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Tuesday
Mar222011

Sept 18, 1982: Fresno State 10, Oregon 4

Significant Event: Sept 15 — A federal judge rules in favor of a lawsuit brought by the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma, effectively nullifying the NCAA’s stranglehold on college football television rights. The decision allows schools to make their own television deals. The NCAA appeals, saying the decision would lead to disastrous results, such as viewers actually having a choice of games to watch. The case goes to the Supreme Court. The NCAA loses. Reports of televised-football-induced psychosis in the aftermath of this decision are not widespread.

1982, a year that began with a mixture of resignation and trepidation, was literally overlooked by the first expansion at Autzen — the new Stadium Club, perched atop the east rim. The Ducks were on probation — again — for the late-70s grade scandals; there would be no TV or bowl games in 1982, not that either would have been proffered. Highly touted RB Kevin Willhite,  possibly Oregon’s highest-rated recruit ever at the time, tore his hamstring while being overworked by his high school track coach at a meet in Sacramento, and unexpectedly redshirted. Dwight Robertson, he of the troubled past, had taken a late redshirt in what should have been his senior season in 1981, and was expected to carry the load at tailback.

Coming into town this week was a team that had opened the debacle that was the 1981 season for the Ducks. A team that wouldn’t be intimidated in a Pac-10 opponent’s house, led by a quarterback who went on to earn honorary mention All-America status, set school records for passing and offense, play six years in the CFL, developed a reputation as a guru of young gunslingers, spent five years as one of Mike Bellotti’s offensive coordinators, and then was named head coach at Cal.

Jeff Tedford, former Fresno State QBYes, that Jeff Tedford. In 1982, Tedford was a first-year starter for Fresno State as a senior; he was a backup in the FSU win the previous year and didn’t see action then, but took over the starting job in mid-season and never gave it up. His favorite target, WR Henry Ellard, went on to enjoy a 15-year NFL career, including eleven seasons with the Rams and three Pro Bowl selections. Ellard set the NCAA season record for receiving yards in 1982 (1510).

Points were hard to come by for Oregon in 1982. Across the river from the Hult Center, the Ducks were smarting after an 18-13 loss to San Jose State. Rich Brooks was playing musical quarterbacks — after starting the season with veteran Kevin Lusk, against SJS he plays freshman Dana Hill for half the game, then announced on Monday he’d be starting Hill against Fresno.

Brooks couldn’t be blamed for mixing things up. In a rare bit of scheduling, his team had opened 1982 with three home games, and through the first two, his offense hadn’t scored a touchdown. Coming off a 2-9 season, the Ducks had barely drawn 23,000 on Labor Day weekend for the home opener, a 34-3 drubbing by Arizona State in which Brooks played three QBs — Lusk, Hill and Mike Jorgenson — and injured two of them. Lusk started, was replaced by the freshman Hill to no good effect; when Lusk reentered the game, the home fans booed; thus did the fans hail the second coming of Norv Turner. Afterwards, Brooks said “Kevin Lusk is still our quarterback. Obviously, the fans don’t agree with that…”

The next week, the turnstiles allegedly rolled up 17,639 for San Jose St, and Oregon’s option attack rolled up 174 yards of offense, along with three fumbles, two interceptions and no points; the 13 points were scored on special teams, with Dan Duffy recovering Mike Walter’s blocked punt in the end zone, and pre-season Playboy All-American Steve Brown returning another punt 53 yards. The stands were quiet enough that one SJS play, a run that looked to be a touchdown, was blown dead because someone in the sparsely populated Autzen Stadium stands had blown a whistle, stopping the Duck players dead in their tracks. 

Oregon had been decimated by injuries after just two games. The wishbone/veer offense had a tendency to chew up players, and by game 3, seven players who started the ASU game on offense were on the shelf.

Brooks spread the blame around.

“The blocking by our backs was atrocious [against SJSU] …We had people who missed practice because of injuries and so forth, but there’s no excuse for blocking like that. We also continued to drop passes.. We’ve just got to do a better job in all areas of our offense. No area is untouchable as far as criticism goes.”

All somewhat obvious observations — an offense that’s only scored 3 points in 2 games is probably open to criticism on most levels — but it seemed, at least, that after being humiliated at Fresno in the 1981 opener, there was little chance Oregon would take Fresno State lightly.

Anyway, the Ducks were banged up, but fortunately were relatively healthy on defense. They figured they’d be able to slow down the Fresno air attack. But could they score enough points to win?

Well, no. They slowed down Tedford and Ellard, but couldn’t score a point, at least on offense.

The final score10-4, good buddy.

Tedford finished the game 22-46-2 for 251 yards, outgaining the Ducks by himself. Remarkably, 221 of those yards were in the 2nd quarter alone, when he went 15 for 24, against an Oregon secondary that was not without talent.

Still, Oregon had its chance. Trailing 10-2 with two minutes left, they had a first down on the FSU 10. The ensuing plays were a microcosm of the season:
1 - Lusk runs for five yards on the option. 2nd and goal at the 3.
2 - Lusk throws to FB Terrance Jones in the flat, but short-arms it. 
3 - It looks like WR Osborn Thomas is open, but Lusk throws over his head.
4 - This time WR Greg Moser is open. Lusk throws it over *his* head.

