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Monday
Mar212011

Brad Ecklund: Oregon's greatest center

Brad “Whitie” Ecklund was a Milwaukie native, an Oregon all-star, bulwark of the 1948 Cotton Bowl offense, two time Pro Bowl center in the NFL, and assistant coach for five NFL teams over 20 years.

Whitie was a big man for his time, around 6’4, and weighed 225. The New York Times called him a “mighty oak.”  A writer for the Chicago Tribune said he combined “the bulk and walk and look of John Wayne with the voice and manner of Chill Wills.”

And, from the time he first laced up the cleats at Milwaukie High for the freshman team in 1937, until his last appearance as a Duck in the ‘49 Cotton Bowl, he started every game he played as an amateur. 

That’s 91 straight games.

Ecklund is broadly considered the greatest center in Oregon football history (sorry, Max Unger, but you weren’t a four-year starter at center). And it’s unfortunate that he’s almost unknown now.

The Oregonian and R-G each had a perfunctory obit for Brad Ecklund, but nothing worthy of a player of his literal and figurative stature. So, here’s a look at the career and life of one tough SOB.

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Ecklund’s 1951 Bowman football card, courtesy Benzduck’s personal collection

As a senior in high school at Milwaukie, “Whitie” was named to the Metro all-star team at fullback. He was a four-sport star — baseball, track, basketball and football — and was drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics, but turned down baseball for a full ride at Oregon.

He never played for a team — frosh, varsity, military or Oregon — that he wasn’t named captain of.

And he never played in a league where he wasn’t named on the all-conference team — at fullback in high school, at center on the military teams and at Oregon.

Ecklund matriculated at Oregon in 1941, expecting to play fullback. But the Webfoots were loaded in the backfield, and weak up front.  Coach Tex Oliver looked at the massive Ecklund and moved him to center on offense during fall camp; he played linebacker on defense. By the first game, at Stanford, he was first string. He started every game.. but flunked out of school.

Just in time, WW2 intervened. Ecklund joined the Marine Corps, and took up boxing for fun. Naturally, he became the Marine Corps Golden Glove champion. He played for the Navy Pre-Flight football team in Jacksonville, Florida for two years before being dispatched for overseas duty at Okinawa.

He learned what it meant to be a member of team in the South Pacific, fighting in interminable battles from island to island. “I was in the second wave,” he told the R-G’s Bob Clark in a 1993 interview. “It was the guys in the first wave who got their butts shot up.”  Ecklund thought the fact that the late-40s Oregon players had all gone to war made them a more dedicated and mature unit with a special bond and a more businesslike attitude to the game. 

The man one sportswriter called “the indestructible giant” returned to Oregon in ‘46, and picked up where he left off.

By being four years in the service, they forgave me for flunking out … When I came back, I never made less than a B average. I’d matured and realized what I almost lost.

In the next three years, playing both sides of the line, he averaged over fifty minutes per game. He was All-PCC in ‘46, ‘47 and ‘48. On that great ‘48 team, Ecklund played all 60 minutes of five games — Stanford, USC, Michigan, St Mary’s and Washington — and was only knocked out of one game all year, when an Idaho player kicked him in the head 4 minutes into the 3rd quarter. He graduated in 1949 with degrees in health and physical education.

He passed up a contract offer from the Green Bay Packers, choosing to join the upstart All-America Football Conference’s New York Yankees for more money. He stayed with the franchise as it moved from New York to Dallas, then signed with the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. In 1953, Ecklund was named the most valuable offensive lineman of the Colts, an honor for which he received all of $100. Having achieved that career milestone, he quit the team and returned to Oregon to coach high school football. 

Brad Ecklund, Eagles assistant coach in the 1970s, via media.philly.comEcklund was an assistant to Len Casanova’s late-50s Oregon teams, then jumped to the NFL in 1960, where Tom Landry gave him his first coaching gig with the new Dallas Cowboys. He moved to the new Atlanta team in 1966, where he coached under his former teammate Norm Van Brocklin, and later coached at New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago.Ecklund retired from coaching in 1979, and spent most of the rest of his working life as a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia area.. always keeping his teaching certificate active in the states his children lived in, so he could stay close to his grandkids.

In 1999, Brad Ecklund was named University of Oregon “Lineman of the Century.”

He’s a charter member of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

Here’s to you, Whitie.  Wherever you are, keep snappin’.


 

Monday
Mar212011

The Incorruptible Mickey Bruce

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I found this wire service photo of an Oregon defensive back from the early 60s, Michael “Mickey” Bruce, on eBay in 2009. It was listed at $5.99.

Without the caption at the bottom of the photo, this is just another picture of a healthy-looking mid-20th-century football player.  Not mentioned in the ebay listing itself, the caption refers to Mickey Bruce being offered $5,000 by two Chicago gamblers to help throw the 1960 Michigan game.

An event that created national headlines and Senate hearings, and ended with a scandal of sorts, along with a first brush with notoriety  for a very “interesting” individual, has its 50th anniversary this year.

This is the story of how an Oregon pre-law student fingered a future Hall of Fame gangster in a Senate hearing, then essentially told the legal system to go fly a kite.

***

Len Casanova’s 1960 team was pretty good. With Dave Grayson and Dave Grosz in the backfield, along with a 5’3” (yes, 63-inch) receiver with the perfect name of Cleveland Jones, the Ducks went 7-2-1, with losses at Michigan and to eventual Rose Bowl champ Washington and a tie with OSC; this was good enough to gain a Liberty Bowl invite to play Penn State. Oregon lost the bowl, played amid 2 feet of snow in freezing temperatures in Philadelphia, 41-12, but the biggest news during the season was made during a trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan early in the year.

