There is not a better time of year than the start of college football season. The anticipation is just excruciating. Its like being a little kid on Christmas morning, and you just can't wait to see what kind of present you are going to get. Some kids (Florida) already saw their mother wrap the XBox360 (Tim Tebow), and know its going to be a good Christmas. Some (Washington State) got a lump of coal last year, and are pretty sure that they are going to get the same. The majority of fans our somewhere in the middle. We're pretty sure that we saw a glimpse or two of the XBox (Jeremiah Masoli), but have been burned recently enough that we won't know for sure until we unwrap that gift on Christmas morning. Of course, our Christmas morning lasts about three months (which must be torture to a Cougar fan).
Truth be told, our presents have been mostly very good the last several years. Twice this decade, we've been legitimate national championship contenders. We've had a couple of nice Holiday Bowl wins. And while the grinch of Andy Ludwig presented us with socks and underwear for a few years, we've generally pulled in a nice haul this decade. Certainly, any of our northwest neighbors would trade places with us in a heartbeat.
But something has happened to Duck fan in the last ten years. I've had a lot of college football conversation the last few weeks. Some of them have seemed ludicrous to me. "If the Ducks lose to Boise State, does the pressure start to mount on Chip Kelly?" Why, because he lost a game on the road to a top 15 team? "I'm sure glad Bellotti's not the coach anymore, he was overrated and an underacheiver!" You mean the greatest coach in the history of our school. The man under whose watch every significant achievement of our football program in the modern era has occured? These statements seem absurd to me, but yet I hear them more and more every year.
Duck fans--we're getting spoiled.
Now, Im not saying we shouldn't have high expectations. I start every year dreaming of a national championship. That would have been unheard of here a decade ago. I'm not saying that we should rejoice in how great a season it was if we go 6-6 this year. That would clearly be underachieving given the talent we have. But what I am saying is that, with the new generation of Oregon fan, we are coming dangerously close to being like Alabama, LSU, or Florida. And I don't mean that in a good way.
I became a Duck fan during the '94 Rose Bowl season. That's not because I was a bandwagon hopper who wanted to jump on as times were getting good, that's just when, coming from a non-sports watching family, I realized at age eleven that there was this thing called football and it was pretty damn cool. I remember talking to my teachers and coaches who happened to be old school Duck fans. They got the lump of coal most years. 2-9. 3-8. These records were the norm. If you could win five or six, maybe beat OSU or Washington, that was a season to be excited about. That was being a Duck fan in the '70s and '80s.
Then in 1989, a funny thing happened. We went 7-4, an outstanding season at the time, and made a low level bowl game called the Independence Bowl. We largely bought our way into the game as an at large, but no matter. Oregon was going bowling. For the first time in 26 years. Twenty-six lumps of coal, and we wake up on Christmas morning to find the giant Lego castle under the tree. You know mom just spent like a hundred bucks on that thing, and it was freaking awesome. Duck Nation was in delirium.
And it continued. We made bowls two out of the next three years. They were pretty low level--Independence and Freedom, but back then, it wasn't as if every mediocre team from every conference made a bowl like now. It was still pretty freaking cool, and Duck fans were living the good life being somewhere above mediocre for a change.
Then 1994 hit like a bombshell. We started off 1-2, beating only Portland State and losing to Hawaii and Utah, not exactly the stuff Rose Bowl dreams are made of. But then we drilled Iowa and went through the conference schedule losing only in Pullman. 7-1, Pac-10 champions. It was like hitting the lottery. Oregon makes Rose Bowls about once every 40 years.
It was really all set up by the Washington game. And for those of you newer fans, you may not understand just how much hatred there was for Washington at the time, because they have been so bad lately. Oregon State is more of a friendly rivalry. Washington is hatred. Seeing them run the table in reverse last year may be the highlight of my sports fandom. At the time, they happened to be really good. They won a national title in '91. They were expected to win the Pac 10 in '94. And they rolled into Eugene against a 4-3 Oregon team that looked to be on its way to another mediocre season. This was the first game I ever attended. I was in the boy scouts, and our troop was ushering the Washington section for the game (they had 11 year old Boy Scouts ushering back them, could you freaking imagine the disaster if they tried that now?). I could smell the arrogance wafting off those smug bastards in the visitors section. I can still see the shit-eating grins. I will hate those sons of bitches as long as I live.
