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Sunday
Mar202011

The Education of Rich Brooks, 1977 - 1982

This is the story of a young coach who started with nothing, built something, discovered it had a shabby foundation, and was forced to tear it down and suffer the consequences while he learned how to build it right.

* * *

Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young football coach named Rich Brooks. 

Rich had never been a head coach before, even though he was very experienced and smart and had helped other teams win games as an assistant coach.

One day, a downtrodden university in Eugene with a dismal recent football history, a bleak outlook, and a meager budget came to Rich. “Would you please coach our team?” the school said. “We say we’ll do anything to get a winning team, but nobody wants to coach us, because we treat our football program like crap, and then fire the coach for not beating the Aggies.”

Rich was not only ambitious, but likely a bit suspicious. He was more than a little familiar with the school that wanted to hire him; he’d been an Aggie himself, and most recently had coached at UCLA, and had never coached on a team that had lost to Oregon. But he knew he was their third choice. (The first choice, Bill Walsh, decided Stanford was a better opportunity; the second, Jim Mora, considered Oregon a dead end and dropped out of the selection process.)

Rich also knew he’d be the best coach they’d had in years, mainly because the bar had been set almost on the ground. But Oregon swore they were willing to throw a lot of resources at the problem. So, Rich got them to agree to let him hire who he wanted, and pay them as much as necessary to help him coach the team.

And: Rich didn’t promise to keep anyone from the old coach’s staff. Considering that previous head coaches had all been hired off the previous coaching organization, with dismal results, this was all seen as radical change.

Rich took the job. They paid him $32,000 a year. He said it would take him two years to turn things around, because that’s how long it would take to get the players he wanted. 

And he’d promised the school he’d put together the best coaching staff money could buy. 

One coach he wanted was a guy he’d worked with in the past, named John Becker. Rich’s predecessor, a nice guy named Don Read, had tried and tried and tried to get John to help him coach the offense, but John kept refusing, maybe because he knew Read would eventually coach himself out of work.

John lived in southern California, was a coach at a little school called Los Angeles Valley College. Rich thought John could not only help with his offense, but act as a good recruiter in California. John could bring in good quality players, and help the players stay eligible! This sounded great to Rich.

So Rich made John the highest paid assistant coach in the conference.

After a couple of years of trying really hard, and getting better, but not winning many games, things turned around in 1979. Rich’s team actually had a winning season.  They even came within a game of being considered for a bowl game in New Jersey. (For a team that hadn’t been to a bowl in 17 years, this was progress.)

With most of the team coming back in 1980, a tough option QB in Reggie Ogburn, a bevy of solid players on offense and defense, and a solid recruiting class, things were really looking up. Fans were excited. The team came close to selling out some games. 

Then, in December of 1979, the big bright green water balloon that Rich had been filling for three years exploded in his face, splattering the entire program and school and community.

It started small. Several universities were under investigation in 1979 regarding college credits that were awarded to players without being earned.  One course that seemed to pop up frequently in investigations was “Current Problems and Principles of Coaching Athletics.” This not-exactly-rocket-science seminar was offered as an extension-school summer class by “Ottawa University of Kansas”, but was actually “taught” in two locations — a garage and a student lounge, both on the campus of Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, Ca.. 

Two of Rich’s players, Rock Richmond and Mike Honeycutt, had received credit for taking the class — and maintained their eligibility. They assured Rich that they’d actually taken the class, so everything was fine, nothing to see here. Another player, Paul Perez, had apparently received three credit hours simply by paying the tuition.. but because Perez hadn’t actually played in any games, his action didn’t get the school in trouble. Or so it seemed.

Rich’s bosses performed a perfunctory one-day investigation, and determined that everything was hunky-dory. But his school’s president, William Boyd — not an enemy of a solid football program, but one who had sworn with great vengeance and righteous anger to take action against a corrupt program  — made a statement that would prove ominous:

“I wanted to be damn sure the students actually attended the course to be sure there was no deceit in obtaining the credit.. I’m relieved to learn the athletic department is not guilty of the insinuations… but I am still left with an uneasy feeling that present practices may well be conducive to the erosion of sound academic standards. This practice seems to invite students to seek out “soft” courses.”

— UO President William Boyd, quoted in the Eugene Register-Guard, Dec 13 1979

“Present practices” meant, of course, what John was doing with Rich’s team.

Rich was no dummy. He knew that in order to compete with the “big boys” in football, you had to act like the big boys. Everyone else was doing it. The keep-players-eligible-at-all-costs mentality was what drove football success! Education First was for places like Vanderbilt and Northwestern and Duke and Rice and Stanford, where football didn’t matter all that much. Rich wanted Oregon Football to be successful.. and he was on the way to getting them there.. and then this broke out. Frustrating.

Rich knew he had a problem. His top guy, assistant coach John, had arranged for those players to “take those classes”, darn it! This looked bad.

It was bad. 

Four days later, it was revealed that Perez had not only “earned” credit for the correspondence course, but he’d received 10 full credit hours for courses he didn’t attend — and not for the Ottawa extension course, but for actual courses at .. Los Angeles Valley College. John’s old stomping ground. It turned out Perez’s entire transcript was bogus.

On December 17, John Becker resigned as assistant coach, which apparently looked to him like a better option than getting fired, which would have certainly been the next step.

