In 1983, reserved seats at Autzen sold for $11.50. GA was $6; RV parking was $5, and you could pretty much count on planting your Winnebago wherever you wanted. The Stadium Club atop the east end of the stadium was finally completed, but there was no Moz, no Cas, no practice field, no baseball diamond.. just lots of space around Autzen, mostly empty, even on game day.
Three seasons of probation and its effects on recruiting and income had taken their toll on the team, its coach and the community at large. In 1983, Oregon Football had become irrelevant, both on and off the field. That the season would begin with a loss to a team that would give up football altogether a few years later, and end with arguably the worst major college football game ever "contested" in the modern era seems, in retrospect, completely appropriate.
The record for 1983 -- 4 wins, 6 losses, and one infamous tie -- would indicate some progress on the field, but that record was deceptive. From start (a home loss to Pacific) to finish (the infamous Toilet Bowl), it's hard to imagine a season that better typifies the state of Oregon football at its very lowest point.
1983 was, historically, a terrible year for the Pac-10 overall, with only one team finishing in the top 20 (UCLA), and only two teams in bowl games; UCLA, USC and Stanford went 0-9-1 in nonconference games. The lingering stink of the probation years hung over the conference like a regional smog inversion. After Stanford lost on Oct. 9 to Oregon State, which hadn't won a conference game in almost four years, someone asked beleaguered Cardinal Coach Paul Wiggin what he had learned from the films. Growled Wiggin, "We burned them." USC suffered its first losing season in 23 years.
Only two teams went bowling; UCLA, which sarted the season 0-3-1 but backed into the Rose Bowl when Washington lost at home in the Apple Cup, pasted Illinois 45-7 in Pasadena. Washington went to the Aloha, where they lost 13-10 to Penn State. Everyone else stayed home and licked themselves.
Thus, if true progress was to be made, in the form of a winning season, the Pac-10 in 1983 was set up just right. But, true to form, the Ducks were only able to "make progress." And "progress" -- four wins, double the output of the last two seasons -- had to be taken in context. The Ducks went 1-3 out of conference, the win a 15-14 "upset" in a pukefest at Autzen over a mediocre Houston team.
1982 had been a miserable season, with losses to two Cal State teams (Fresno and San Jose) included in an awful 0-8-1 start; the highlight was a 13-13 tie at home with a hugely overrated Notre Dame team. (Some things never change.) But, after closing 1982 with consecutive wins over Arizona and OSU, there was the usual optimism.
The preseason hype in 83 was on the new pass-oriented offense, led by the affably big-haired new OC Bob Toledo. Highly recruited running back Kevin Willhite was returning after missing most of his freshman season with an injury. Local phenom and future NFL Pro Bowl QB Chris Miller, out of Sheldon High, was expected to redshirt the season, with two veteran QBs available (Mike Owens and Mike Jorgensen -- yes, that one). There was talent, with future pro Lew Barnes showing flash at wideout and future Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman leading an experienced offensive line.
They showed off the new attack in the first game, at home against Pacific -- where Bob Toledo had resigned as head coach just months before.
The Ducks lost 21-15. Willhite fumbled twice. Jorgensen tore up his knee.
In the Register-Guard, Bud Withers wrote: "You wonder about a team that loses to a club picked in two polls to finish next-to-last in the PCAA." Typically -- you might say fortunately -- only 26,273 bothered to attend the season opener; it would be hard to find anyone in Eugene now who would admit to having attended.
Later in September, after losing a paycheck game to Ohio State, Oregon would conclude its two-season Epic of Sustained Sucking against the PCAA, losing to San Jose State on the road.
And yet, after an upset win in mid-season over an Arizona team that Sports Illustrated had ranked #3 in the country in preseason, Oregon sat atop the conference at 2-0. Nobody thought it would last. It didn't, as the Ducks went on to lose to the Washington schools and UCLA, being outscored 80-20 in the process.
An underflowing homecoming crowd of 24,511 saw Brooks burn Chris Miller's redshirt when Jorgensen went down for good with a broken leg against UCLA. Miller led the Ducks to a 13-3 2nd half moral victory.
A 16-7 win over a putrid Stanford team with an already-fired coach set the stage for the Civil War's epic suckitude.
How bad was Oregon State? In their game against Arizona, they were flagged for illegal participation -- they had 15 men on the field on defense. The penalty was declined, because Arizona gained 11 yards on the play. Later in the year, after a win over Stanford (yes, they were that putrid), the fans tore down the goalposts, probably the only time in NCAA history that a win over a 1-10 team resulted in such a spontaneous display of condoned vandalism.
