Although this type of piece may be more suited to be written by a geriatric Duck such as benzduck (just kidding!), I thought I'd put together my list of the 10 Most Influential People in Oregon Ducks History. During what could be described of the "Doldrums of the Offseason", I thought I'd kick my brain into football gear and come up with a little something to tide us over for a while. As much as I hate it, there are still 103 days until Oregon-LSU, so...yeah.
Be they players, coaches, donors, or cheerleaders, anyone associated with the football program in any way was fair game in my consideration of people on this list. It is certainly difficult to distinguish where to place certain people on this list, and it was equally difficult to omit some people from this list, but that's why I love "Honorable Mention" lists. Also, by "influential", I mean influential in a POSITIVE way. A list reserved for people that affected the program in a negative way could be forthcoming, but I'm not going to touch that in this list.
I'd love to hear your opinion about how completely wrong I am or how accurate and incredibly well-done my list is (preferably). Here goes nothing.
10. Hugo Bezdek
My list begins with an Oregon Ducks hero from yesteryear. Hugo Bezdek was born in the republic of Austria-Hungary (know known as the Czech Republic) in 1884. When he was a child of five years old, his family immigrated to the United States in the city of Chicago. After playing high school football, he joined the University of Chicago Maroons football team. He played fullback in his playing days, and earned Third-Team All-American Honors in his senior season of 1905. Immediately after his last season playing collegiate football, Bezdek took over the reigns as the head football coach at the University of Oregon. His team, the Oregon Webfoots, enjoyed an undefeated season, with their only stumbling block being a 0-0 tie against Oregon Agricultural College (now known as Oregon St.). Bezdek bolted to Arkansas after that season, serving as the head coach there until 1912. He then returned to Eugene to coach the Webfoots. He served as the head coach at Oregon from 1913-1917. His teams never endured a losing season, and he lead the Webfoots to their first ever bowl game in their first season as a member of the Pacific Coast Conference, the Rose Bowl, where they defeated the University of Pennsylvania 14-0 on January 1st, 1917. Bezdek amassed a career record of 30-10-4 as the coach of the University of Oregon, leaving after the 1917 season to coach Mare Island, Penn State, and Delaware Valley College, and a total career record of 127-58-16. He also coached baseball and basketball at Oregon. Bezdek was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, shortly following his death in 1952.
LaMichael James is the most prolific rusher in the history of the University of Oregon football program, and his career isn't even complete. In his two seasons in Eugene, he has totaled 3,277 yards on the ground, which is second in Oregon history to Derek Loville (he amassed only 19 more yards than James in a 4-year career). It is a virtual certainty that LaMichael will hold the all-time rushing record after the Ducks' first game of the 2011 season. James came to Oregon in 2008 as a freshman from Texarkana, Texas. During his first season in Eugene, in which he redshirted, James became homesick and was close to returning to Texas. However, he persevered and remained in Oregon, and the punch which LeGarrette Blount threw after the loss at Boise State in the 2009 season opener was a blessing in disguise for James. He took the starting job the next weekend against Purdue and ran with it, rushing for 1,546 yards in his freshman campaign. He was a key part of the Ducks' potent offense which propelled Oregon to its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1994. Some doubted James' ability to replicate his 2009 campaign in his sophomore season, however, he went above and beyond the standard which he set previously. After a tumultuous off-season which rendered James suspended for the first game of the season, he came back in style, rushing for at least 90 yards in every regular season game, with 3 200-plus yard games against Portland State, the eventual Orange Bowl champion Stanford, and Southern Cal. He, along with Darron Thomas and Jeff Maehl, were the three key figures in a historically prolific offense which was described as one of the best offenses in the history of college football. James was honored as Oregon's first ever unanimous All-American in the 2010 season. After the first undefeated regular season in modern Oregon history, the Ducks received a berth to play in the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Arizona, where they lost 22-19. James has made an incredible impact on the Duck football program in just two years on campus. Only time will tell what else he may accomplish in an already amazing career.
8. Thomas J. Autzen and Thomas E. Autzen
Autzen is a very recognizable name as it pertains to Oregon Football. Autzen Stadium, the home of the University of Oregon Ducks, is perennially discussed as one of the loudest and most electric venues in which to watch a football game. Many fans, however, do not know how the stadium got its' name. Thomas J. Autzen was the son of Danish immigrants. He was born in the state of Washington (strike one) in 1888 and graduated from Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State University-strike two). At the time of Autzen's graduation from OAC, his father was the head of a rapidly growing plywood business in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from OAC, the junior Autzen started working at the family business, where he persuaded his father to make significant improvements to the manufacturing facility at which their plywood was produced. After Autzen's father's death in an automobile accident in 1918, Autzen took over the business. It prospered by selling various things such as doors and drawers to the people of the greater Portland area. What does this have to do with the University of Oregon's football program, you may ask? Well, Thomas J. Autzen's son (who obviously had a great deal more sense than his father) attended and graduated from the University of Oregon. After his father's death in the late 1950s, he became the president of a charitable organization bearing his father's namesake. Thomas E. Autzen donated $250,000 to the University of Oregon to help build the stadium, which would come to be known as Thomas J. Autzen Stadium. These two Autzens helped to build what is now recognized as one of the best college football stadiums in the country.