Seems that one of John’s buddies at Valley College, a guy named Early Durley, had made a statement to investigators that he’d ginned up a bunch of phony credits for John, because, well, that’s what friends are for. Officials at Los Angeles Valley College said they were shocked, shocked that Paul Perez had told investigators he’d received bogus credits — because their own records showed he’d not only showed up on campus, but was apparently a model student! He completed three PE classes (two As and a C).

Funny thing, though.. on his various applications and other paperwork, his handwriting showed the remarkable ability to resemble that of several different people. Oh, and Valley College had no record of any classes ever having been taught in a “lounge” or “garage.”

The FBI announced an investigation into allegations of mail fraud and bribery involving Rich’s football players; apparently it was a federal crime to use the mail system to get credit for a class you never took. Uh oh.

Rich decided it was time to throw himself under the bus. He sent his boss William Boyd a letter of resignation. Boyd sent it back. Nice try, Rich, he seemed to say, but you got us into this mess, and you’re going to get us out of it.

It kept getting worse.

On December 20, President Boyd announced that, um, remember those two guys who we said didn’t do anything wrong? Well, Rich went back and yelled at some people, and it turned out that Rock and Mike had apparently forgotten they’d never done a lick of work at any school in Van Nuys! Things like that just slip your mind.

Now, Rich had to accept the possibility that — at best — his winning season in 1979 would turn into an 0-11 forfeit party.

Two days later, the mess expanded. Valley College had found another “student” with credits transferred to Oregon, a freshman from Illinois named Paul Sanborn.. and Sanborn’s transcript was almost identical to the one they’d made up for Perez. Apparently, no official transcript had been issued, but Sanborn had asked the transcripts to be sent to .. John Becker. 

Finally, the president decided the school was over its head and potentially compromised in the investigation. In mid-January 1980, he named an independent investigator. It didn’t take long to dig up more evidence of compromised integrity, and an entitlement mentality.

The media, especially the Eugene Register-Guard, was more than happy to perform its own investigation. Not to be left out, the local district attorney, Pat Horton, decided that if asses were going to be kicked, by golly, he’d be kicking them.

Some of what was eventually revealed by all these investigations:

  • More phony transcripts from Valley were discovered. One player received 25 credits during the summer of 1977 while simultaneously enrolled in three different colleges located 400 miles apart. (He should have been on the cross-country team.)  Derrick Dale earned instant eligibility in 1978 by “taking,” as independent study, a jogging course at nearby Lane Community College; he was credited for running he had done in football practice. Initially dismissed as a “disgruntled former player,” Dale was, eventually, gruntled.
  • Coaches and players made numerous personal, long-distance calls billed to the university. (This was back when a 10-minute long-distance call could cost $10, so  yes, this was a big deal — the total was said to be $10,000.) Seven players would eventually be indicted by the DA on phone fraud charges
  • There was a slush fund set up by boosters at a local travel agency, used to purchase plane tickets for players, flouting NCAA regulations against special benefits. Players Andrew Page and Rick Ward were ruled ineligible for 1980 by the Pac-10, and both immediately transferred out of the league (but not out of trouble, as we’ll see).
  • Even the UO swim team got into the spirit:  six bogus credits were purchased by two scholarship swimmers, at $100 per credit.The transaction was documented by a money order receipt and a message saying “Please send units up and receipt.” The money was paid to a counselor at a juco in Southern California; the source was never revealed.
  • A citizen had reported the theft of a stereo by a football player in 1979; the stereo was “recovered” by athletic department employees, and returned to the owner, who was furious that the Eugene police were not taking action against the thief. The aggrieved citizen eventually went to the DA.
  • Starting tailback Dwight Robertson was one of four members of the 1978 team indicted in August on charges of first degree sodomy and coercion  on allegations of a gang-rape of a female student at the University Inn.  That didn’t stop Robertson from playing in the season opener against Stanford.  Rich thought it would be a crime to kick him off the team. Innocent until proven guilty. (The other players indicted? Andrew Page and Rick Ward — already famous for getting free plane tickets — and Reggie Young, who apparently used his own money to buy a plane ticket to Hawaii in search of more playing time.)

Eventually, the NCAA and Pac-10 put the hammer down on Oregon (and UCLA, and ASU, and OSU, and even USC, just in case you thought they’ve always gotten away with it). The conference put the Ducks on probation in 1980, cut the scholarships available by three for 1981-2, and forced the team to forfeit all 10 wins from 1977 to 1979 — every game Rich Brooks had won to that point.

As if that wasn’t enough, the NCAA banned the team from post-season play for 1982, and — significantly more painfully, given that the Ducks wouldn’t come close to bowl eligibility — prohibiting the team from TV appearances that year as well. The number of scholarships available was cut from 30 to 25 for 1982-3 and to 28 for 1983-4. 

The 1980 Oregon team turned out to be pretty good, after all that, going 6-3-2, stomping the Huskies in Seattle 34-10, beating Michigan State and UCLA and playing USC to a tie. They might have made a bowl game had they been eligible. 

But, in 1981, the bottom fell out. They lost the home opener to Fresno State; they finished 2-9.

In 1982 they lost to Fresno again, and San Jose State, winding up 2-8-1. 

It would be a long climb back to respectability — on and off the field. 

Some valuable lessons were learned during the debacle of Rich Brooks’ early career, the most important being that there are no shortcuts in college football. The “traditional powers” didn’t become powers overnight, but over decades.

It would take years for Oregon to be in a position to earn respect again, as a team and a program. The fact that the respect did eventually come is a testament to the stubborn determination of Rich Brooks, and the faith the school placed in him, when not a few other schools would have accepted that letter of resignation.

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