Asked why he’d eschewed running the ball, Brooks told reporters he’d been thinking ahead, to getting the ball back and scoring again for the win. Even if the Ducks had converted for two, he wouldn’t have settled for a tie.

Oregon’s points came via the defense, with Tedford called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and FSU’s punter stepping out of the end zone at the end of the game.

This game demonstrated the most basic lesson in all of sports, one that transcends cliche. To win the game, you must score more points than the other team. And through three games, Oregon still hadn’t found the end zone on offense.

***

It wouldn’t get any easier the rest of the season. The next game was against #1 Washington. In Seattle. True to form, Brooks changed QBs again, with soph Mike Jorgensen getting the nod this week.

Surprising the small part of the world that was actually paying attention to them, the massive underdog Ducks actually scored not one, not two, but three TDs. More remarkably, it was Kevin Lusk who did the damage. Oregon even led the Huskies in the fourth period, but gagged on its own success, with three late turnovers giving UW the wedge it needed; the Ducks lost 37-21. But at least they’d gotten off the schneid.

Overall, 1982 was a unique mix of pain and suffering, a 2-8-1 season leavened with some bizarre highlights.

There was Gerry Faust, settling for a field goal with 11 seconds remaining, giving 6-1 Notre Dame a 13-13 tie, at Autzen.

Or how about the first win in two seasons over a decent team, 13-7 over Arizona at home in late November before an alleged crowd of 16,480? For the first time in 10 years, Oregon, OSU and Wazzu all won a football game on the same day.

And then, the ritual beatdown of the Beavers, this time in Corvallis; it seemed fitting that the Ducks would only score one touchdown in Civil War 1982, with just 2:32 left in the game, and that was all they needed to win their eighth straight rivalry game.

Trivia: Oregon scored 103 points in 1982, the lowest point total of any 11-game season in team history. To put this into almost absurd perspective, the 2010 Ducks scored their 103rd point early in the 4th quarter of the season’s 2nd game. 

Monday
Mar212011

Why I Hate the Huskies: 1974


Jim Owens, Washington HC 1974 (AP)

66-0.

Did you enjoy that, Coach Owens?

Had you felt humiliated, after being pummeled the previous year by a team you thought you had no business losing to.. and even more humiliated knowing you couldn’t score against their third string in the 2nd half?

Did you want to run up the score so bad that you left your starting tailback in the game long enough to suffer a separated shoulder, ending his season?

And in the 4th quarter, after you’d done what you vowed to do – put up 59 points – why wasn’t that enough?  Did you put your best passer back into the game for the last drive, tell him to run on every play and not to stop until he either got the team to the end zone or the game ended? Just because you could?  

Hell, yes, you did.  

* * *

 

Don Read, Oregon HC 1974 (Archives)How about the coach on the other side? The new guy, Don Read? The man widely known as one of the nicest and most decent coaches in football?

You knew Read had a weak team. That he’d taken over a 2-9 squad, been blown out at Nebraska and Berkeley, and even though he’d managed to hold USC to a single touchdown the week before in a 16-7 loss, his team was fragile. He’d already dismissed his best lineman, senior OT Mike Popovich, for violating team rules.. and in response, Popovich actually said “I love that man, I always will.. Don Read is sincere, organized and dedicated.” Without a trace of sarcasm.  

What a pansy, you probably thought.

You knew the QB who’d dazzled you the last season, Herb Singleton, had broken his wrist while working at a lumber mill the previous summer and wouldn’t be a problem this time. That he’d been replaced by one Norval Turner, who would be sharp enough to coach in the NFL someday, but as a player had earned the sobriquet “Norv Turnover”. 

Everything had lined up perfectly, hadn’t it?

The previous year, you’d watched, helpless, as a bad Duck team scored on you, almost at will, in Autzen. After that game the born-again and soon-to-be-former coach Dick Enright said, “Winning is important. The size of the score means nothing,” and, noting he’d played his second- and third-string for most of the 2nd half, reminded writers “Only the Lord gives mercy.” That he’d “rather beat USC by one point than Washington by 100-0.” Which didn’t sound right, but you could understand his enthusiasm; it was the last game he’d win as a coach. 

Did that embarrass you, Coach? Losing that badly to a team and a program so pathetic that, when it fired the coach of the team that had stomped you 58-0, Dick Enright had to hear about his dismissal from a reporter?  

Did it bother you that, even after Enright called off the onslaught after leading 49-0 in the third, your team had still given away points, on an interception return and a safety?

Was it all just too much to take? Losing like that to the DUCKS? Inconceivable! 

Your team was 2-4. You were in the last year of your contract. The vultures were chasing the seagulls away from Husky Stadium. You had to do something to make up for the humiliation of 1973. Sure, some would say you’d humiliated yourself, but dammit, that’s what made it worse, right?

You knew what you had to do. Your boys would lay 59 points on those damned Ducks.  You didn’t care how anyone else felt. Payback is a bitch. A purple-and gold bitch.  

You knew the fans who showed up would treat the game as a bullfight, and there you’d be, in your suit of lights, slaughtering the helpless opposition. 

Your team didn’t have to try very hard. You had a pretty good running quarterback named Dennis Fitzpatrick, and a pretty good passer named Chris Rowland. You’d thumbed your nose at the usual “quarterback controversy” talk, starting “Fitz”, and using Rowland frequently.