On arrival in Dearborn, where the Ducks were staying before the game, a 27 year old Brooklyn schoolteacher named David Budin approached Mickey Bruce, a starting junior halfback/defensive back, in the airport terminal. Bruce said Budin introduced himself as “a friend of Jim Grenadi”, who had played basketball at Oregon and was a friend of Bruce. 

According to Bruce, Budin asked him for two tickets for the Michigan game. Bruce said he sold Budin a pair of tickets for $50. (Of the many things football players in 1960 could get away with, selling comped $6 tickets for $50 was one of them.) 

Later that day, after Bruce had checked into the team’s hotel, the Dearborn Inn, Bruce said he was approached by Budin and two other men, identified as “Frank” and “Bobby”. Bruce said he was told he could earn $5,000 if he “let a pass receiver in behind him”, and influence Oregon QB Dave Grosz to “call the wrong plays.” They told him to meet them at their room at the Dearborn Inn to finalize the deal on Saturday morning before going to the stadium with the team.

No fool — his father was a Chicago attorney — Bruce said thanks but no thanks, and told Len Casanova about the conversation. Cas told Oregon AD Leo Harris; Harris called the FBI, who contacted state police. Meanwhile, Cas called an unusual late-night pre-game meeting. Dick Arbuckle, a receiver on the team (and future football coach at Sheldon High), recalled that it was “very unusual.. They told us the situation, asked if any of the rest of us had been approached, and told us to be alert and report any unusual contacts.”

The next day, Michigan state police detectives accompanied Bruce to the gamblers’ hotel room, only to find they had apparently been tipped off — “Frank” and “Bobby” had checked out. The cops hung around long enough to arrest Budin when he showed up, who was probably not all that surprised to see his “friends” had cheesed it.

Bruce proceeded to the Big House, where he did everything but throw the game, playing by all accounts outstanding pass defense, even intercepting a pass and returning it to the 32 yard line. It was as far into Michigan territory the Ducks would get during the game, which they lost 21-0; they had been 6 point underdogs.  Cas later recalled the episode shook the team’s focus; the team played miserably, with Grosz overthrowing receivers all day, and in the hot humid conditions the team really didn’t have a chance.

It’s possible that “Frank” and “Bobby” knew that merely attempting to bribe the team might have a negative impact on Oregon’s chances against the spread.  All we know is that they got off scot-free this time. As for Budin, without sufficient evidence of a crime, he was charged with registering at the hotel under a false name, and paid a $100 fine.

**

Mickey Bruce had been drawn into what turned out to be a nation-wide scandal. Basketball and football games were being influenced on a wide scale by gambling interests. Eventually, Senator McClellan of Arkansas convened his select committee to investigate gambling in collegiate athletics. A year after the Michigan interaction, Bruce was called to testify before McClellan’s committee.

Mickey Bruce fingers Frank Rosenthal, US Senate hearing, 9/8/61

On September 8, 1961, sitting at a Senate hearing witness table with Frank Rosenthal — the “Frank” he’d met at the Dearborn Inn — Bruce, literally, fingered Rosenthal as one of the men who had attempted to bribe him.

Bruce told the senators that Jim Grenadi had asked him to get the tickets for two gambler friends, who wanted to attend a game that they would be betting heavily on. On meeting the gamblers in their hotel room, he learned of their desire that he take a backfield dive. Bruce said he’d “played along”, telling Rosenthal he’d be back later that evening to arrange the deal; instead, Bruce reported the incident to Cas, setting the law in motion. 

On Bruce’s return to the gamblers’ hotel room, he testified, he was given $50 for the two $6 tickets, and asked to help ensure the Ducks lost by at least 8 points by playing bad pass defense, and told he’d be given $100 per week for the rest of the season if he’d phone Rosenthal in Miami Beach each Monday and give the gambler reports of injuries on the Oregon team. Rosenthal also offered Bruce a $5,000 bonus if he could bring QB Dave Grosz into the arrangement, for which Grosz would also receive $5,000. Bruce left, and returned to the hotel with detectives the next morning to see Budin being led away in handcuffs.

Rosenthal, as was his right, plead the 5th Amendment. 

**

In October 1961, the Wayne County (Michigan) district attorney’s office announced that it wanted Mickey Bruce to come to Detroit and swear out a complaint against the three men who had attempted to bribe him. As Bruce was the only witness to the attempt, without his complaint there would be no prosecution of the gamblers. The Ducks had a game scheduled against Ohio State in mid-November, and the Michigan authorities thought it would be convenient for the team to bring Bruce along so he could file the complaint.

But Bruce was out for the season —  he separated a shoulder during a loss to Stanford — and had not planned to make the trip to Columbus.

Cas and Harris urged him to come along. But Bruce now said he wanted to be done with the whole matter. In an interview with the Register-Guard, Bruce said “as far as I’m concerned, this whole thing should have been dead a month after it happened.”  He had conferred with his father, the Chicago attorney, and concluded that he could not be compelled to swear out a complaint. He said he didn’t have time to go — he was president of his fraternity, immersed in study, and just didn’t want to take the time to travel cross-country. In his opinion the Michigan police had botched the whole situation from the start. He didn’t want to have any more to do with what he considered a poorly run prosecution that had little chance of success. And it had been so long, he wasn’t sure he remembered everything correctly; it was “a little hazy.. as to who said what.”

