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Thursday
Mar072013

Where it all went wrong: 1971

November, 1971: Two games determine the fate of a program for decades.

 

In the autumn of 1971, green fees at Pebble Beach were $20, gas to get there was 50 cents a gallon,  and a fifth of Seagrams VO would set you back $7.85 (Oregon had the highest liquor prices in the nation). The wealthiest American, John Paul Getty, had a net worth of $2 billion. Stylish young men frequented a downtown clothier called The Gay Blade.  Either you smoked ($3.99 for a carton of Marlboros) or your parents smoked or your grandparents were smokers, telephones had dials, you either drove an American car or patiently explained why you didn’t, and Oregon’s football fortunes were improving. 

Autzen Stadium was in its fifth year. The kinks were being worked out on Centennial Boulevard. The grassy mud pit that resulted from rolling out Instant Lawn in a sunken bowl in 1967 had been replaced with something resembling quality green carpet. Although there still weren’t a lot of working toilets, the athletic department was finally able to round up enough HoneyBuckets to satisfy most of the fans, given attendance was rarely close to capacity. It is believed that the game against San Jose State (Ducks, 34-14) was played to the emptiest stadium in the five-year history of Autzen, with only about 14,000 paid attendees.

Up the road, the campus at OSU was still in turmoil over a demand in 1969 by famously rotund coach Dee Andros that one of his black players (Fred Milton) show some respect and shave that damn beard off his chin (a demand not made of the white players). Milton said, in short, “Up yours, cracker!”, and Andros kicked him off the team.  This did not sit well with the members of the Black Student Union, who organized a general boycott.  Andros had trouble recruiting black players for years afterwards. Since Corvallis wasn’t exactly Tuscaloosa in those days, that didn’t bode well for the future.. and Andros was on his way to the first of what would be 26 consecutive losing seasons for the Beavers.

Bobby Moore, Dan Fouts and Tom Graham, 1971

As a progressive and sensitive, if 99% white, community, Eugene welcomed its black student athletes with open arms, especially if they could perform adequately on the field. In 1971 the Ducks had plenty of athletes of all shades. Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, All-American tailback Bobby Moore (aka famous softball pitcher Ahmad Rashad), Leland Glass, Tom Graham, All-American and future All-Pro guard Tom Drougas, Greg Specht, future Lane County Commissioner Bobby Green, and Wesley Mallard’s spiritual ancestor Bill Drake. All excellent athletes who could start for most teams in the Pac-8.

Oregon’s main problem of this era was that, although they could recruit good players, they couldn’t recruit enough of them, and had to fill the roster with a lot of in-state players. These young athletes were, relatively speaking, about as good then as they are now. Thus, the two-deep was more like a two-shallow.

And the talent was all in the skill positions; other than Tom Drougas, there wasn’t an all-conference caliber player on either line.

Game 1 - Cal 17, Ducks 10

With two games left in the ‘71 season, the Ducks stood at 5-4, including brutal road paycheck-game losses to eventual national champion Nebraska and Texas. They had the Pac-8’s leading rusher in Moore, the leading receiver in Glass, were coming off an upset win on the road against Air Force, and had their last two games at home. Beat Cal, at 4-5 but on probation, and OSU, and at 7-4, you’re not going to the Rose Bowl (the only option available at the time), and Moore’s going to the NFL, but you have the best record in eight years, with good momentum and lots of talent coming back for Dan Fouts’ senior year.

That was the plan, anyway. But one of those in-state kids who got away helped do in the Ducks on a dreary November afternoon. Cal’s Steve Kemnitzer, a fullback from Klamath Falls, ran over the depleted and undersized Oregon defensive front, on seven straight plays late in the game starting at the Duck 28 yard line after a Bobby Moore fumble. Cal punched in the winning touchdown from the 4 with just 10 seconds left. Oregon lost, 17-10.

Dan Fouts, Jerry Frei, Bruce Snyder, and a towel, 1971The AstroTurf installed in 1969 had a reputation for becoming a skating rink in cold and wet conditions. That day, it was very cold, and very wet. Oregon’s turf cleats couldn’t get traction; players lost footing, fumbled, and complained. Fouts blamed the conditions and turf for his performance; he spent much of the game stumbling on his drops, hurrying passes, or being chased by future pro Sherman White, who had some epic battles with Drougas. “That Astro-Turf gets soggy and it lays right down.. They couldn’t get any traction,” Fouts griped. (Of course, Cal was playing on the same field, but as a Bay Area native Fouts probably understood something about wet and cold conditions.) 

