Once upon a time, not so long ago, Oregon was headed to a bowl game.
Fans were scrambling for tickets and figuring out how to make travel arrangements. The team was hard at work, preparing for an opponent remarkably similar to itself.
The alleged experts were expecting a one-sided victory.
The city of Eugene, the entire Duck universe, was beside itself with excitement and anticipation.
The game itself was nip-and-tuck, not decided until late in the 4th quarter, and the fans who were there will never forget the experience.
But the trip to the 1989 Independence Bowl wound up costing the UO a small fortune.. and there was significant debate over whether it had been worth the cost (or investment, depending on who described the transaction).
Given Oregon’s post-1994 success, it’s easy to forget that back in 1989, it was practically inconceivable that Oregon would ever get to a bowl game without winning the conference outright.
The acuity of Oregon’s bowl desperation in the late ’80s could be seen on the front cover of the 1985 media guide, where the phrase “1985 Mirage Bowl” was prominently featured, without further explanation inside. (The aptly named “Mirage Bowl” was merely a relocated regular season game played in Japan for a few years; in 1985, Oregon traveled to Tokyo and lost to USC.)
But there was always hope. Some seasons, there was even possible anticipation for something that might happen if everything lined up right. Maybe.
Oregon had flirted with bowls several times during The Suffering.. and time and again found itself jilted in late November, while bowl committees ran off with flashy tramps with “experience”.
Oregon was, technically, “bowl-eligible” five times between 1964 and 1994.
For years, the only bowl game Pac-8 members were eligible for was the Rose Bowl. Oregon’s previous two bowl engagements, the 1960 Liberty and 1963 Sun, occurred while the Webfoots were an unaffiliated “Western independent.” Once the western colleges were re-formed into the AAWU (later renamed the Pacific-8), the Rose restriction was renewed. It was thought that somehow having more than one conference team in post-season play would dilute the appeal of “the Granddaddy of them all.”
Thus, for a decade, the only conference teams playing in the post-season were USC (7 Rose Bowls), Stanford (2) and UCLA (1). This restriction was finally lifted for the 1975 season.. just in time for UCLA to win the conference again.
Not that the restriction - or its removal - ever mattered much to Oregon.
Never able to break the USC / UCLA / Stanford stranglehold on the conference title before 1975, the team’s best record between 1965 and 1988 came in the probation season of 1980, when they weren’t eligible for post-season play.
But the fickle finger of post-season play beckoned a few times, only to reveal itself as an upraised middle digit..
Behind the arm of sophomore sensation Dan Fouts and the legs of junior tailback Bobby Moore, on Halloween the Ducks traveled to Seattle trailing only Stanford in conference.
At 5-2 and 4-1, Oregon was coming off an impressive 10-7 home win over USC. The week before, a miraculous comeback at UCLA led to a 41-40 win, and suddenly Oregon owned wins over the SoCal schools for the first time since 1957. Which was the last time they were in the Rose Bowl, a fact that was not lost on many of the locals.
One problem: Oregon had already lost to Stanford, 33-10, in September, and the Indians owned the Rose Bowl tiebreaker. And Stanford hadn’t lost yet, having also knocked off USC and UCLA.
Still, there was no reason to stop playing. The best record since 1964’s 7-2-1 was well within reach. Stanford had three conference games left, which meant three chances to trip up twice. And Oregon was ranked #16 in the AP. Jerry Frei was named UPI “Coach of the Week.” It was a good week to be a Duck.
As the new starter, young Fouts wasn’t above talking some subtle pre-game trash. Asked about the pressure surrounding a Rose Bowl race, he said “I feel the added pressure keeps us up for each game.
“We know Washington is going to be tough because they think they’re still in contention.”
He knew what he was talking about. The 1970 UW game was a titanic battle, but in the end Oregon hit the iceberg.
The final quarter was epic. Oregon led after three, 15-7, but backup UW quarterback Greg Collins led a furious comeback early in the 4th quarter. Huskies tied the game at 15 after getting good field position on a punt return, then after the kickoff Fouts was intercepted by DB Bob Burmeister. One play later, Collins hit WR Bo Cornell in the end zone, and the Huskies led 22-15. Undaunted, Oregon marched right down the field, using a halfback pass from Moore to WR Steve Bailey and a two-point run by FB Jim Anderson to take the lead 23-22.