In refusing to go along, Bruce stood up to AD Leo Harris, who had assured the Michigan DA that Bruce would be available for “interrogation.”  But Mickey Bruce was tired of the whole thing, of the “taken any bribes lately?” jokes, and wanted to get on with his life. Harris even appealed to Oregon prexy Arthur Flemming, who said that although it would be nice if Bruce would go, Flemming certainly couldn’t force him to do so. 

And that was that. Bruce stayed home, Oregon went to Columbus and lost to the Buckeyes 23-12, and the Wayne County DA dropped the case against Budin and Rosenthal for lack of evidence.

***

Frank Rosenthal and David Budin were eventually indicted by a North Carolina grand jury in 1962, charged with offering a $500 bribe to a NYU basketball player to shave points at a NCAA tournament game against West Virginia in 1960. They plead no contest; Rosenthal paid a $6,000 fine, and Budin received two years probation. 

Interview-3_mediumDoes the name Frank Rosenthal ring a bell yet?

It should. He was credited with inventing the sports book industry in Las Vegas, and was called the “greatest living expert on sports gambling” by Sports Illustrated.

The colorful life of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who died in 2008, was the inspiration for Martin Scorcese’s movie “Casino”. Rosenthal was played by Robert DeNiro.

There’s a great obitorial on the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s web site. 

Frank Rosenthal, who died in 2008, was not a good person.

 

“It’s been said you should never speak ill of the dead.  There are exceptions to the rule. Frank Rosenthal is one of those exceptions. He was an awful human being.”

former federal prosecutor in Las Vegas

The football history of Mickey Bruce ends with that Register-Guard interview.  The ‘61 Stanford game was his last appearance in an Oregon uniform. That injury-shortened senior year dampened his career statistics; in three seasons at Oregon, he rushed 29 times for 128 yards and one TD, and caught 10 passes for 113 yards and 3 TDs. Defensively, he intercepted six passes in that fateful 1960 season, and returned 6 punts for an 11 yard average.  Bruce was drafted in the 24th round of the ‘62 AFL draft by the Oakland Raiders, but did not pursue a professional football career.

As we expect of the great Ducks, Michael J. Bruce’s story goes beyond the gridiron. He is on that short list of individuals who have implicated gangsters and not only survived, but prospered under their own good name. In 1981, Mickey Bruce received the UO Leo Harris Award, presented to an alumnus letterman who has been out of college for twenty years and who has demonstrated continued service and leadership to the university. Other Harris winners include Bill Dellinger, Dan Fouts, Tinker Hatfield, Alberto Salazar, Dave Wilcox, Ahmad Rashad and John Robinson.

That’s a much better lifetime achievement award than a car bomb.

Sunday
Mar202011

Circling the Bowls, 1964 - 1988

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Oregon was headed to a bowl game.

Fans were scrambling for tickets and figuring out how to make travel arrangements. The team was hard at work, preparing for an opponent remarkably similar to itself.

The alleged experts were expecting a one-sided victory.

The city of Eugene, the entire Duck universe, was beside itself with excitement and anticipation.

The game itself was nip-and-tuck, not decided until late in the 4th quarter, and the fans who were there will never forget the experience.

But the trip to the 1989 Independence Bowl wound up costing the UO a small fortune.. and there was significant debate over whether it had been worth the cost (or investment, depending on who described the transaction).

Given Oregon’s post-1994 success, it’s easy to forget that back in 1989, it was practically inconceivable that Oregon would ever get to a bowl game without winning the conference outright. 

The acuity of Oregon’s bowl desperation in the late ’80s could be seen on the front cover of the 1985 media guide, where the phrase “1985 Mirage Bowl” was prominently featured, without further explanation inside. (The aptly named “Mirage Bowl” was merely a relocated regular season game played in Japan for a few years; in 1985, Oregon traveled to Tokyo and lost to USC.)

But there was always hope. Some seasons, there was even possible anticipation for something that might happen if everything lined up right. Maybe.

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Oregon had flirted with bowls several times during The Suffering.. and time and again found itself jilted in late November, while bowl committees ran off with flashy tramps with “experience”.

Oregon was, technically, “bowl-eligible” five times between 1964 and 1994. 

For years, the only bowl game Pac-8 members were eligible for was the Rose Bowl. Oregon’s previous two bowl engagements, the 1960 Liberty and 1963 Sun, occurred while the Webfoots were an unaffiliated “Western independent.” Once the western colleges were re-formed into the AAWU (later renamed the Pacific-8), the Rose restriction was renewed. It was thought that somehow having more than one conference team in post-season play would dilute the appeal of “the Granddaddy of them all.”

Thus, for a decade, the only conference teams playing in the post-season were USC (7 Rose Bowls), Stanford (2) and UCLA (1). This restriction was finally lifted for the 1975 season.. just in time for UCLA to win the conference again.

Not that the restriction - or its removal - ever mattered much to Oregon.

Never able to break the USC / UCLA / Stanford stranglehold on the conference title before 1975, the team’s best record between 1965 and 1988 came in the probation season of 1980, when they weren’t eligible for post-season play.

But the fickle finger of post-season play beckoned a few times, only to reveal itself as an upraised middle digit..

1970  (6-4-1)

Behind the arm of sophomore sensation Dan Fouts and the legs of junior tailback Bobby Moore, on Halloween the Ducks traveled to Seattle trailing only Stanford in conference.

Bobby Moore vs USC, 10-24-1970 (UO Digital Archive)

At 5-2 and 4-1, Oregon was coming off an impressive 10-7 home win over USC. The week before, a miraculous comeback at UCLA led to a 41-40 win, and suddenly Oregon owned wins over the SoCal schools for the first time since 1957. Which was the last time they were in the Rose Bowl, a fact that was not lost on many of the locals.

