti took over in 1995.
The new coach understood that he needed to recruit outside the region. The Pacific Northwest simply did not offer enough talent to maintain a winning program.
Bellotti soon distinguished himself as an evaluator, finding players the big schools had overlooked. Often, these prospects hailed from California high schools and junior colleges.
“It’s the best hotbed of college football talent in the nation,” he said at the time. “We all know that.”
As his team pieced together winning seasons, administrators got into the act. The athletic department ramped up its fundraising efforts and hired the business-savvy Bill Moos as athletic director. The university mended a rift with Knight, who resumed his generous contributions.
A $15-million indoor practice field helped woo out-of-state recruits worried about rain. As ticket demand increased, the school spent $90 million to add 12,000 seats and 32 luxury boxes to Autzen Stadium.
All of this occurred at a time when critics had begun to denounce the “arms race” in college sports, schools eager to outspend each other on facilities and coaching salaries.
The Ducks made no apologies. As Moos — who is now at Washington State — once put it: “If there is an arms race, Oregon is in it.” The current coach, Chip Kelly, seems to agree.
Kelly mentions that USC recently built a football center and that construction is under way at Washington.
“You’d better make sure you have a situation where you can show the recruits that you’re committed to being really good,” he said. “You’ve got to keep striving to get better because everyone else is.”
The only thing missing in Eugene is a national championship. The loss to Auburn in January 2011 still stings, and some traditionalists continue to view the Ducks as a novelty.
But the factors that make them different have been the keys to their success.
Back in 2001, as home-grown quarterback Joey Harrington matured into a Heisman Trophy candidate, the athletic department launched an audacious campaign.
They plastered Harrington’s image 100 feet tall in New York’s Times Square. After that, they started renting billboard space in San Francisco and Los Angeles to promote the team.
“Marketing genius,” Wallace said. “They could not compete against the traditional powers, so they figured out a way to build a better mousetrap.”
Next came the uniforms, a carousel of bright colors and glossy surfaces that served to advertise Nike and the program.
People scoffed at first. Some still do. But look how many schools are following Oregon’s lead, in fashion and function.
“Oklahoma State took a page right out of the Oregon handbook,” said Neuheisel, now an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. “T. Boone Pickens has built a juggernaut in Stillwater.”
None of this should detract from the way the Ducks perform on the field.
Neuheisel sees fundamental components in Kelly’s frenetic offense, which leads the nation in scoring. And there is something very traditional about Oregon’s staff.
The school tends to keep its coaches for a long time, Brooks staying for 18 seasons and Bellotti for 14. Several current assistants measure their tenure in decades, not years.
“I think that’s pretty unique if you look around college football,” said Brock Huard, an ESPN analyst who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and played quarterback at rival Washington. “I don’t know if you can find a program that has that kind of stability.”
Kenjon Barner, the Ducks’ top rusher this season, believes that most recruits ultimately look past the glitz, focusing on basic elements when choosing where to play.
“You come to school because it’s a good fit,” he said. “You come because it feels right.”
But the shiny stuff doesn’t hurt — and it certainly attracts more attention.
So fans around the nation might be curious to see which uniforms the Ducks wear at USC this weekend. They might tune in for some of that hyper-speed offense.
“In terms of building the program, it was really a vision,” Neuheisel said of Oregon’s rise. “They just did a little extra to get people excited about a town that had not been on the map.”