But Rowland wasn’t a runner, and you ran the option. So, when Fitz hobbled off the field in the 3rd, after being picked off while throwing into the Oregon end zone with a 45-point lead, you decided to stick with Rowland.  

You already knew you’d played your starting tailback, Wayne Moses, one play too long; he’d gone out of the game, with a shoulder separation, in the 3rd quarter with your team leading 45-0. He was out for the season.

But you didn’t care. You had to make a statement. Nobody runs up the score on Big Jim Owens and gets away with it.  Especially Oregon.

Rowland led the drive that gave you that magical 59th point, early in the 4th quarter. With that extra point made, and knowing that Oregon wasn’t going to do a damn thing on offense – the Ducks would only manage 55 yards, on 55 plays, with two first downs, four turnovers and twelve punts, the worst offensive performance in Oregon’s modern history – you wouldn’t have been blamed for giving him a rest.  

No. Not you. You were a fighter. And it’s easier to kick them when they’re down, right?

After the last Oregon punt pinned your team on its 10 yard line, with six minutes left, you sent Rowland out for one last series. You told your passing quarterback to run the ball every play.

Which he did.

Right up until he broke his ankle while rolling out on the fourth play of the drive. 

Only then did you bring in your third-string QB to finish the job. Gave you that nice round 66-0 win. Classy move there.

How nice was the other coach about it?

“I don’t think Jim Owens was trying to run up the score.. Our kids came prepared to play.. We made mistakes all over,” Read said. 

Did he think the big Duck win the previous year was a factor? “I don’t know.”  

“I apologize to every Duck.” 

You laughed it up with reporters after the game.  What were your halftime adjustments while up 24-0?  “I subtracted 24 from 59 and got 35!”, you guffawed. 

Of course, you pulled it together quickly enough to visit Chris Rowland in his hospital room after the game. Rowland remembers you had tears in your eyes.

Were they tears of sympathy, or just the remainders from your joyful evisceration of the Ducks that you’d conveniently forgotten to wipe away?  

None of this matters much in 2010, of course. The record shows that Jim Owens resigned in 1974, after 18 seasons as UW head coach. That 66-0 victory in Husky Stadium was ultimately meaningless. Although the Huskies had finished the season 5-6 and won the Apple Cup, losing consecutive games to USC and Cal by a combined score of 94-37 was the last straw for the old coach. Owens was out; a guy nobody had ever heard of, Don James, from Kent State, took the job nobody else wanted. The rest is a sadly lamented history for UW fans, who have never quite gotten over how the Pac-10 and NCAA screwed them over in 1993 for a few little piss-ant violations.  

As for Oregon..

It’s hard to pin down when The Suffering really began. Was it the holiday sacking of Jerry Frei in ’71 for not firing one of the best coaching staffs you’ll see anywhere?  Enright’s excruciating ’73 season, that could have been 8-3 but was 2-9?  Read’s school-record 14-game losing streak?

Is it best tied to one bad game, one misguided effort.. like the 5-0 “Public Square Whipping” against San Jose State, or the various paycheck humiliations at Oklahoma or Nebraska? 

A strong case can be made for the debacle on October 26, 1974, when Don Read learned that it didn’t matter that he hadn’t been the coach in ’73.. didn’t matter that Enright had taken his foot off the gas that year and put the stick in neutral.. didn’t matter how many players the UW coach put in the hospital. Revenge would be had, at Oregon’s expense.

And Read’s team was completely unable to do anything to stop it. 

This was a game that was supposed to be competitive. Not like losing 61-7 at Lincoln; Oregon had been expected to lose that game, and if it got out of hand, so what? The Nebraska fans were so nice about it.

This wasn’t like that. There’s a big difference between losing at Cal, 40-10, and losing in Seattle by 66 points two weeks later. And it’s more than just 36 points.

This wasn’t just losing. This was Suffering.

And that, more than anything, is why I hate the Huskies.

Monday
Mar212011

1994: The Play That Ended The Suffering

If you’re wondering why I picked 1994 as the ending of Oregon’s football “prehistory”, this should explain it.

Until recently, there was another video on youTube that showed The Drive — the 98 yard, 10 play sequence that made heroes out of Danny O’Neil and Dwayne Jones and Dameron Ricketts and Ricky Whittle and Dino Philyaw. But the video — along with about 2,500 others that had been posted by “keerrrrrrrttttt1” — were unceremoniously deleted from YouTube for allegations of copyright infringement.

That 98 yard drive should be commemorated as often as The Pick. But Wheaton’s TD is what we remember. And rightly so, because that’s when The Suffering ended.

Monday
Mar212011

1993: The Last Year Of the Suffering

Before the first game of 1993, Rich Brooks was touting his team as a Rose Bowl contender. Which it probably could have been, considering the talent returning from the ‘92 team that finished 8-4. And, there was turmoil in Seattle, as Don James decided during fall practice that he’d had enough with being expected to follow rules, which meant the Huskies’ three-year hold on the Rose Bowl would end. USC was breaking in a new coach, or rather, a new old coach (John Robinson). Only Arizona appeared formidable on defense. The window of opportunity seemed open.

There was talent on the Oregon football team, for sure. There was also plenty of experience. The Ducks started 19 upperclassmen on offense and defense  — 11 of the 22 first-game starters were seniors, along with both kickers.   