One problem: Oregon had already lost to Stanford, 33-10, in September, and the Indians owned the Rose Bowl tiebreaker. And Stanford hadn’t lost yet, having also knocked off USC and UCLA.

Still, there was no reason to stop playing. The best record since 1964’s 7-2-1 was well within reach. Stanford had three conference games left, which meant three chances to trip up twice. And Oregon was ranked #16 in the AP.  Jerry Frei was named UPI “Coach of the Week.”  It was a good week to be a Duck.

As the new starter, young Fouts wasn’t above talking some subtle pre-game trash. Asked about the pressure surrounding a Rose Bowl race, he said “I feel the added pressure keeps us up for each game.

“We know Washington is going to be tough because they think they’re still in contention.”

He knew what he was talking about. The 1970 UW game was a titanic battle, but in the end Oregon hit the iceberg.

The final quarter was epic. Oregon led after three, 15-7, but backup UW quarterback Greg Collins led a furious comeback early in the 4th quarter. Huskies tied the game at 15 after getting good field position on a punt return, then after the kickoff Fouts was intercepted by DB Bob Burmeister.  One play later, Collins hit WR Bo Cornell in the end zone, and the Huskies led 22-15. Undaunted, Oregon marched right down the field, using a halfback pass from Moore to WR Steve Bailey and a two-point run by FB Jim Anderson to take the lead 23-22.

Although unable to stretch the lead later in the quarter as UW’s 6’7” DE Kurt Matter blocked a 36 yard FG attempt by Ken Woody, the Ducks seemed to have the game in hand as UW failed to convert on 4th down with minutes remaining. But Fouts fumbled on a broken play after running for a first down at midfield, and Collins moved the Huskies far enough and fast enough to allow Steve Wiezbowski to nail the winning 19 yard FG with 30 seconds left.

Out of the Rose Bowl race, Oregon went a little .. schizophrenic.

Bobby Moore decided to skip practice on Monday, and Frei benched him for the next game, against #10 Air Force. But the defense kicked it up a notch, forcing five 4th quarter turnovers. And Fouts, absent his biggest weapon, simply went nuts against the Falcon secondary, tossing four TD passes and leading the Ducks to 17 unanswered 4th quarter points in a 46-35 upset. His 396 passing yards (28-43-2) and 418 in total offense were both Oregon single-game records; he was named Pac-8 player of the week and the “national back of the week” by UPI.  

The ship righted, Moore returned for a trip to West Point against the 1-8 Black Knights.. and his 59 yard 4th quarter run, plus a reception for the two-point conversion, merely salvaged a 22-22 tie.

Finally, there was the ritual loss in the Civil War — the seventh straight — as the Beavs rolled up 336 yards rushing, and Oregon again collapsed in the 4th quarter.

Still, the Ducks did end the year with their best record since ‘64.  6-4-1, thirty years later, would get a team a bid somewhere. All it got the 1970 Ducks was congratulations - and their last winning season until 1979.

1979 (6-5)

Three coaches and nine seasons later, Oregon was on the verge of bowl eligibility. There were 15 bowls on the schedule in 1979. Trouble was, only three of those were west of Texas, and none of them (the Rose, Fiesta and Holiday) were interested. And it was hard to imagine Oregon as a team that “traveled well.”

But, at 5-4 going into the penultimate game against UCLA, Oregon was reported to be one of several schools on the radar of the new Garden State Bowl, to be played in the Garden State. A quick check of the encyclopedia revealed the Garden State to be New Jersey, and the bowl itself to be in East Rutherford, in northern New Jersey, not normally seen as an optimal post-season destination.

When asked if the Ducks were a viable candidate, the head of the Garden State Bowl committee said there was “limited interest.. They’re so far away, and so new in the bowl picture, that it’s easier for a bowl that’s been around to go to a newcomer, because they may have an established audience.” Which was bowl executive-speak for “Who the hell is Oregon?”

Nonetheless, the fans were abuzz with excitement.  Coach Brooks, although pessimistic, told the Oregon Club  “a 7-4 team ought to go to a bowl, especially a 7-4 team that’s tied for second in the Pac-10.. I know this: It’s a little bit different situation for people to be thinking about Oregon being in a bowl game.”

And, thinking about it people were.. right up until the Bruins ran their team off its home field, in a 35-0 rain-soaked debacle. (Literally,ran them off the field; UCLA threw just six passes, and had 91 rushing attempts.)

Technically, the Ducks were bowl-eligible after the subsequent Civil War win. But AD John Caine’s phone never rang, and Oregon stayed home at 6-5.

1984 (6-5)

After an upset win at UCLA behind sophomore QB Chris Miller, Oregon had overcome a four-game losing streak and was again 5-4 and flirting with bowl eligibility. This time, nobody wanted to jinx it.. although with the number of bowls up to 17, a 7-4 Oregon team might have been at least as attractive as, say, a 7-4 Wazzu team.

As in 1979, they were at Autzen, playing to secure a winning season.

And, just like in ‘79, they stunk up the place, losing to Arizona State 44-10.

Brooks: “We’re not a very mature team… We don’t know how to handle success. If we’re ever going to get over that hump, we’ve got to learn that.”

Another blowout win in Corvallis, and the Ducks were again 6-5, again home for the holidays, watching on New Year’s Day as three Pac-10 teams won big games - UCLA over Miami in the Fiesta, USC over Ohio State in the Rose, and Washington over Oklahoma in the Orange. (This remains the only season the Pac-10 put three teams in January 1 bowls.)