7. Norm Van Brocklin
Although more recent Oregon quarterbacks such as Darron Thomas, Dennis Dixon, Joey Harrington, and even Bill Musgrave may be more recognizable than Norm Van Brocklin, he was the original great quarterback in the University's football history. A native of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, Van Brocklin served in the United States Navy from 1943-1945 prior to playing football. After a year-long sabbatical following the war, Van Brocklin joined the Ducks' football team for the 1947 season. He was the team's starting quarterback and punter. After a 7-3 season in which Van Brocklin lead the Pacific Coast Conference in passing AND punting, Van Brocklin and the Ducks reached new heights in their 1948 campaign. A majestic 9-1 regular season record directed by Van Brocklin allowed the Ducks to qualify for either the Rose Bowl or the Cotton Bowl (Cal was voted into the Rose Bowl with some assistance from our friends and the University of Washington, but that's a different story for a different day). Although the Ducks lost to Southern Methodist by a 20-13 margin in the Cotton Bowl, it was one of Oregon's most successful seasons to date. After this season, Van Brocklin forwent his last season of college eligibility and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. He enjoyed a successful professional career with the Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, and coached for thirteen seasons with the Falcons and Vikings. He is a member of the College and Professional Football Hall of Fames.
6. Len Casanova
The namesake of the Casanova Center, a major part of Oregon football's current set of facilities, is longtime Oregon coach and athletic director, Len Casanova. Born to Swiss immigrants in 1905 in Ferndale, California, Casanova was involved with football in some capacity during the majority of his 97-year life. After his playing career at Santa Clara as a punter and halfback, he coached his alma mater as an assistant from 1936-1942 and as a head coach from 1946-1949, where he won an Orange Bowl. After one laughable 1-8 season at Pitt, Casanova became the head coach of the Ducks after Jim Aiken's departure in 1951. The team didn't enjoy much success during Casanova's first three years at the helm, finishing near the bottom of the PCC each of those years, the team's fortunes changed in 1954. The team managed winning seasons in 1954 and 1955, although they were not invited to a bowl either of those years. Finally, in 1957, the Ducks were invited to play in the Rose Bowl after winning the Pacific Coast Conference, where they lost to Ohio State by a score of 10-7. Casanova's teams earned two more bowl berths during Casanova's tenure as head coach, losing the Liberty Bowl in 1960 and beating Southern Methodist in the 1963 Sun Bowl. During Casanova's tenure as head coach, which lasted from 1951-1966, the Ducks had 8 winning seasons. After leaving his job as the head coach of the University of Oregon's football team in 1966, Casanova took over as the University's athletic director from 1967-1970, further cementing his role as an influential figure in Oregon athletics. His contributions to the football program were acknowledged with the Casanova Center being named after him.
5. Joey Harrington
Native Oregonian Joey Harrington was the epitome of success while at Oregon. Both Joey's father and grandfather were also Oregon quarterbacks, and Joey grew up in Portland, Oregon wanting to be a Duck throughout his childhood. After an incredible prep career at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Harrington signed to play at the University of Oregon. Harrington enjoyed an incredible career at the University of Oregon as the starting quarterback for 28 games. He amassed an almost unbelievable 25-3 record as the starting quarterback, winning three bowl games in the process. In only his fourth career start, Harrington led the Ducks to a thrilling victory over Minnesota in the 1999 Sun Bowl. His career only went upwards from there, as he lead the Ducks in a 2000 campaign in which the Ducks went 11-2, with their only losses being to two top-five times on the road (Wisconsin and Oregon State). Harrington and the Ducks won yet another bowl game in the Holiday Bowl over Texas. However, the best was still yet to come for Joey. In what could probably be called the most incredible individual season in Oregon football history, Joey Heisman lead the 2001 Ducks to a 12-1 record in which he became Oregon's first ever Heisman finalist. Although he ended up finishing fourth in the Heisman race, he lead the Ducks to their first ever BCS Bowl appearance, the Firesta Bowl, amidst controversy that the Ducks should have been invited to the BCS Championship Game against Miami. Any anger felt towards the BCS was taken out on the Colorado Buffaloes in a 38-16 thrashing in which Harrington threw for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns. Harrington was drafted as the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Although his NFL career could ultimately be deemed as a failure, the impact that he left upon Oregon's football program is nothing short of astounding.
