Paycheck games. Non-conference matchups at the home field of the top tier of college football, wherein a Team That Needs The Money is offered as a sacrifice to The Team That Is Willing To Pay for a Guaranteed Win. TTNTM comes to town, gets its collective ass kicked by TTTIWTP4AGW, gets paid and leaves; there’s never a return trip next season, or ever.
Paycheck games have been around a long time. The most famous paycheck game was probably Georgia Tech vs. Cumberland, back in 1916. Tech won 222-0. And Cumberland earned the right to not pay Tech three grand. (The twist here was that Cumberland had actually dropped football in 1915, but Tech had a contract for a game. Cumberland would have owed Tech $3000 if they forfeited — a lot of cabbage in 1916 — so they cobbled together a team and showed up in Atlanta, with historic results. There will never be another game so lopsided.)
In the current FBS football environment, paycheck games are typically scheduled with bottom-tier teams in non-BCS conferences, along with the occasional FCS team (although Michigan discovered in 2007 that you can’t pick just any FCS team and they did learn their lesson, eventually).
But, before things like scholarship limits and TV revenue began to level the playing field a bit, it wasn’t unusual for a major conference university with a weak team to pimp itself out to football’s powerhouses. And Oregon was, for years, unashamed to play Football Prostitute. Over 17 seasons from 1971 to 1987, the Ducks played, or at least showed up, for 13 paycheck games. Nebraska three times. Oklahoma twice. Ohio State twice.Georgia and LSU, in the same season.
The average score? Home 46, Oregon 8
In the late 1950s, Leo Harris, the athletic director at the time, decided he’d take advantage of the national goodwill earned by the team at the 1958 Rose Bowl by scheduling big intersectional games, to make up for the holes in the schedule brought on by the demise of the old PCC. Some of those games were road-only, but Oregon wasn’t a downtrodden program, and few of the games were blowouts. Harris collected some paychecks, but these weren’t paycheck games — just non-conference tilts.
But before Harris retired in 1967, he scheduled the first of what would become 16 seasons of beatdowns. It’s one thing to schedule Minnesota for a road-only game, as Harris did in 1966 for the 1975 schedule. It’s another to add a road game against Oklahoma to the same non-league slate.
Harris’s successor at AD, former head coach Len Casanova, shares some of the blame for the paycheck games of the 70s. Cas went on a sabbatical in early 1969 and responsibility for schedule management fell to his staff for two years. Faced with an expansion of D-1 football schedules to 11 games in 1969, the acting assistant AD, Norv Ritchey, was forced to scramble; he had six seasons to fill. The ‘69 season was easy, as Hawaii had already been on the roster, giving Oregon enough games that year. California agreed to come to Portland for one last game at Civic Stadium in 1970. But Ritchey couldn’t resist the temptation to use paycheck games to help balance the athletic budget. He agreed to two road games at Nebraska in five years, with no return, along with a trip to Missouri, to help fill the 11th game slots through 1975.
Thus, the Ducks began their venture into full-out gridiron whoredom in ‘71, with one-way road trip losses to eventual national champion Nebraska and previous national champion Texas. With Fouts and Moore, the talent was there to at least give a reasonable effort that season. But when the talent withered away, and the budget didn’t keep up with reality, paycheck games became regular, and brutal. AD Norv Ritchey just couldn’t resist the big payouts, and saddled Oregon with road game beatdowns that went on for years after he resigned. (A story, possibly apocryphal, tells of a day that Ritchey accidentally scheduled two paycheck games for the same Saturday in 1977.)
Years later, Ritchey was unapologetic about sending his football coaches on revenue/suicide missions:
The income from just one of these games will more than cover our entire budgets for the sports of gymnastics, wrestling, golf and tennis … These games have become essential to us … in some years those paydays have meant the difference …
— Norv Ritchey, June 1975
The Paycheck Games, 1971 - 1987
- 1971 @ Nebraska (7-34) (1971 National Champions)
@ Texas (7-35) (ended season #12)
- 1972 @ Oklahoma (3-68) (ended season #2; RB Greg Pruitt won Heisman)
- 1973 @ Michigan (0-24) (ended season #6)
- 1974 @ Nebraska (7-61) (ended season #7)
- 1975 @ Oklahoma (7-62) (1975 National Champions)
- 1976 @ Notre Dame (0-41) (ended season #12)
- 1977 @ Georgia (16-27) (Rich Brooks’ first game as HC; Georgia ended season 5-6)
@ LSU (17-56) (ended season #15)
- 1983 @ Ohio State (6-31) (ended season #15)
- 1985 @ Nebraska (0-63) (ended season #4)
- 1986 @ Nebraska (14-48) (ended season #10)
- 1987 @ Ohio State (14-24) (OSU was ranked #7 at game time)
Rich Brooks, with the cooperation of ADs John Byrne and Rick Bay, slowed down the whoring, or at least tried to, until the post-probation pratfall depleted the college coffers, and forced a round of sloppy seconds at Columbus and Lincoln; the administration thought the paycheck compensated for the team’s humiliation. Football schedules being what they were back then, it took 10 years to bring the practice to a halt.
Duck fans have former AD Bill Byrne to thank for finally ending the paycheck games. During his second year as athletic director at Oregon, in 1985, Byrne watched the Ducks assume the position in Lincoln.
“Our team had no chance to win,” said Byrne, reflecting on the situation in 1992, when he left Oregon to take the AD job at — Nebraska. “We lost 63-0. I decided right there as athletic director I had to schedule games we had a chance to win.”
Byrne also set up the tradition of home-and-home games against Big 10 schools, a series that began in 1993 (Illinois) and ended in 2009 (Purdue).
By insisting on home-and-home games against major conference opponents, Byrne laid the groundwork for expectations of better results.
That policy would, with time, turn Oregon into a team that hosts the paycheck games.