1987 (6-5)

Oregon started strong in 1987 behind a hot freshman quarterback named Bill Musgrave.  Another four-game losing streak put Oregon at 4-5 heading to Pullman, and seemingly off the radar of any of the 18 bowls this season. But a big wins at Wazzu, and a 44-0 blowout in the Civil War, made the Ducks bowl eligible.. and this time it seemed there was a chance.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Oregon AD Bill Byrne told officials at the Sun Bowl after the win over OSU that Oregon would guarantee the sale of “any number of seats they need, within reason.” And Sun officials acknowledged that, thanks to some untimely upsets of teams that had been considered locks for bowl bids, Oregon was a “serious candidate.”

For one day.

On Sunday morning, West Virginia (6-5) got the Sun Bowl bid against Oklahoma State (6-5). The Sun Bowl chairman explained “our decision was based on the East Coast television market.” He also noted that West Virginia played very well in all the games it lost.  Which is something Oregon couldn’t say.

1988 (6-6)

Brooks and his team set reaching the Rose Bowl as their top priority for the ‘88 season. Bill Musgrave was back along with plenty of talent. And, for a while, the Ducks had their priorities in line. In late October, they were back in the top 20, their only blemish to a USC team that didn’t lose a conference game.

With a 6-1 record, after Terry Obee took the reverse around left end for the winning score against the Huskies in Autzen on October 22, the question wasn’t if Oregon would finally break its bowl drought; it was “Rose Bowl or what?”  Scouts from the Holiday, Freedom and Sun Bowls were in attendance, part of the biggest crowd (45,978) in Oregon history.

It seemed the only non-believers were the locals; a week later, the crowd at Autzen dropped to under 35,000 for ASU.

Bill Musgrave’s last carry of 1988.

Among those who showed up: the bowl scouts, who showed up to see Bill Musgrave break his collarbone in the first half attempting to tackle Sun Devil LB Rodney Dillard while carrying a football. Musgrave’s understudy, Pete Nelson, threw three picks; the Duck backs lost four fumbles, and what would have been the winning two-point conversion was nullified when WR Joe Reitzug was flagged for stepping out of bounds prior to the catch. Ducks lost, 21-20. 

When asked after the game about Oregon’s bowl chances, Brooks commented “all we have to do know is get some more wins. Somehow, some way, we have to get some more wins.”

And a bowl was still there for the taking. Even after a subsequent home loss to UCLA, Oregon was considered a top candidate for the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim. But they needed seven wins to get there - and that 7th win had to come on the road, in Tucson. Bowl bids would be announced in 1988 on November 13, a week before the Civil War.

They never got that 7th win. The turnover machine, created after the Musgrave breakdown, was in fine form against Arizona (four INTs, two fumbles lost). Derek Loville managed 8 yards on 11 carries. Oregon trailed 27-3 at the half, came back to within a touchdown in the 4th quarter, but collapsed late. The 41-27 loss ended any bowl hopes.

Oregon limped into the ‘88 Civil War at 6-4. Without a viable quarterback, the Ducks led 10-7 before collapsing late, giving OSU two fourth quarter TDs and a 21-10 win. It was the first four win season for the Beavs since 1971 and OSU’s first CW victory in 14 years.

A season-ending trip to Hawaii was as close to a post-season bowl as the Ducks would get. Fittingly, Oregon lost to the Rainbow Warriors, 41-10.

**

Things didn’t look great for another third straight return to bowl flirtation in 1989, although plenty of talent returned, including a healthy Bill Musgrave collarbone. The problem was the schedule. The conference season started in game one, against Cal, and there were only five home games in all, including Long Beach State. Road trips to Iowa, BYU, Washington, ASU and UCLA looked daunting. 

At least they didn’t have to play USC.

Coming soon: Episode II - Revolution in the ArkLaTex, or How Bill Byrne bought his Independence.

Sunday
Mar202011

A Brief History of the First Century of Oregon Football

(This is Duck Downs 101. Originally published on an Auburn fan site, Track’em Tigers. Revised and edited for general perspective.)

*****

The casual football fan is likely aware of a few basic facts about the Oregon Ducks:

1. They are from Oregon.
2. Their mascot is a duck.

The more involved fan may have a few more details, possibly including:

3. They are in the Pac-10 Conference.
4. The University of Oregon is in Eugene.
5. They were in the BCS championship game.
6. Their QB got kicked off the team last year and wound up at Ole Miss.
7. They got screwed out of going to the championship game in 2001, just like Auburn did in ‘04.
8. Their running back punched out that big fat Boise chump last year, which was AWESOME.
9. They are owned by Nike.
10. They really hate Washington for some reason.
11. “Animal House” was filmed there.

All of which is true, or at least true-ish. But ask the average football fan what they know about Oregon football in the 20th Century, and if you don’t hear crickets, you might get this kind of response:

a) They started playing football in 1994…

or

b) They used to really suck.

“a” is not true — it was 1894 — but we get it. And there’s no denying “b”. Oregon doesn’t have the kind of football history that a “traditional” team has. The Ducks were irrelevant for decades. That fact doesn’t make us bad, or inferior, just .. different. We’re relatively new at this whole “success” thing.  

Consider that between 1960 and 1995, Oregon had only two of its 375 games televised nationally. Two games in 35 years. How about just six bowl appearances in the first 100 calendar years of existence?

And what other major college team played half its home games until 1967 in a 25,000 seat stadium over a hundred miles from its campus?