4. Rich Brooks
Fans of perennial college football powerhouses such as Alabama or Texas may snicker at a coach with a sub-.500 career record being the fourth most influential person on Oregon Duck football. Brooks' impact on Oregon's football program, however, is not best measured by wins and losses. It should be measured based upon the change In the losing culture which permeated the program before his arrival in 1977. Brooks took Oregon from being a laughing stock in the college football landscape and transformed them into a team that qualified for its first Rose Bowl since 1957 by the time he left in 1995. Brooks, a native of Forest, California, became the head coach at Oregon after being employed as an assistant at a cornucopia of collegiate and NFL teams, such as UCLA, Oregon State, and the San Francisco 49ers, amongst others. His tenure at Oregon began inauspiciously, winning only two games in his first two seasons with the team. However, in his third season, the Ducks achieved a winning record, a rare feat in this era of Oregon football. As a matter of fact, Oregon had a winning record again in 1980, marking the first time that the Ducks had back-to-back winning seasons since the 1963 and 1964 campaigns. It's fair to say that the Ducks were consistently mediocre, hovering near the .500 mark, until the late 1980's. However, the arrival of Bill Musgrave on campus, along with better coaches and more talented players, signaled the beginning of the "awakening" of Oregon football. The Ducks finished with an 8-4 record in 1989 and earned their first trip to a bowl game since the 1963 Sun Bowl, where they defeated the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in a 27-24 thriller. The Ducks qualified for yet another bowl the following season, where they lost a heartbreaker to Colorado State. After a fairly disappointing 1991 season, the Ducks returned to the Independence Bowl in 1992, losing to Wake Forest. Another bowl absence followed in 1993, however, the 1994 season was Brooks' most magical at Oregon. After being shut out from the Rose Bowl for 39 years, Brooks and the Ducks returned to Pasadena to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions on January 1st, 1995. Although they lost 38-20 to Joe Paterno's #2 Lions, Oregon finished the season ranked 11th in the country. Brooks left to coach the St. Louis Rams after this season, and then returned to the college ranks for 7 more seasons at the University of Kentucky. Despite Brooks' 91-109-4 record at the school, his work transforming the program from a consistent loser to a competitive team was nothing short of amazing. His mark still remains on the program, as an astounding five coaches which were hired by Brooks (Allioti, Greatwood, Pellum, Radcliffe, and Campebell) remain at Oregon as assistants.
3. Chip Kelly
The current head coach of the Oregon Ducks has been an incredibly influential figure in a relatively short time at the University of Oregon. Kelly, a native of Manchester, New Hampshire and a former college football player himself, came to Oregon in 2007 after the firing of Gary Crowton as the Ducks' offensive coordinator after serving as the University of New Hampshire's offensive coordinator from 1999-2006. His impact was immediately felt, as he coached Dennis Dixon, Jonathan Stewart, and the rest of the Oregon offense, which was historically good in 2007. The 2007 team amassed the most yards in one season in the history of the program, despite the plethora of injuries with which the team was affected during the stretch run of the season. The 2008 offense was even more prolific, leading the Pac-10 in points per game and yards per game. Kelly's last game at Oregon as offensive coordinator was a win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Holiday Bowl. After Mike Bellotti's resignation as head coach in March of 2009, Kelly took the reigns of the program as its head coach. Kelly's first game as a head coach was a complete dud. The Ducks flew into Boise, Idaho and were humiliated offensively, losing 19-8. The Punch Heard ‘Round the World was also thrown after this game, which immediately forced Kelly to hand down discipline, suspending LeGarrette Blount for the remainder of the 2009 season (this suspension was later rescinded and Blount was allowed to play in the Civil War and the Rose Bowl). Kelly and the Ducks flew to heights rarely seen previously after the poor start to the season, going 10-2 in regular season play and winning the Pacific-10 Conference outright. He was named the Pac-10 coach of the year. His next season at Oregon, however, was the most historic and successful season in the program's history, which dates back to 1894. After dismissing Jeremiah Masoli, the team's star quarterback, in the offseason, Kelly led the Ducks into the 2010 season with plenty of doubters questioning his ability to coach and discipline his players. He silenced these doubters with the school's first ever 12-0 regular season, and the only 9-0 season in the history of Pacific-10 conference play. Oregon averaged an astonishing 49 points per game and 538 yards per game, which were historically gigantic numbers. The team came within 3 points of a National Championship, losing at the hands of Heisman Trophy Winner Cameron Newton and Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship game. Kelly has elevated Oregon into the elite echelon of college football teams during his short tenure at Oregon, and has proven himself as an offensive mastermind and an incredible recruiter, as well as a bit of a smart-ass. The future is bright for Kelly, and I would not be surprised if he became the greatest and most successful coach in the history of the University of Oregon. In fact, it seems almost inevitable.