OSU's coach, Joe Avezzano, was widely and openly rumored to be finished regardless of how his team did in the CW. With a record of 4-38-1, it's remarkable in retrospect that he even lasted three years. In fact, the OSU athletic board voted 11-5 to sack him in '83. Surprisingly, he was retained. For this, Beaver fans could thank the school's lame-duck president, Bob MacVicar, who had an attitude that football, and winning, wasn't everything.
"If winning means everything in college football, how can we claim it's educational?" MacVicar said. "What we say is that if you lose, you haven't learned anything. And the fact is, you often learn more by things you do wrong than by things you do right." Beaver fans were educated with a 2-9 season in '84, after which the new president, John Byrne, decided that learning how to lose was getting old, and sacked Avezzano.
Thus, on November 19, 1983, two teams met on the field of battle to conclude their seasons. One team had shown signs of approaching a certain level of mediocrity that would, at least, keep kids on scholarship and athletic department employees employed and fans hopeful. The other team showed scant evidence of even aspiring to reach mediocrity.
The Ducks entered the game as 13.5 point favorites, an odd line considering the team hadn't scored 14 points in a game for six weeks.
The weather was frightful. What seemed like an inch of rain fell between noon and game end (the weather service said it was only a half inch); the wind gusted up to 30mph. This all had the effect of making bad teams worse.
"The game had everything 33,176 fans wanted in an Oregon-Oregon State game--except points. Announcement of the final score probably had them rolling in the aisles at press boxes along the West Coast. Two hours and 46 minutes of slap-stick comedy produced the sixth scoreless tie between the two and the first since 1931. The game film single-handedly could bring back Fractured Flickers to television." -- The Oregonian game story, 11/20/83
OSU dominated the first half, holding Oregon to 45 yards and one completion. The Ducks never got beyond the Beaver 49. In turn, OSU muffed five scoring opportunities, with fumbles at the Duck 20 and 11 yard lines and missed field goals, chip shots by today’s standards, of 26 and 36 yards. One threat ended in an interception at the Duck 17.
Oregon returned the favor by dominating the second half, contributing six blown scoring chances to the folly. Field goals of 20 and 50 yards were missed. A fumble at the Beaver six stopped another threat. Another loose ball was lost at the OSU 45. Add two costly interceptions, both inside OSU’s 30 yard line, and it’s little wonder fans were laughing themselves silly.
There were 11 fumbles -- OSU lost 2, Oregon 4. Five interceptions. Four missed field goals. The Beavers committed 10 penalties. OSU averaged 2.5 yards per carry; Oregon, a scintillating 3.8.
There were punts galore -- 16 in all, the last of which was memorable; OSU "coach" Avezzano, at his own 48 yard line with just over a minute left, facing 4th and 1 in a scoreless game.. punted. Perhaps he thought going for, and getting, a win would have made it harder to fire him (he still had a year on his contract, and he certainly was a better coach than he was ever able to prove at OSU -- he later spent years as a position coach in the NFL).
The only excitement, such as it was, occurred at the end. Chris Miller, who'd had as miserable an afternoon as everyone else (6-19-1 for 100 yards), somehow completed a pass to Kwante Hampton on the last play of the game. Hampton lateraled the ball to fullback Ladaria Johnson, who rumbled unimpeded down the sideline... but, true to form, he was caught by the OSU safety at the 14 yard line. As it turned out, a miracle TD wouldn't have counted anyway -- Johnson had stepped out of bounds at the 50.
So hapless was the action, Oregon Journal sports columnist George Pasero commented that "even overtime wouldn’t have helped."
"What was it?" he asked. "Soccer, water polo, rugby? Nobody plays scoreless ties anymore."
"It was almost like neither team wanted to win," said UO coach Rich Brooks. "It seemed like there was a force out there that said, ‘We aren’t going to let either team score.’ "
Joe Avezzano, showing characteristic brilliance, said he was "not happy with the result." Amazingly, almost incredulously, Avezzano somehow managed to see something positive in the result, as if he were trying to will his team a moral victory: "We were a bad program when we came in here, and now we are no longer a bad program." (The Pollyanna attitude carried Avezzano through the next 2-9 season; after being stomped 31-6 at home in the '84 Civil War, his contract duly honored, he was "taken out to live on a farm in the country".)
If any season -- any moment -- can truly be defined as the point beyond which Things Couldn't Get Any Worse, this was it.
OSU would continue to wallow in an eventual 26 year string of losing seasons, but Oregon managed to turn things around -- sticking with the good young coach, getting the funding increased, being successful by *acting* successful.
The years of "What the hell, we're a track school" were over. Oregon, after 1983, was well on its way towards ... unmitigated mediocrity.
Success would take a while.