Yes, some of our players went on to great futures. There are NFL Hall of Famers in the alumni roster (Van Brocklin, Renfro, Fouts, Zimmerman). You might know that legendary NBC sports softball tosser, Ahmad Rashad, was a star tailback as Bobby Moore. 

But there’s the rub. It’s more likely that a football fan knows a player is from Oregon, than anything about Oregon, especially pre-1994.

Knowing a little of what we’ve gone through might help you understand why some Oregon fans are a little crazy.  

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Rich Brooks, Oregon coach 1977-1994

Consider this. Y’all have no doubt heard of Rich Brooks, who just retired last year from coaching at Kentucky. Well, Rich was our coach from 1977 through 1994, an 18 year period in which he went 91-109-4, and went to 4 bowl games, all of which were in the last 6 years of his term. After his one breakout season in 1994, when he finally won the conference, he bailed out for NFL money. 

And the university named the field after him!

Think about it. What SEC school would keep around a coach for 18 years who only managed to win more than 6 games *twice* in his first 17 seasons?  In Rich’s first six seasons, he only won 2 games 4 times, and wound up forfeiting the 12 victories he had in the other two years. He roundly criticized the UO administration for its failure to live up to promises made years earlier to update the lousiest facilities in the Pac-10. He’d talk up his teams pre-season, and then coach them to losses against teams like Fresno State and Pacific.

Brooks was a stubborn caretaker who loved his players, hired quality help, and refused to lose, even when he lost. And we kept him. Because the culture in Eugene in the last half of the century wasn’t one that celebrated college football. All that we expected was that it earn at least make enough money to pay for the other programs that qualified us to stay in the Pac-10. And win a home game or two. Some years, the Ducks could barely do that.

I grew up in Eugene. I was a Boy Scout usher in ‘68 and ‘69 at Autzen Stadium. The fact that Oregon used teenaged boys in dorky uniforms for crowd control back then should tell you something about the crowd, and the culture. And that culture, I believe, helped keep Oregon football down for so long. (Think Vanderbilt, with more hippies and not quite the academic standards.)

***

Since most “modern” college football histories use WWII as a dividing line, that’s a good place to begin. Oregon was at least a competitive program in the post-war years. There weren’t a lot of bowl bids, because back then there weren’t a lot of BOWLS, and they were mostly back in your neck of the woods, and they didn’t like to invite teams from the West because it was hard for fans to get to the games.

Norm Van Brocklin. “The Dutchman.”

The really good teams weren’t ignored. Norm Van Brocklin led the ‘48 team to a 9-2 record and the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Doak Walker and SMU. This being Oregon, we only won seven games over the next three years. After Jim Aiken’s last team went 1-9 in 1950, still the worst record in Duck football history, a coaching change brought Len Casanova to the sidelines from Pitt.

“Cas” is one of the titans of Oregon football. His name is on the athletic department building. Everybody loved Cas.  

And he took us to three bowls in 16 seasons.  

Culture.

Cas’ biggest success was making the Rose Bowl, after the 1957 season, where Jack Crabtree and Jack Morris led a 7-3 Duck team in a heroic effort against #1 Ohio State, losing 10-7. (Some take great glee in pointing out that Oregon hasn’t won a Rose Bowl since 1917. For the most part, these are Washington fans, to whom ancient history is everything.)

This is where the story starts to get interesting, in a “Damn, why did y’all put up with that for so long?” way.

In 1959, thanks to the machinations of other conference members after the original Pacific Coast Conference imploded amid widespread NCAA sanctions, Oregon found itself as an independent. There was moderate success — a Liberty Bowl bid, against Penn State, in 1960 (another loss); and a Sun Bowl bid in 1963, a win — the first Oregon bowl victory since 1917! — over a 4-6 SMU team that was only in the game because no qualified team was available.

By 1964, the Ducks were back with their old conference mates in the new Pacific Eight Conference. For Oregon football, the decade of the ’60s was consumed with struggling to keep up with the titans of the new Pac-8 — USC and UCLA, the only teams you ever saw on TV. As college football grew in popularity, it became clear that Hayward Field, the on-campus stadium, was far too small at 23,500 seats to host a major college team. Half the home games were actually played 110 miles up the road, in Portland, including the Border War with UW. In an attempt to keep up with the conference leaders, a new stadium was proposed and built. It cost about $2.5 million, seated 42,000, and was named “Autzen Stadium” after the timber baron who donated $250,000 to get the project off the ground, across the Willamette River from the UO campus.

Autzen Stadium, newly completed, summer 1967

Autzen opened in 1967. Oregon had a new coach, Jerry Frei, who struggled under the legacy of his predecessor, Len Casanova, who had moved on to AD. Progress was gradual. 2-8, then 4-6.  But Frei was a solid coach who eventually found a career as an NFL assistant. He had the right ideas, and was building a Program. Recruiting the West heavily, he brought a speedy back named Bobby Moore in from Tacoma; you know him now as Ahmad Rashad, the softballing NBC commentator. Then, he landed Dan Fouts out of San Francisco.

Things started clicking. The ‘69 Duck team was highly competitive, just 8 points from going 8-2. The ‘70 team had our first winning season in 6 years, and was ranked as high as AP#16 after a win over USC.

But Frei had a problem. He couldn’t beat the aggie school up the road. And in the state of Oregon, nothing defined a team more than the Civil War results. Since 1958, in fact, Oregon’s record against OSU was a pathetic 1-11-1. The boosters expected that ‘71 would, at last, be the year the Ducks took back the state from the damn barkrats.