But our boys played well, and had a 24-20 lead. But the Huskies were driving, and with two minutes left, they were going to break our hearts again. Then Kenny Wheaton happened.
You know the story from there. And that we lost the Rose Bowl was almost an afterthought. We were there, and who knows if we'd ever get there again. But we were the Pac-10 champions. If heaven exists, its probably like the winter of '94-'95 in Eugene. This was the best present we'd ever gotten. And we were going to cherish it.
If you've ever wondered why the Pick is still played before every Oregon game, this is really the reason why. Not only did it catapult us to Pasadena, but it made us believe in this little team that could. Tickets had been plentiful before this. Afterward, sellouts were the norm. But, more importantly, people began donating money--serious money to this football program. The things that have gotten us the personnel to sustain our success--the Moshofsky Center, Pape Field, the Autzen expansion, all the cool locker rooms, etc., were all made possible by the influx of cash that our athletic department got after that season. The Rose Bowl was everything--and that was the seminal experience of our success. And I've never seen Eugene so delirious. Partly because it was so unexpected, and party because our happiness over the '01 Fiesta Bowl win was somewhat muted due to bitterness about the BCS.
But this didn't spoil us. We made the Cotton Bowl the next season, and missed the bowl season entirely after that. Nobody was trying to push Bellotti out of town. And when we made the Vegas Bowl after finishing 6-5 in 1997, many Duck fans were just happy to be back in the bowls. Now, I'm glad that we've raised our expectations. And we shouldn't be giddy if we win six games and go to the Las Vegas Bowl this season. That would clearly be an underachievement. But can you imagine if we had run Bellotti out of town after two six win seasons? That's what any school in the SEC would have done.
We pretty much know the story after that. In the ten seasons since that Las Vegas Bowl, we have five bowl wins (two Sun, two Holiday, and the Fiesta). We've been to a bowl all but once. Twice we've been legitimate national title contenders. Fans can enter every season with a legitimate hope that we could be in the national title hunt. And not even making it to a bowl game, which was the norm for 25 years? That is completely unfathomable.
And yet, in spite of all this success during the Bellotti era, some are glad that he's gone. After we went 5-6 in 2004, there were people saying that he was a bum and his time had passed. Of course, he almost won a national title just three years later.
What I'm saying is this. We are not the SEC. And that's a good thing. We are at a stage where we are going to have consistent success. But don't take it for granted, or assume its a God-given right. Look at the history of our program. If we finish 9-3 and make the Sun Bowl, that is still pretty cool and still something to be savored. If Chip Kelly goes 7-5 this season (which I don't anticipate), it doesn't mean he's a bum and needs to be canned. Alabama or Florida would have fired Bellotti after 1997 or after 2004. We didn't, and reaped tons of benefits as a result. Yet mpst fans in this what have you done for me today society want the coach gone at any sign of struggle. Unfortunately, many Oregon fans, spoiled by success and, like an addict, craving it at all times and at all costs, are becoming this way as well
Good coaches don't become terrible overnight, and Oregon has had remarkable consistency. Mike Bellotti was our head coach for 13 years. Ernie Kent has been our basketball coach for almost as long. I find that refreshing and, ultimately, I think experiencing all our successes with the same people have made them that much more special. After all, Duck Nation is a big family, and guys like Bellotti and Kent are undoubtedly the patriarchs of that family.
Now, that doesn't mean we let our programs deteriorate. Bev Smith had to go because she consistently underperformed and clearly damaged the program. This is also why the situation with the men's basketball program needs to be monitored this season. But one disappointing game or disappointing season shouldn't have everybody wanting the coach's head on a torch. And, even more importantly, a good but not great season shouldn't be met with groans and disappointment. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right? (And does anyone really think Auburn is better off with Gene Chizik than Tommy Tuberville? That's what a reactionary quick trigger will get you. Its why some jobs are coaching caroseuls).
We are going to win a national title sooner rather than later. The program is just too committed not to. There are going to be BCS bowls and 10 win seasons to come. But, inevitably, there will also be struggles. Monitor them, but don't let them define who we are as a fanbase. Keep it classy, keep it fun, and savor every bit of the journey. Our lows are few and far between, and there are a lot of schools out there that would kill for even them.
All that said, I don't anticipate those lows this year, but reflecting on where we've come from make me appreciate our success all that much more. Football is almost here, and its been far too long.