Game 2 — Beavers 30, Ducks 29

So, at 5-5, Oregon faced 4-6 OSU in the Civil War, a game they hadn’t won since Mel Renfro was playing. Seven straight years of eating the dust of Tommy Prothro and Dee Andros. 

With all the reasonable successes the team had — and coach Jerry Frei had made progress each of his previous four seasons, going 6-4-1 in 1970 — one thing hadn’t changed. In the state of Oregon, winning the Civil War was The Only Thing That Mattered. Football was a regional sport for all but the top programs, and the rivalry was intense among fans, from executive boardrooms to shop floors to convenience stores. It was called the game for “The Right To Live In The State.” 

The Ducks limped into the rivalry. Bobby Moore didn’t play (thigh). FB Greg Herd and WR Johnny Kerr were injured in the 2nd quarter. Linebacker Bill Drake was tossed following a personal foul.  The teams pitched an epic battle, judged by many as one of the best games they’d ever seen. There were six lead changes, four in the fourth quarter alone, with OSU finally taking the lead for good late in the 4th quarter on an option run by QB Bill Carlquist. Fouts couldn’t pull off the two-minute drill to get the Ducks in position for a field goal.

OSU won 30-29.

Eight CW losses in a row. There was no doubt, in 1971, that OSU owned the state.

The aftermath

After the game, there was no pressure on Frei. Honest. Just ask the athletic director.

As far as I’m concerned, Jerry Frei has the same relationship at Oregon that John McKay has at USC.. This is one great man. We’ve come a long way in four years and it was obvious today.

 — UO AD Norv Ritchey

Frei had the backing of his players, or most of them. Earlier in the week, WR Larry Battle had quit the team in a dispute over playing time. There had been rumors that Battle’s roomie, Greg Herd, had quit the team as well. Herd shut down the talk. “I’d rather play for Jerry Frei than any other coach in the nation.”

According to Herd, Frei was someone you could go in and talk to. “I’m not sure that white players can talk to Dee Andros, let alone any black players.” Ouch.

So, Frei was apparently safe.. but the fans — in particular, Influential Boosters with Money — were grumbling. And it didn’t take long for “Jerry Frei is our John McKay” to turn into “Coach Wanted.”

The Influential Boosters with Money thought the offense was too conservative. They wanted heads to roll on the sideline.  George Seifert took the brunt of the blame as the coach of the defensive backfield. The boosters, primarily aligned with the Portland chapter of the Oregon Club, wanted Frei to dump Seifert and, ideally, sack the entire remaining staff — except for offensive line coach Dick Enright for gross acts of football incompetence. (Ron Stratten and John Robinson had already resigned for other positions at the close of the season.) 

Here’s a rundown of Frei’s totally incompetent assistant coaches, and how they would eventually fare in their football careers:

  • George Seifert went on to win two Super Bowls with the 49ers, and had a 98-30 record as an NFL head coach.
  • John Marshall was employed as a defensive coach or coordinator in the NFL for over 30 years.
  • John Robinson won two national championships at USC.
  • Bruce Snyder spent 15 years as a Pac-10 head coach, at Cal and Arizona State.
  • Ron Stratten became head coach at Portland State, where he hired Mouse Davis.
  • Dick Enright ended his career as a high school coach in Southern California, where he was once suspended for illegally filming a competitor’s football practice. 

In the minds of the boosters, except for Enright, this was, clearly, a group of mush-brained slackers.

Convinced in their righteous cause, The Influential Boosters With Money took their case to the media, then as now the best way to tell your story without getting your hands dirty with it. The media — the Eugene Register-Guard and the Oregonian — did its job, reporting that Frei was under pressure to make staff changes.

Showing an unwillingness to capitulate to the insane rantings of idiot donors, Frei refused to sack his coaches for no damn good reason. When pushed, Frei pushed back. Ritchey called his bluff. But Frei didn’t have much on the table, as he was on a one-year contract.