2. Mike Bellotti
Although Kelly is poised to take over his spot as the most prolific and successful football coach in the history of the University of Oregon, Mike Bellotti holds this distinction for now, and for good reason. Bellotti's career at Oregon began in a similar fashion to Chip Kelly's-as an offensive coordinator under a long-tenured head coach. Bellotti served in this capacity at Oregon from 1989-1994, coaching offensive players such as Bill Musgrave and Danny O'Neill. After Brooks' departure to the NFL in 1995, Bellotti took the keys to the program and ran with them. He surpassed his predecessor as the program's winningest coach in 2006, after only 11 full seasons as head coach. In his career, his teams finished only one season with a losing record, and he continued the elevation of Oregon's program from perennially bad to perennial contender. His inaugural team, the 1995 Ducks, qualified for the Cotton Bowl, losing to Colorado, and finished ranked number 18 in the country. After a brief sabbatical from postseason play in 1996, Bellotti's teams qualified for bowls in all but one of the last twelve seasons of his coaching career, winning six of these bowls. He coached Oregon legends such as Joey Harrington, Dennis Dixon, Jonathan Stewart, Nick Reed, and Haloti Ngata. He holds the school's all-time wins record. He was the first coach to lead the Ducks to a ten-win season, accomplishing this feat four times in his tenure. He also was at the helm during the season in which the Ducks ranked the highest in the AP Poll in school history, 2001, in which the Ducks won their first ever BCS Bowl game. Bellotti's impact on the program was more than palpable-it was earth-shattering. The heights that Bellotti's teams reached were higher than had ever been reached before in the history of Oregon football. After his resignation as head coach following the 2008 season, Bellotti had racked up an outstanding 116 wins against only 55 losses. He took over as the University of Oregon's athletic department for a brief period after his tenure as head coach was over, serving as AD from 2009-2010. He is currently employed as a college football analyst on ESPN.
1. Phil Knight
Ah, yes. Uncle Phil occupies the top spot on the list of the most influential people in the history of Oregon Football. Although he did not play football for the university, did not coach by the university, and was never even employed by the university, his financial gifts to Oregon's football program (as well as its other athletic programs) have given the tools needed for success recruiting-wise and on the field. Knight, a native of Portland, was a middle-distance varsity track runner under Bill Bowerman in the late 1950's at the University of Oregon. After graduating from the U of O, Knight attended Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. He started up a small athletic goods company called Blue Ribbon Sports after leaving Stanford, selling sporting goods out of the back of his car at various sporting events around the Pacific Northwest. This small entrepreneurial venture grew into the largest sports company in the world today-Nike. He is currently the 58th most wealthy person in the world, valued at around thirteen billion dollars. Luckily for the Ducks' football program, he has not been shy in sharing this wealth with the football program of his alma mater. He has spent an astonishing amount of money on various projects pertaining to the football program, including an approximate donation of 40 million dollars to fund Autzen Stadium's expansion in the early 2000's, 4 million dollars towards remodeling the locker room, and around 10 million dollars to build the Moshofsky Center. The newest project funded by Knight is a 6-story, 41 million dollar building which will house the operations of the football program. This builiding will be funded solely by Knight. Knight's generosity, which was sparked by a conversation with Mike Bellotti after a humiliating loss in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, has completely taken Oregon Football to the next level. The team now has state-of-the art facilities and yes, uniforms. These tools allow the coaches and players spaces in which to advance their skills as football players and coaches. These facilities and uniforms are also key in attracting elite high school football players to come play in Eugene, and is the most prevalent reason for Oregon's ascension into the elite.
It was very, very tough to omit these people from the top ten list. Here are the honorable mentions:
Dennis Dixon (QB, '04-'07)
Darron Thomas (QB, '08-)
Kenny Wheaton (CB, '94-'96)
Ahmad Rashad (RB, '69-'71)
Dan Fouts (QB, '70-'72)
Bill Mugrave (QB, '87-'90)
Amanda Pflugrad (Cheerleader, '06-'09)
Shy Huntington (DB '14-'16, Coach '18-'23)
I hope you enjoyed my list, whether you agree with it or not. Feel free to blast me in the comments.