Dan Fouts, Jerry Frei, Bruce Snyder, 1971

Frei called the 1971 Civil War game the most important of his life.

The ‘71 Ducks lost to the Beavers at Autzen again, 30-29, securing another losing season at 5-6.

A month later, Frei, under pressure to sack some assistant coaches that certain Portland-area boosters considered incompetent, and without any show of support from his basketball-friendly athletic director, resigned.  Among the members of Frei’s incompetent coaching staff were John RobinsonGeorge SeifertBruce SnyderJohn Marshall,  and Dick Enright.

Guess who got promoted? Naturally, Enright was deemed the competent one in the bunch, and was named Oregon’s new head coach. 

The period of Oregon football history known as The Suffering had begun.

***

Call it a curse, or bad karma. Call it getting what you expect. Call it getting what you pay for. The bottom line is that between 1971 and 1994, Oregon Football was irrelevant to all but around twenty thousand of its most interested fans. The only others who cared were members of the local media, who were paid and thus under obligation to pay attention to them; the student-athletes themselves, who were at least getting a free education, and their families; and others under direct employ of the UO. That makes for a limited support base. Combine this with the fact that there was a lot more to do in the Eugene area in 1972 besides paying to watch bad football in the rain and it’s not hard to see what the Ducks were up against back in the day.

From whom little is expected, little is returned.  Enright’s career lasted two years. He was a “player’s coach”, a good recruiter at a school that didn’t have a recruiting budget, but a lax disciplinarian and a poor tactician. Enright did finally break the OSU curse, winning the Civil War 30-3. But his team was blown out 68-3 at Oklahoma, and 65-20 at UCLA, and not even beating the Huskies 58-0 in ‘73 could save his job, after losing at home to OSU and going 2-9. Out went Enright. (Warning: Do *not* search the internet for Images using “Dick Enright.”)  

In came Don Read, a cerebral genius and quarterback guru and genuinely nice guy. Read would eventually find his footing at Montana, leading the Griz to a 1AA national championship. But at Oregon, in the Pac-8, he was simply over his head. Some of Oregon’s most legendary beatdowns occured on his watch. It didn’t help that the athletic director continued to support those paycheck games against the national powers in an effort to balance the budget.

His first game was at Nebraska. Ducks lost, 61-7. More blowouts followed. 40-10 to Cal. 66-0, to a terrible UW team. 35-17 to the Beavers.

In ‘75, the bottom fell out.

Anonymous UO back meets Oklahoma defense, 1975

Another paycheck-game blowout at Oklahoma (62-7) was followed by a loss in the home opener.. 5-0, to San Jose State. Yes, football, not baseballAfterward, new Oregon President William Boyd famously declared “I’d rather be whipped in a public square than watch a game like that.” Fans agreed. The announced paid attendance in ‘75 averaged just over 22,000 per game, a gross overestimate. In the ultimate insult to tradition, official Homecoming festivities were cancelled in 1975; who wanted to come home to this?

The losing streak eventually reached 14 games, finally ending where it started, with a win over a Utah team that finished 1-10. The victory was witnessed by just 10,500 true-green fans, an Autzen record that will almost certainly live forever.

Read, despite a modest upgrade in his recruiting budget, kept telling the Oregon Club that we just couldn’t compete with the “big schools” for top players, so, he wasn’t going to bother trying. He had it backwards, of course.

After 1976, when USC blew the Ducks out of Autzen, 53-0, and another paycheck loss at Notre Dame (41-0) was the highlight of a six-game losing streak, not even another win against OSU could save Read’s job.

***

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There was a nationwide search. Bill Walsh was offered the job, but turned it down for Stanford. The desired qualities sought eventually devolved to “anybody stubborn enough to take THIS job for $32,000 a year.”  In the end, it fell to Rich Brooks, a UCLA assistant coach and — horrors! — OSU graduate.

The Brooks era did not begin auspiciously. For one thing, Rich had the honor of taking his team into the SEC for not one but *two* paycheck games, including his season opener at Athens. The team kept it respectable, losing by 11, then got his first win as a head coach at moribund TCU. But the beatdowns resumed; 8 straight losses, average score 40-11. He did get a win over OSU in his first try, though.

Another 2-9 year followed. They started 0-7, including a home loss to TCU, a team that hadn’t won a road game since Nixon was president. But the last 5 losses were by a total of 17 points, which was a lot better than being blown out. Progress. 

And Brooks was starting to see the results of an upgrade in recruiting. He’d pounded the table, insisting on a higher recruiting budget. He hired John Becker as his offensive coordinator, and made him the highest-paid assistant in the conference. Becker had coached at a juco in Los Angeles and knew the good players, and brought some along with him. There was finally real talent in the backfield, and size in the trenches.

Reggie Ogburn, Oregon QB 1979 - 80

In ‘79, dual-threat juco transfer Reggie Ogburn chose Oregon over Cal, and with him at QB the Ducks had their first winning season in 10 years, going 6-5. The city went nuts. Home attendance was up 35%. 1980 was going to be The Year of the Duck.

Then… thud. It turned out that one of Becker’s qualities was his ability to get players academically eligible without attending all those silly classes. And the culture of the team had suddenly become sadly similar to that at some of the big-boy schools; a group of talented players thought they could get away with anything they wanted. Brooks had gambled, and lost one of the few qualities his predecessor possessed - integrity.

Caught up in the national pay-for-credits scandal, and with players accused of crimes ranging from phone-card theft to burglary to sodomy, the ‘80 Ducks played under probation. Ineligible for bowls, with some star players sidelined, they still managed to go 6-3-2, with a blowout win at Washington. Still, attendance was up again. Fans liked winners. Who knew?