The perception of success wasn’t universal. Sports Illustrated pegged Oregon to go 6-5, saying “Not quite a poll team but, thanks to free-spending fans, a bowl team.” (Thus demonstrating a lack of attention not uncommon in the national media; unless one of those five losses was to division 1-AA Montana, a 6-5 record would not make the Ducks bowl-eligible under 1993 rules.) As usual, Oregon merely bubbled under the Top 25 in the preseason polls, among those “others receiving votes.”  

But, looking back, 1993 may have been doomed before the first kickoff.  

Cas crumples; Ducks go 3-0 OOC

Legendary Oregon HC Len Casanova, for whom the Cas Center is named, and the closest thing Oregon had to a godlike presence until the arrival of Chip Kelly, suffered a heart attack the night before Oregon opened the season at Colorado State. Cas pulled through, and the Ducks knocked off CSU 23-9, overcoming three fumbles, but suffered two significant injuries; starting TE Willy Tate was knocked out with a shoulder separation, and CB Herman O’Berry broke his ankle. A team that had felt pretty good about its two-deep started to look shallow. 

But, a win is a win. And the Ducks were looking forward to getting healthy, with an easy home win in a paycheck game with Division 1-AA Montana.   

The game with the Griz was particularly sentimental, as it marked the return to Autzen of one Don Read, architect of so many unartistic efforts in that stadium as Oregon’s coach from 1974 to 1976. Still, it was one of those “paycheck games” that Oregon was happy to schedule as the host, instead of the doomed visitor.

Trouble was, someone forgot to fill Read and Montana in on their end of the deal.  A backup QB named Dave Dickenson came off the Grizzlies bench to torch Oregon’s defense for more than 400 yards of total offense — in three quarters of action — and nearly pulled off a heroic upset.  

The win for Oregon, 35-30, didn’t feel like one. Oregon had led 28-3 in the second quarter. The Ducks’ captain, senior MLB Ernest Jones, said “If you walked into that locker room right now, you’d think we lost by 30 points.” 

When your team is playing a divison 1-AA school, at home, and has to rely on recovering an onside kick inside of two minutes to seal a five-point win.. the optimism fades quickly. For first-year DC Nick Allioti, allowing 530 yards to a “lesser” program wasn’t a good sign. Montana only punted twice. As for the offense — of the eleven penalties the Ducks drew, six were on false starts. And there were four fumbles — at least the Ducks recovered three of those — on a dry Saturday. 

It was obvious the Ducks had a very weak secondary; freshman LaMont Woods was forced to burn his redshirt when future all-conference CB Herman O’Berry broke his ankle against Colorado State. And Alex Molden had not yet developed the skills that would put him in the NFL.. and was coming off knee surgery the previous winter.  

Still, it was a win. And junior QB Danny ONeil was playing well, hitting 67% in the two games without a pick. A road win at Illinois the next weekend, 13-7, put the Ducks at 3-0 going into conference play. It was only the third time an Oregon team had ever won on the road against a Big 10 team.  

The Collapse at Cal 

After the Illinois game, O’Neil lamented, “We probably still won’t get an AP vote” in the top 25. “We just don’t get much respect in Oregon. It’s like we’re in prison and no word gets out of the prison walls about us.” He was wrong — Oregon would receive 4 votes, making them an unofficial 38th in the top 25. But this would prove to be an unintentionally prophetic simile, considering what happened the next week, and how the Pac-10 race played out. 

Oregon rode into Berkeley as 10.5 point underdogs, but hadn’t won there since 1986. Against the Bears, they looked for all the world like a top 25 team .. in the first quarter, storming out to a 24-0 lead. There was a six minute, 94 yard, 12 play drive; then a fumble recovery on the next kickoff, cashed in for a touchdown; then Chad Cota picked off a Dave Barr pass and raced 49 yards for a touchdown; a field goal was set up by another fumble. 6 minutes into the 2nd quarter, it was 30-0, and that missed extra point on that last TD didn’t really matter, did it? Or the way the offense blew a chance to score at the end of the first half? Duck fans were thinking Pasadena.

The euphoria didn’t last past halftime. Oregon went on to lose the game, 42-41, on a two-point conversion at the end. A Pac-10 record was set: Largest Lead Ever Squandered In Defeat. It was Rich Brooks’ 100th loss as Oregon coach. A monumental defeat, the ‘93 Cal game probably deserves its own feature story; there were so many story lines.. the new OC at Cal, Denny Schuler, had spent the previous four seasons as Oregon’s DC; Oregon rolled up 614 yards of offense, and lost. 

The next week, Oregon was back home, and on TV. (There was, in fact, a time when not every college football game was televised) This was not necessarily a good thing, as the Ducks had lost their last 7 televised games, dating back to 1991. The streak continued. Oregon managed to hang with a beatable USC team at Autzen for three quarters, then fell apart. Danny O’Neil fumbled twice and threw two picks in the 4th quarter. USC won, 24-13, as Rob Johnson lit up the beleaguered Oregon secondary for 307 yards and three TDs.

Oregon rebounded with a 45-36 win, over a bad Arizona State team in Tempe, in a game the Ducks led 31-7 in the first half. 

The offense was doing its job, between turnovers at least. Through six games, they were outscoring their opponents 61-7 in the first quarter.. but Nick Aliotti’s leaky defense wouldn’t allow any opponent to be put away.