Although unable to stretch the lead later in the quarter as UW’s 6’7” DE Kurt Matter blocked a 36 yard FG attempt by Ken Woody, the Ducks seemed to have the game in hand as UW failed to convert on 4th down with minutes remaining. But Fouts fumbled on a broken play after running for a first down at midfield, and Collins moved the Huskies far enough and fast enough to allow Steve Wiezbowski to nail the winning 19 yard FG with 30 seconds left.
Out of the Rose Bowl race, Oregon went a little .. schizophrenic.
Bobby Moore decided to skip practice on Monday, and Frei benched him for the next game, against #10 Air Force. But the defense kicked it up a notch, forcing five 4th quarter turnovers. And Fouts, absent his biggest weapon, simply went nuts against the Falcon secondary, tossing four TD passes and leading the Ducks to 17 unanswered 4th quarter points in a 46-35 upset. His 396 passing yards (28-43-2) and 418 in total offense were both Oregon single-game records; he was named Pac-8 player of the week and the “national back of the week” by UPI.
The ship righted, Moore returned for a trip to West Point against the 1-8 Black Knights.. and his 59 yard 4th quarter run, plus a reception for the two-point conversion, merely salvaged a 22-22 tie.
Finally, there was the ritual loss in the Civil War — the seventh straight — as the Beavs rolled up 336 yards rushing, and Oregon again collapsed in the 4th quarter.
Still, the Ducks did end the year with their best record since ‘64. 6-4-1, thirty years later, would get a team a bid somewhere. All it got the 1970 Ducks was congratulations - and their last winning season until 1979.
Three coaches and nine seasons later, Oregon was on the verge of bowl eligibility. There were 15 bowls on the schedule in 1979. Trouble was, only three of those were west of Texas, and none of them (the Rose, Fiesta and Holiday) were interested. And it was hard to imagine Oregon as a team that “traveled well.”
But, at 5-4 going into the penultimate game against UCLA, Oregon was reported to be one of several schools on the radar of the new Garden State Bowl, to be played in the Garden State. A quick check of the encyclopedia revealed the Garden State to be New Jersey, and the bowl itself to be in East Rutherford, in northern New Jersey, not normally seen as an optimal post-season destination.
When asked if the Ducks were a viable candidate, the head of the Garden State Bowl committee said there was “limited interest.. They’re so far away, and so new in the bowl picture, that it’s easier for a bowl that’s been around to go to a newcomer, because they may have an established audience.” Which was bowl executive-speak for “Who the hell is Oregon?”
Nonetheless, the fans were abuzz with excitement. Coach Brooks, although pessimistic, told the Oregon Club “a 7-4 team ought to go to a bowl, especially a 7-4 team that’s tied for second in the Pac-10.. I know this: It’s a little bit different situation for people to be thinking about Oregon being in a bowl game.”
And, thinking about it people were.. right up until the Bruins ran their team off its home field, in a 35-0 rain-soaked debacle. (Literally,ran them off the field; UCLA threw just six passes, and had 91 rushing attempts.)
Technically, the Ducks were bowl-eligible after the subsequent Civil War win. But AD John Caine’s phone never rang, and Oregon stayed home at 6-5.
After an upset win at UCLA behind sophomore QB Chris Miller, Oregon had overcome a four-game losing streak and was again 5-4 and flirting with bowl eligibility. This time, nobody wanted to jinx it.. although with the number of bowls up to 17, a 7-4 Oregon team might have been at least as attractive as, say, a 7-4 Wazzu team.
As in 1979, they were at Autzen, playing to secure a winning season.
And, just like in ‘79, they stunk up the place, losing to Arizona State 44-10.
Brooks: “We’re not a very mature team… We don’t know how to handle success. If we’re ever going to get over that hump, we’ve got to learn that.”
