Nobody knows the exact moment when the Oregon Ducks became cool. Maybe it happened after they painted an “O” on the side of their helmets. Maybe it happened after Nike agreed to let a few Oregon players design their own uniforms. For all we know, maybe Supwitchugurl’s “I Love My Ducks” triggered the revolution.
Whatever the case, being cool has turned the Oregon “O” into a national brand. And this brand has proven to be worth its weight in neon gold. News outlets have reported countless stories about football recruits praising the Duck’s swagger. LeGarrette Blount, a running back for the New England Patriots and former Duck, famously admitted that Oregon’s endless supply of uniform combinations won him over. "We don't wear the same thing twice -- I love that," Blount once told reporters following an Oregon spring practice. "I don't want to play for a sluggish-looking team." Blount, who was originally a four star JUCO prospect from Mississippi, transferred to Oregon in 2008. The trip was more than 2,500 miles long.
While it’s difficult to quantify how Oregon’s brand impacts recruiting, an analysis of the team’s roster since the 2000 season reveals a clear trend: the Ducks have grown geographically diverse. And they’ve done so at a greater rate than their rivals throughout the Pacific Northwest. At the beginning of the millennium, the typical recruit traveled 800 miles, or roughly the distance between Los Angeles and Eugene, to play for the Oregon State Beavers, the University of Washington Huskies, the Washington State Cougars, or the Ducks. But disparities gradually emerged. By the start of the 2016 season the average distance between the University of Washington and its players’ hometowns decreased to roughly 750 miles per person. Washington State and Oregon State saw their averages grow to 1,050 and 1,100 miles, respectively. Oregon spiked to an astonishing 1,200 miles per player.
(These figures exclude international players because they skew the data. Nick Porebski, a punter from Australia, would single-handedly raise Oregon State’s average by 75 miles.)
So what do these numbers mean? The distance between each player’s hometown and his university reflects how well his team can draw recruits from all across the country. For example, if the Beavers only recruited from within the state, the average distance traveled by their players would be small. But if Oregon State stacked its team with prospects from Texas, this average would skyrocket. After all, the road from Houston to Corvallis is more than two thousand miles long.
The University of Washington, whose team boasts a large number of in-state players, has not expanded its geographic reach in the past two decades. Oregon State and Washington State, on the other hand, have followed Oregon’s strategy of casting a wider net while recruiting. But both teams still fall short of the Ducks. They lack national brands.
Of course, it’s hard to say whether this geographic diversity actually leads to more wins. While Oregon State’s players traveled nearly as far from home as their foes in Eugene did, the Beavers still floundered to a 2-10 record in 2015. And it’s logically obvious that a player won’t be an All-American simply because he grew up in the Eastern Time Zone. Many recruits from Seattle and Portland are better athletes than their peers in Florida.
But when it comes down to snagging All-Americans out of Texas or landing a Hawaiian diamond in the rough, Oregon’s brand can be a powerful weapon. The swagger, uniforms, and recent success of the program has helped its coaches connect to a greater number of aspiring college football players. The evolution of Oregon’s roster proves this point. It shows that young men are willing to travel greater distances than ever before to become Ducks. And this sends a powerful message to Oregon’s rivals: it pays to be cool.