Injuries and self-inflicted wounds pile up

Against the Huskies, in Seattle, the offense finally came unglued, with O’Neil throwing six interceptions in a 21-6 loss to the newly-criminalized UW squad, still smarting from the Pac-10 smackdown and the resignation in a huff of Don James earlier in the year. It was Oregon’s fifth consecutive loss to Washington, who shredded the Ducks on the ground for 290 yards, mostly from the TB combination of Beno Bryant and Napoleon Kaufman.  

And the injuries were piling up. The defensive line was decimated, with three of the four linemen out with injuries and DE Romeo Bandison hobbled, and LB Jeremy Asher knocked out for weeks. Molden was sidelined again with a hip pointer. Oregon’s safeties were having to make most of the tackles; Chad Cota had 12 by himself against UW, never a good sign.

Oregon picked up its fifth, and last, victory of 1993 against a decent Wazzu team at Autzen. This game gave no appearances of being the last winning effort, as the Ducks poured it on at the end, breaking open a 32-23 game with two TDs in the last six minutes. In this game, the injury gods finally gave Oregon a break, as inspirational FB Juan Shedrick, thought lost for the season against Cal with a broken elbow, unexpectedly returned to action. And, when senior RB Sean Burwell went out for the season with an ankle, backup Ricky Whittle and reserve Dino Philyaw picked up the slack. (Philyaw also saw time at corner in this game.) O’Neil looked great, with 327 yards and three TDs, and no turnovers for a change. 

Still in the bowl picture, Oregon headed for Tucson .. and was literally run over, 31-10, by a very good Arizona team that would finish the season 10-2, beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Arizona led 21-0 at the half, and only attempted one pass the entire game; they would finish with nearly 400 yards rushing. 

Easy route to a bowl game.. 

At 5-4, the Ducks still had a shot at a bowl game, with two home games left — against conference cellar-dwellers Stanford and OSU, winners of one conference game each.  

Only problem: Oregon had played best to this point on defense against balanced teams. One-dimensional offenses tended to have their way with the Ducks. And Stanford, as bad as it was, still had Bill Walsh as coach, and could throw the ball a little.  

The Tree did throw the ball, a lot, all over Autzen. Stanford QB Steve Stenstrom went 28-37-0 for 407 yards and three TDs, breaking John Elway’s Pac-10 record for passing yardage in a season.   

With a 38-34 win, Stanford knocked Oregon out of bowl eligibility. In the understatement of the season, DC Nick Aliotti said, “We just didn’t play very good pass defense.”  

Ominously, for a very important home game in November, playing for bowl eligibility, favored by a touchdown, the Ducks only drew 31,214 paying fans. It was the lowest attendance for a conference game in over seven years. The natives were getting restless, a fact echoed in the media. 

In a column dripping with resignation to what many believed was Oregon’s fate for eternity, Ron Bellamy wrote in the R-G: (emphasis added)

If Oregon fans have grown weary of so-called minor bowls — if 7-4 isn’t good enough and the football program is only going to generate big gates and intense interest during more-special seasons — then Oregon has created a monster it can’t hope to feed. If Oregon fans have simply grown weary of seeing the same face on the sidelines for 17 seasons — and there’s some of that in the talk-show phone calls from disgruntled rooters — then they must also realise that considering its size, resources and recruiting base, Oregon never should finish higher than eighth in the Pac-10, period…  

 If Oregon fans set their hearts on the Rose Bowl every year, they are going to find them broken, again and again and again.

— Ron Bellamy, The Register-Guard, 11-14-1993

Boned by the Beavers

Thus, at 5-5, with nowhere to go, favored by 10 points, Oregon came out for the Civil War, against another one-dimensional team. This time, it was Jerry Pettibone’s spread option, which bore more resemblence to the old wishbone-T than today’s spread option. The Beavers came in at 3-7, with the #2 rushing attack in the country, and tasting blood in the Autzen waters.

Not known as a defensive powerhouse, OSU this time looked more like Ohio State, holding the Ducks under 200 yards for the game. Ultimately, in a defensive struggle, it’s the team with the healthiest defense that wins. OSU scored on a pick-6; then, trailing late in the 4th quarter 12-7, the Beavers capitalized on a high snap on a punt that sailed over Tommy Thompson’s head. Recovering at the Oregon 24, OSU punched in the winning touchdown, cashed the 2-pt conversion, and won 15-12.  

Season over. Oregon was firmly ensconced in a tie for last place with Stanford and OSU; following the standard tiebreaker rules, the Ducks could claim the cellar all to themselves. 

Meanwhile, up highway 99W, the Beavers were brimming with optimism; Pettibone, in three CWs, had won twice, and only lost the other game 7-0. He’d won twice in Autzen Stadium. The feeling was that the corner had been turned, at last, in Corvallis.

* * *

Pettibone’s corner turned out to be a cul-de-sac. He won only seven more games in the next three years, and was sacked in 1996. 

As it turned out, it was Oregon that had turned the corner.. because The Last Lost Season of 1993 led to the first season of a new era in Oregon football. This, of course, wasn’t obvious at the time. In Eugene, after three bowls in four years, Oregon football seemed to have reached, and receded from, its high point. Mediocrity was once again the expectation. There were, as usual, boosters who wanted the Oregon athletic director to fire himself from at least one of his jobs. 