Miffed at the media speculation, hung out to dry by his boss, Frei resigned, sparing Ritchey the opportunity to run him through with the sword Ritchey had promised to take himself.

I reluctantly reached the conclusion that in the existing atmosphere of rumor and innuendo as printed in the newspapers, it would be impossible for me to effectively carry on in the manner which I felt necessary to make continuing progress with our program.

 — Jerry Frei

Frei moved on to a long career as an assistant with the Denver Broncos, but did show up a few years later, in the midst of the death spiral, to hand out a few neeners.

In an oddly lucid moment for a student body president, UO student leader Iain More said that Ritchey “must have the courage to say to the alumnus who demand ‘fire Frei or no money’ ‘keep your money.’ Oregon does not seem to have arrived at that point yet.” (Frei was merely 14 years or so ahead of his time.)

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the school. Richey wasn’t playing with a full budget, so — although several candidates were brought in for interviews, household names like Spike Hillstrom, Dave Levy, Carl Selmer and Darrel Mudra — they couldn’t get any candidates who looked any better than what they already had on hand. 

The job went to Dick Enright.

Ritchey gave Enright a four-year contract.. something he hadn’t earned, and that Frei never received.

In ‘72 Enright went 4-7, and beat OSU 30-3 at Parker Stadium in a game that wasn’t that close — the most memorable moment occurring when Oregon fans tore down one of the goalposts while two minutes remained in the game. 

But you can’t just win the CW once and survive.

In ‘73 Enright went 2-9, even beat the Huskies 58-0 and Cal 41-10, but somehow lost 17-14 to a horrid OSU team that had only won one game all year, in what the Register-Guard called “The Game of the Weak.”

 It was a good thing the UO athletic department wasn’t taking signups for refunds. Skill and dexterity haven’t kept pace with inflation in college athletics.

If you paid $8, then the wife has one coming. The next time she wants to buy an $8 potted plant, take it with a smile. Chances are, after all, the thing’s alive. 

   — Blaine NewnhamEugene Register-Guard

Once again, the boosters flexed their muscles. This time Ritchey didn’t even pretend he was on the side of his coach. Oregon paid Enright $47,250 and said not to bother with the other two years after all. In a typically classy move, Enright learned he’d been sacked when he was called by a reporter for comment. 

And, after another “exhaustive” search, Ritchey hired Don Read off Enright’s supposedly incompetent football staff. The result: eight wins in three seasons.

After advocating for a return to one-platoon football while Don Read piloted the Hindenburg, and refusing to even comment while his other coaches were arrested for DUII and cavorting with cheerleaders, Ritchey apparently decided he’d done enough damage. He resigned as AD shortly after the infamous 0-5 home loss to San Jose State in 1975. Since he was tenured, he still had a job, and finished his career as assistant dean in the Oregon physical education department.

But the damage was done. The Suffering was well under way.

Saturday
Apr092011

Heroes of The Suffering: Reggie Ogburn 

Oregon’s first great option quarterback. A Hero of the Suffering.

Before Jeremiah Masoli, before Akili Smith, Oregon had a junior college transfer who tore up the Pac-10 at quarterback.

Reginald Lorenzo Ogburn was 5’10”, weighed 190 dripping wet, ran a 4.5 40, and could frequently be seen on campus sporting a white turban held together with a silver-leaf pin. “It’s not religious or anything like that. It covers my head. It’s part of me ..  

“It makes you stand out,” he’d say. “Well, I’m outstanding.”

He led the Ducks to back-to-back winning seasons, the only two in a span of 15 years. By now, his name is missing from most of the record lists, but he still holds the single-game record for rushing by an Oregon quarterback.

Born and raised in Miami, Florida, Ogburn was seemingly destined to become an option quarterback.

When I started playing football in the third grade, I was chubby and quick … I told them I wanted to be a fullback, but they made me a center. Then, when I was in the ninth grade, the coach asked me if I could throw the ball. I told him I wasn’t no Joe Namath, but I’d try.

That gave me a chance to run whenever I wanted to … Sometimes I’d rather just be a halfback.