Another blowout win in Corvallis, and the Ducks were again 6-5, again home for the holidays, watching on New Year’s Day as three Pac-10 teams won big games - UCLA over Miami in the Fiesta, USC over Ohio State in the Rose, and Washington over Oklahoma in the Orange. (This remains the only season the Pac-10 put three teams in January 1 bowls.)
Oregon started strong in 1987 behind a hot freshman quarterback named Bill Musgrave. Another four-game losing streak put Oregon at 4-5 heading to Pullman, and seemingly off the radar of any of the 18 bowls this season. But a big wins at Wazzu, and a 44-0 blowout in the Civil War, made the Ducks bowl eligible.. and this time it seemed there was a chance.
In a bit of foreshadowing, Oregon AD Bill Byrne told officials at the Sun Bowl after the win over OSU that Oregon would guarantee the sale of “any number of seats they need, within reason.” And Sun officials acknowledged that, thanks to some untimely upsets of teams that had been considered locks for bowl bids, Oregon was a “serious candidate.”
For one day.
On Sunday morning, West Virginia (6-5) got the Sun Bowl bid against Oklahoma State (6-5). The Sun Bowl chairman explained “our decision was based on the East Coast television market.” He also noted that West Virginia played very well in all the games it lost. Which is something Oregon couldn’t say.
Brooks and his team set reaching the Rose Bowl as their top priority for the ‘88 season. Bill Musgrave was back along with plenty of talent. And, for a while, the Ducks had their priorities in line. In late October, they were back in the top 20, their only blemish to a USC team that didn’t lose a conference game.
With a 6-1 record, after Terry Obee took the reverse around left end for the winning score against the Huskies in Autzen on October 22, the question wasn’t if Oregon would finally break its bowl drought; it was “Rose Bowl or what?” Scouts from the Holiday, Freedom and Sun Bowls were in attendance, part of the biggest crowd (45,978) in Oregon history.
It seemed the only non-believers were the locals; a week later, the crowd at Autzen dropped to under 35,000 for ASU.
Among those who showed up: the bowl scouts, who showed up to see Bill Musgrave break his collarbone in the first half attempting to tackle Sun Devil LB Rodney Dillard while carrying a football. Musgrave’s understudy, Pete Nelson, threw three picks; the Duck backs lost four fumbles, and what would have been the winning two-point conversion was nullified when WR Joe Reitzug was flagged for stepping out of bounds prior to the catch. Ducks lost, 21-20.
When asked after the game about Oregon’s bowl chances, Brooks commented “all we have to do know is get some more wins. Somehow, some way, we have to get some more wins.”
And a bowl was still there for the taking. Even after a subsequent home loss to UCLA, Oregon was considered a top candidate for the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim. But they needed seven wins to get there - and that 7th win had to come on the road, in Tucson. Bowl bids would be announced in 1988 on November 13, a week before the Civil War.
They never got that 7th win. The turnover machine, created after the Musgrave breakdown, was in fine form against Arizona (four INTs, two fumbles lost). Derek Loville managed 8 yards on 11 carries. Oregon trailed 27-3 at the half, came back to within a touchdown in the 4th quarter, but collapsed late. The 41-27 loss ended any bowl hopes.
Oregon limped into the ‘88 Civil War at 6-4. Without a viable quarterback, the Ducks led 10-7 before collapsing late, giving OSU two fourth quarter TDs and a 21-10 win. It was the first four win season for the Beavs since 1971 and OSU’s first CW victory in 14 years.
A season-ending trip to Hawaii was as close to a post-season bowl as the Ducks would get. Fittingly, Oregon lost to the Rainbow Warriors, 41-10.
Things didn’t look great for another third straight return to bowl flirtation in 1989, although plenty of talent returned, including a healthy Bill Musgrave collarbone. The problem was the schedule. The conference season started in game one, against Cal, and there were only five home games in all, including Long Beach State. Road trips to Iowa, BYU, Washington, ASU and UCLA looked daunting.
At least they didn’t have to play USC.
Coming soon: Episode II - Revolution in the ArkLaTex, or How Bill Byrne bought his Independence.