Still, the sense was that Brooks wasn’t the type to commit employment suicide. Willy Tate said “personally, I don’t think he’d want to end his career with a loss to the Beavers.” 

There was also a thought that being both AD and HC was too much responsibility for Brooks.. that he needed to commit to either being one, or the other. Brooks said, essentially, “bullshit”, and continued to work both jobs.

In a post-mortem on the season, the R-G’s Bellamy demonstrated a certain skill for prophecy. In outlining what he perceived to be important goals for 1994, he included this gem: 

 ”.. O’Neil must bring the ducks back from a second-half deficit. He must lead the Ducks to victory against a ranked team, a traditional power like Washington or Southern Cal.”

 — Ron Bellamy, The Register-Guard, 11-28-1993  

 

Sunday
Mar202011

How Bill Byrne tried to cover Oregon's asset

Bill Byrne had a dream. He wanted to cover Autzen Stadium with the world’s largest A-cup.

The big-idea Oregon athletic director (1984-1992), who took Oregon football from also-ran to bowl status during his tenure, didn’t like to let practical matters obscure the big picture.

In the spring of 1985, Byrne began an all-out push for a dome over Autzen. The 820-foot covering would, Byrne felt, help keep Oregon football viable in an increasingly competitive Pac-10 environment.

Model of the proposed Autzen Dome, 1986; west elevation. Made by Scale Model Co of Cottage Grove. Source: 1986 Oregon Football Media Guide, back cover

Oregon’s football fortunes in the mid-1980s were, to put it bluntly, limited. The 1984 team, despite a 4-0 start and a winning record, hosted the lowest average attendance in the conference, below 26,000 fans per game.  Attendance that year was literally dampened by wet weather for three of the six home games. Byrne figured the semi-rain-outs had cost the school $250,000 in revenue from tickets and concessions alone, with losses to the overall economy from depressed game day traffic well beyond that.

There was pressure on Oregon’s conference status from the “haves” of the Pac-10. In 1984, USC officials proposed to double the conference’s football guarantee to visiting teams, to $150k per game, a proposal that would have broken the bank at Oregon (and OSU and WSU), likely driving them out of the Pac-10. The proposal failed that time, but the point was made: Put up, or go play with teams your own size.

18 year old Autzen Stadium itself was a bit of a dump. The locker rooms and meeting facilities — designed in an era of one-platoon football, and never expanded — were lousy, although the Stadium Club, completed in 1981 at the east rim, had at least given the coaches somewhere to hold meetings besides the 50 yard line.  The athletic offices themselves were a 10 minute drive away, at Mac Court. And, from the fan’s perspective, Autzen’s legendary Honey Bucket Brigade around the rim, and the occasional plumbing failure of the few permanent fixtures, located in unheated concrete boxes, spoke volumes about those other facilities.

Enter the dome concept. Cover the stadium, put a ring of skyboxes around the rim; sell the skyboxes to corporations, who could take fat tax deductions for their largesse. Sell future recruits on the opportunity to play and practice in a warm, dry facility. And during the offseason, turn Autzen into.. well, the world’s weirdest convention center, I guess, but that was the idea.

Moreover, there was talk that Mac Court itself couldn’t last forever. A domed stadium could be “draped off” for basketball — ala the Carrier Dome at Syracuse — and the resulting arena, with portable seating, could comfortably fit 17,000 for hoops. The increased capacity alone, Byrne felt, could potentially raise another half million dollars per year in revenue, assuming there were 17,000 fans willing at the time to watch Oregon basketball (a dodgy assumption then as now, but I digress).

Byrne’s predecessor, Rick Bay, had come up with the original concept, but beyond floating the idea and failing to get a large corporate donor to put up most of the cash, he didn’t do much with it. When Bay left for Ohio State, the dome project was on Byrne’s desk, and he loved it.

Byrne’s big problem with his big dream was the same as Bay’s; as is usual with dreamers, how he’d pay for it.

The initial plan — a total project estimated at $15 million — was to be funded by a combination of in-kind gifts, contributions, and — in a move that was clearly ahead of its time — the sale of permanent seat licenses for basketball and football.

Ultimately, none of this worked out. And it’s a good thing it didn’t. It’s hard to look at Autzen now and imagine it sporting a 20-year-old dust cover. A permanent dome would have likely made the 2002 seating expansion impossible.  But, back in the day, the concept was taken very seriously by a lot of people.

The timeline:

April ‘85 — Byrne gets UO approval to start feasibility studies on the project. He immediately hits the PR trail; the local media eats it up. “I’ve got to pull this off”, he said. “I’m absolutely convinced we’ve got to have it.. I don’t want to give anybody the idea this is all set, but I do believe we won’t continue to be a viable member of the Pac-10 if we don’t do it.”

Duck football coach Rich Brooks, for his part, liked the idea. “In recruiting, you get the talk all the time from the [southern schools], “Why do you want to go up there where it rains all the time?”

Byrne said he figured a total of $7.5 million in donations and gifts-in-kind would be required to start the project. No mention at the time was made of state funding, but privately, nobody really thought it the dome would happen without some public financing, in the form of bond issues or lottery cash. There was no sugar daddy with enough cash and ego to support the project alone.