Reggie played his junior college football in California. At College of the Canyons, he ranked #2 nationallly among juco players in total offense in 1977, with about 1500 passing yards and 1000 rushing. He played 4 games in ‘78 for CotC, but had a falling out with the coach, quit the team and hit the books to make the jump to a major college.

The infamous John Becker, Oregon’s offensive coordinator, brought him up from SoCal with promises that he’d be a starter. This wasn’t an empty promise.  The Ducks were paper-thin at QB.  The returning starter was Tim Durando, a converted free safety; the rest of the depth chart was comprised of Andrew Page and Mike Kennedy, both coming off injuries, and true freshman Kevin Lusk. 

UCLA and Arizona wanted Reggie as well.  But Ogburn had earlier signed a LOI with Cincinnati, and as Ogburn recalled, Cincy wouldn’t release the letter to Arizona; because the Wildcats coach, Tony Mason had bailed on Cincy a year earlier, and they didn’t want to do Mason any favors. (Tony Mason’s story: He said he’d met with Ogburn about coming to Arizona, but couldn’t promise him the starting job.)  So, Arizona was out; Reggie’s grades weren’t good enough to get into UCLA, so, he came north.

It didn’t hurt that Rich Brooks was committed to an option attack. Durando had shown a lot of toughness and some running ability, but Ogburn was faster (4.5), quicker, and had a better arm. Ogburn grabbed the starting job coming out of spring practice in ’79.

[Ogburn] throws a tight spiral with the nose up, which makes it easier to catch.. He earned the number one spot with his performances during spring practice … carried the ball 11 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns, and passed for another 76 yards in the spring game. 

— 1979 Oregon Media Guide

vs Colorado, 1979 (Oregon Media Guide)Reggie’s first start was memorable. Oregon went to Boulder to take on Colorado, which had just hired Chuck Fairbanks as head coach. Fairbanks had previously coached Oklahoma to back-to-back Big Eight championships and #2 national rankings (and eventual probation), and spent six years running the Patriots into the ground in the NFL, but to the Buff faithful he was seen as some kind of savior.

Ogburn ran onto Folsom Field and, with the help of nine sacks by the defense, tore Colorado to shreds.

vs Colorado, 1979 (AP)He had 168 yards on 7-10 passing, including a 28 yard touchdown pass to TE Rick Ward, and 108 yards rushing on 17 carries.  The Ducks — 13 point underdogs — won, 33-19.

After the game, in an attempt to explain his team’s defeat, the losing coach uttered a statement that nobody could remember hearing in any recent positive context …

 I don’t think Oregon is a great football team.

 

— Colorado coach Chuck Fairbanks

Great? No, but they looked good, much better than expected. Maybe things really were changing.

There were ups and downs in ‘79 — the early schedule was brutal; a 41-17 road loss to #8 Michigan State, then a 4th-quarter collapse at Autzen against the Huskies, where Ogburn tweaked his knee, then another trip to the Big 10 and a close loss at Purdue, where he didn’t start and was ineffective.

But they righted the ship with a 19-14 win over Cal at Autzen. It was the first time Oregon had beaten any of the four California schools since 1972, and the victory was engineered by Ogburn, who had 100 yards rushing and 100 passing, including a 60 yard bomb to Don Coleman for the go-ahead touchdown. Ogburn was named Pac-10 Player of the Week for his effort.

That little guy Ogburn sure made it tough.

— Cal head coach Roger Theder 

By late October Len Casanova was calling Reggie the best option quarterback he’d ever seen at Oregon.

It wasn’t all glory. In a lethargic win on a cold and wet day at home against Air Force, Ogburn discovered that playing in the Northwest wasn’t like playing in Miami or SoCal. He didn’t warm up adequately, and played miserably, and was replaced twice by a frustrated Brooks. But they won. And Ogburn made up for it a week later, with his best game since Colorado in a 37-24 win at Pullman.

By mid-November, after beating Stanford to get to 5-4, people in Eugene were even saying the B word. Rumors were rampant that the Ducks were in contention for a bid in the new Garden State Bowl, to be played in Giants Stadium in New Jersey. In 1979, even a rumor about a bowl in New Jersey could get the fans worked up. Two games left: a weak UCLA squad with just four wins, and the Civil War. 7-4 was within reach. 