One more year of probation. Plenty of talent returning for ‘81. The Quack was Back. Brooks challenged reporters to put his 1981 team in the Top 20. He was confident of winning seven, maybe eight games, and challenging for the Rose Bowl.

Oregon lost the first game of 1981. To Fresno State. 

They wound up 2-9. Nobody voted them into the Top 20. They were,  however, fixtures in Steve Harvey’s Bottom Ten.

In 1982, they lost to Fresno again, this time at Autzen, 10-4. (The score, not the CB lingo.) Only an inexplicable tie with Notre Dame salvaged another 2-win season. Sure, they beat OSU again, but that was now expected; in fact, Brooks had never lost a Civil War game, as a player, an OSU assistant, or as Oregon’s head coach. A solid faction of boosters would have kept him employed for life at Oregon just for that.

1983 opened with another loss. At home. To Pacific, which would drop football altogether a few years later. The season ended with the infamous Toilet Bowl, the 0-0 Civil War turdfest that was the last scoreless tie ever in Division 1 football. And yet, many fans in Eugene, by now among the most patient in America, considered 4-6-1 great progress. 

In fact, 1983 was the year Oregon transitioned from “general suckitude” to “solid mediocrity.” The Ducks went 6-5, 5-6, 5-6, 6-5, 6-6 between ‘84 and ‘88. And new NCAA regulations limiting scholarships and traveling roster sizes, along with increased support generated by a sharp young athletic director named Bill Byrne, were helping Brooks become more competitive on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Bill Byrne, UO Athletic Director, 1983-92; Savior of Oregon Football

Byrne gets credit for ending the dependence on paycheck games, and finally coming through with the facilities upgrades that Brooks had been begging for. Yes, he had the crazy idea of putting a dome over Autzen, but a lot of people in Eugene thought it was a good idea at the time. 

In 1987, after a 4-1 start capped by wins over ranked Washington and USC, Oregon was ranked AP#19. It was the first national ranking since 1970. The team celebrated by losing its next four games.

In 1988, an even better start. 6-1 after another win over the Huskies. Then, QB Bill Musgrave decided to attempt to tackle an ASU linebacker with his collarbone. Crack went the shoulder, and Musgrave and the Ducks were done for the season, with five straight losses.

Still, the Bill Musgrave Era marked a change. The strong-armed QB would finally lead Oregon in 1989 to its first 8-win season in decades and its first bowl bid since ‘63. Okay, it was the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl, in Shreveport, against Tulsa, and it cost the school a fortune in guaranteed tickets, but it was a BOWL GAME DAMMIT! Which they WON. The cherry was popped. Success was imminent! Respect was demanded!

As a senior, Musgrave took the Ducks to another 8 wins, and another bowl, the Freedom, against Colorado State. They lost a heartbreaker.

Bill Musgrave graduated, having broken Dan Fouts’ season and career passing records. The team returned to mediocrity. ‘91 saw a 2-0 start, but a 1-8 finish. And, somehow, Brooks started losing to OSU again, twice in three years. Injuries mounted. We were back to being just another .500 team, struggling to beat the Beavers and win more than a few conference games. Attendance was still high, but the natives were getting restless. A return to the Independence Bowl in ‘92 didn’t exactly energize the fan base… especially when they lost to Wake Forest.

By the end of 1993, Brooks was on the hot seat. Oregon had blown a 30-0 lead at Cal, losing 42-41, and another promising 3-0 start turned into a 5-6 downer. The coach had recently been named athletic director, in an obvious attempt to save money, and around Eugene fans were asking when Brooks would get around to firing himself.

In 1994, after 3 games, Oregon was 1-2 and had just lost to Hawaii and Utah — at home. Now the sharks were circling. Now, after 17 seasons, Brooks had reached the end of his rope. Iowa was coming to Eugene to put him out of his misery.

Oregon beat the Hawkeyes 40-16. They went 8-1 to close out the season and win the conference; the tipping point was a dramatic win over AP#6 Washington at Autzen, that featured a play frequently considered kind of memorable…

The Ducks were in the Rose Bowl again, as a writer for the LA Times put it, “every 37 years, just like clockwork.”

The Suffering was over. Brooks took the money and ran to the NFL. But the cupboard wasn’t bare. Offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti stepped in as head coach. Oregon’s richest fan, Nike head Phil Knight, started pouring his personal fortune into facility improvements, and made the Ducks his company’s featured client.. and the rest is history, and well documented on other fan sites and the general media.

Since 1994, Oregon’s only seen one losing season (2004, 5-6). Only missed post-season play twice. Won ten games or more 7 times. Finished ranked in the AP Top 25 eleven times. Won or shared the Pac-10 title five times. Hasn’t lost to Washington in seven years (average score, 43-17). Etc.

Despite the 2002 expansion to over 58,000 seats, Autzen Stadium has been sold out for every game since 2004. Oregon has the best facilities in the Pac-10, rivaling any in the country, and they just keep improving.

A significant majority of current Oregon fans jumped on the bandwagon in 1994. Who can blame them for sitting out the years of suck? But for those of us who lived through The Suffering, the recent success of our beloved Ducks is just mind-boggling.

The old saying is “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” Are Duck fans who stuck with the team through twenty years of bad football more legitimate than the ones who jumped on in 1994? No.. but you’ll have to forgive us for thinking we appreciate it a little more than they do.


Autzen Stadium, Halloween 2009

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