May ‘85 — The sides are chosen up, with the local business community generally coming down in favor of the project as an economic boon, and the university’s faculty and Eugene’s liberal elite generally wailing against it as an economic catastrophe in waiting, unfair to the long-suffering professors of underfunded departments, and as usual, “What about the children!?”.  Most questions about the project from supportersconcern the feasibility of funding in an economic down cycle, whether attendance could be more predictably improved by fielding a better football team, and why anyone would want to play basketball in a football stadium with drapes at the 40 yard line.

The responsibility for greenlighting the project itself falls on Oregon President Paul Olum, not known as a big football guy, with his radical conception of a university as an educational facility. Olum was on the record as not wanting a fundraising campaign for a dome to get in the way of a major late-80s capital campaign for the university as a whole. But Byrne was optimistic; he thought that if all the approvals and fund-raising went smoothly, the project could be completed by 1990.

Sept ‘85 — So much for all that private financing: The U of O Foundation proposes to the Lane County Commissioners that they permit use of state industrial revenue bonds to finance the dome, a concept that would lead to lower-cost financing than a standard taxpayer-financed bond issue.  It was up to Byrne and the Foundation to show the project is cost-effective.

Although the promised feasibility studies are not complete, Oregon VP Dan Williams insists that they aren’t going to start building as soon as approval was granted; they just want the approvals first. And the rules of the game stated that the county had to okay any proposal before it would be brought to the state board.

What was the hurry? There were indications that Congress, in consideration of a huge tax reform bill, could eliminate the very types of financing that would be required to build the project. Get it done now, and hope that the project could be “grandfathered” under the old tax rules.

The county commission approved the application in October on a 3-2 vote.

Oct  ‘85 — Byrne goes to OSU AD Lynn Snyder for approval to play Oregon home games in Corvallis in ‘86 or ‘87, in the event that dome construction makes Autzen unusable. Although this in retrospect was the single biggest reason to forget the project altogether, Snyder, in effect, says “Sure, might as well have one mediocre team playing here,” and proposed not even charging Byrne rent.

Following the county bond OK, the Oregon Economic Development Commission declared the not-yet-feasible project eligible for up to $20 million in state industrial bond funding. The prospect of dry football fans did not win over the commission; rather, it was the projected economic boon that a domed stadium would allegedly provide the area.

Former Eugene Mayor Gus Keller, a member of the state EDC, said “The presentation was so comprehensive it was frightening.”

Equally frightening was the ‘85 Oregon football team, which lost at Nebraska 63-0, and wound up 5-6, not beating a team with a winning record. Still, attendance was up by over 9,000 per game from ‘84, a difference that couldn’t totally be pinned to better weather (one wet game, and a sub-freezing Civil War).

The Oregonian blasts using industrial revenue bonds to fund the project as an “abuse of the concept.”

Dec ‘85 — Proposals for the dome’s architecture are entertained by Byrne and other officials. The original “All Wood Because This Is Oregon And We Got Wood” plan still has Byrne’s support, but for variety, his team looks at proposals for an inflatable fabric dome and a steel dome designed in Europe. The first legitimate estimates for the dome portion of the project come in at $9.75 million. Byrne’s guesstimate in April is 30% short of reality.

Byrne professes to be unconcerned about the tax reform bill, convinced that the project’s funding would be grandfathered in. And he is even more adamant that dome construction is absolutely essential to Oregon’s future in the Pac-10: “We don’t have a choice.”

Jan ‘86 —  When Paul Olum gives the thumbs-up on January 22 after meeting with Byrne, the project is as close to reality as it ever gets. Olum’s approval is essentially a “go ahead, knock yerself out”, conditional upon Byrne’s ability to raise:

— $9 million from the sale of 6,000 personal seat licenses at $1500 each; and

— an unspecified amount in donations and gifts-in-kind from major donors (presumably making up the difference in cost between the other guarantee items and the project cost).

Olum, wisely, places the university administration in a can’t-lose situation. Not caring all that much about football, he puts himself in the position of not sticking his neck out. By not begging for public financing or reassigning critical university resources, he put the whole project on Byrne. And he is able to deflect cries from professors about misplaced priorities by pointing out that none of THIS money was likely to be donated for a new roof at the library.

It is now Bill Byrne’s project, sink or swim.

Feb ‘86 — A documentation error found in the state EDC revenue bond application forces a review of the EDC’s approval of the project. The U of O Foundation, when preparing the application, stated concession revenues as concession profits, overstating the increased income from the dome improvements by about $400,000 annually. The EDC would readdress the application in their March meeting, delaying any fundraising activity by a month.

Oregon House Speaker Vera Katz, in a letter to the president of the State Board of Higher Education, suggests the financing method itself was “a convenient legal fiction for escaping carefully crafted and necessary controls over public indebtedness.” One troubling aspect is the plan to transfer title to Autzen Stadium to the U of O Foundation from the university, a possibly illegal transfer of state property to private (albeit non-profit) hands.

Meanwhile, Pac-10 representatives vote to raise the traveling-team guarantee to $125K per game, up from $75k.

Oregon signs a good recruiting class, with players like Terry Obee and Derek Loville enticed by promises of a domed playing field.

March ‘86 — The former general manager of a Portland potato chip company forms a committee to bring the 1996 Winter Olympics to Oregon.Seriously. The opening and closing ceremonies, ice hockey and figure skating will be held in the covered, and presumably ice-rink-equipped, Autzen Stadium. Plans to hold ski jumping competition on Spencer Butte never get off the ground.

April ‘86 — On further review, based on a legal opinion by UO counsel, the plan to transfer Autzen ownership to the UO Foundation is scuttled.. and along with it the idea of using the state industrial revenue bonds. VP Williams tells reporters that the university is looking into “more traditional financing” (in other words, ordinary taxpayer-guaranteed bonds). 

Perhaps not coincidentally, as of early April, the university has still not hired a financial advisor for the project. 

The skybox designs are scaled back; all skyboxes will seat 20 fans each, and lease for $25k annually on a ten-year lease.

May 86 — Thanks in part to the increased football road-trip guarantee, Byrne announces severe budgetary shortfalls at the athletic department. He plans to drop coed swimming and women’s gymnastics altogether, sports not expected to draw bids for personal seat licenses at the dome, and cut staffing. Byrne stresses that the budget deficit closed by the cutbacks won’t affect the dome project, and only “non-revenue-producing” sports would be affected by cutbacks (nudge nudge wink wink). Supporters of Oregon track and field cry foul at proposed draconian slashing of 16% of the track budget. Craftily, the track folks don’t mention the Hayward Field renovation project, which would almost certainly siphon some dollars in donations away from the dome.

The Register-Guard polls its readers on the cutbacks, the dome, and athletics in general. Among the thoughtful comments received: “I will not pay $3, or whatever, to park my car. That is the biggest ripoff of all time and you won’t see me at any more games until the parking is free.”

August 86 — After a summer of fundraising, Byrne announces on the eve of the ‘86 football season that the dome project is “on hold.” Stated Reason: The federal tax reform bill is likely to make skybox leases non-deductible items, making them undesirable business expenses, especially for losing teams. “We’ve got to sit back and re-evaluate the entire project.” Actual reason: Byrne couldn’t raise the cash Olum required.

Dec 86 — Byrne, persuaded by Rich Brooks to do *something* about Autzen, gets approval from the state to begin some long-needed capital site improvements. To come: a new press box on the south side, luxury skyboxes and suites on the north side, and “a new athletic department next to the stadium”, which will eventually be the Cas Center, the first stage in the long-term project to eliminate the concept of parking at Autzen.

Byrne believes the success of these projects will make construction of the dome more likely.

**

As it turned out, the success of those other projects helped make the dome unnecessary. But the proposal never really died for several years.

The state never got serious traction on its bid for the Winter Olympics, removing the last external driver on the project.  The dome became a political issue in 1988, when a Eugene legislator decided to make a flabbergasting push for the project. But by 1989, the projected cost had ballooned to first $21 million, then $30 million, and not even the combined support of the mayors of Eugene and Springfield and the local legislative team could get it going; at this point even Byrne had moved on. And as late as 1993, Eugene city councilman Bobby Green, who played at Oregon in the early 70s, was interested in combining the dome project with a bowl game hosted by  the university.  By then, Byrne had moved on to Nebraska; he’s now the AD at Texas A&M.

Even though it wasn’t a financially sound or logistically sane idea — ever — it’s hard to make a dream go away.

Then, 1994 happened, Phil Knight hitched his star to the Duck wagon, the facilities went from worst-to-first, and eventually Byrne’s Folly was forgotten.

To Byrne, of course, the whole dome debacle was water off an erstwhile duck’s back. (It wasn’t the last time he’d throw himself under the Oregon bus for a concept. In 1988, he campaigned hard for a .01 tax on beer and cigarettes, with the proceeds dedicated to collegiate athletics; the ballot measure was crushed like an emptie at the polls.)

What of the dreaded Rain Theory, that Byrne blamed for costing the school thousands of dollars annually? After the Cal game in 1985, nobody could remember rain during an Oregon game until at least 1994, when there was a drizzle during the Arizona State contest in early November. Attendance for ASU was 41,693 — three empties short of a sell-out. Maybe those last three seats would have been taken on a sunny day; we’ll never know.

Ultimately, the problem with the project became obvious: When it was thought to be needed, Oregon couldn’t afford it.  When the football fortunes turned, not only was it was no longer needed, the entire concept was considered absurd. Fans of a successful team don’t need to be motivated by the prospect of staying dry to attend games. And, as anyone who’s seen a late-season contest in the Carrier Dome recently can attest, a half-filled dome seems even lonelier than an open-air one.

Bill Byrne, 2006Bill Byrne accomplished much to be remembered by, and the fact that hardly anyone recalls the dome project today is testimony to his legacy. During his tenure the athletic department made almost $19 million in physical improvements to UO athletic facilities, starting with the football practice fields across then-Centennial Blvd from Autzen, and ending with the Cas Center. Byrne rolled the dice on that first Independence Bowl bid, laying up-front cash for 14,000 tickets to secure the game because he knew you couldn’t get to a second bowl until you’d made the first one. Those dreaded paycheck games came to an end under Byrne’s watch, as did smoking in the stands, and — ironically — the use of umbrellas.  And the Oregon Sports Network? Credit, or blame, Byrne for that concept as well.

Bill Byrne, the big thinker, can be forgiven for his dream.

And, anyway, it never rains at Autzen Stadium.