Problem: The defense that Brooks had relied on to keep his team in games was being wiped out by injuries. The front four to start the season — Terry Dion, Neil Elshire, Scott Setterlund and Vince Goldsmith — was as good as any in the Pac-10, and better than most; and MLB Bryan Hinkle would eventually go on to a decent career with the Steelers. But by the UCLA game, Elshire, Setterlund and Hnkle were all out for the season. 

UCLA came to Autzen and, in front of a crowd of over 41,000 one of the most miserable afternoons for football in Autzen memory (40 degrees, wind and rain), ran over the Ducks, 35-0. Literally, ran over them — 91 times; Oregon’s injury-riddled defensive front gave up 446 yards on the ground. By the end of the game Brooks was playing first-year offensive linemen on the defensive front. The tone had been set in the first series, when Ogburn fumbled a snap on the UCLA 44. He didn’t even finish the first half; Reggie had just 31 yards of offense to his credit along with the fumble. 

Ogburn was chagrined, and philosophical, after the game:

Sometimes you get a tendency to talk about what you want to accomplish, and you forget what you’ve got to do to accomplish it.

vs OSU, 1979 (AP Photo)6-5 wouldn’t get Oregon into a bowl game back then — the Garden Staters took 6-5 Cal instead —  but Ogburn and the Ducks ground down the Beavs 24-3 to secure the first winning record in nine years.

Rich Brooks gave Ogburn much of the credit for the progress his team had made:

He had a great impact, all right … When the guys looked out and saw Reggie, they knew he had the talent and ability to overcome a mistake. They knew we could get back in games, and score.

Ogburn’s 644 rushing yards set a single-season record for Oregon quarterbacks. His 1549 yards of total offense ranked fifth in school history; only Dan Fouts and Bob Berry had been more prolific.

***

For 1980, things were looking great.  Lots of talent was coming back — Oregon would return 18 of 22 starters from ‘79 — and recruiting was going well.  For a few weeks, anyway. Then, everything fell apart in the space of a few months. The grade scandal, and the theft scandals, and all the other scandals hit. Becker resigned before he could be fired; Brooks offered to resign but the school wouldn’t let him. The Ducks went on probation. They could be as good as they wanted, but there would be no bowl game to dream about.

Ogburn was declared ineligible for the 1980 season by the NCAA in late summer. Oregon appealed, citing mitigating circumstances, and the NCAA relented. But he still had to sit out the first game in ’80 along with several other players for receiving illegal benefits (airline tickets not offered to non-athlete students). The suspension was seen by some as unfair — specifically, by the coaches of the teams that would *not* get to face Oregon without Ogburn:

They should have put all the eligible school’s names in a hat and drawn one out. That would be the school that didn’t have to play Oregon with Reggie Ogburn at quarterback. Why should Stanford get the break? Why not the poor old Cougars?

— WSU head coach Jim Walden

It isn’t fair … We aren’t playing the same schedule.

— Cal QB Rich Campbell

The irony was that game 1 of 1980 was originally scheduled to be against Kansas, but Oregon AD John Caine convinced the Stanford AD that the game had a better chance of being televised, and would have a better gate, in early September than late November. So, the game was moved.

Somewhat demoralized, Oregon came out flat, fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter and eventually lost tovs Washington, 1979 John Elway and Darrin Nelson, 35-25; Kevin Lusk reminded nobody of Reggie Ogburn. The next week, they tied Kansas 7-7, then got revenge for the previous loss at East Lansing by blowing out Michigan State 35-7 at home; it was the first Duck win over a Big Ten team since 1964 (Indiana). 

Game four of 1980 was in Seattle. The home fans had expected another blowout, and they got one — but not the one they’d assumed. Oregon controlled the game from the 2nd quarter on; Ogburn scored twice in the 2nd half, after two masterful option drives, and Steve Brown picked off a pass and went the distance. 34-10. Brooks called it his most memorable win for years afterwards.

Ups and downs continued. Ogburn was injured early at Cal, and they lost. Still hurt, he was back at home against #2 USC, splitting the snaps with Lusk, and they tied the Trojans, 7-7.  Ogburn had been throwing at the USC end zone in the game’s last possession, but he went to the wrong side of the field, into coverage, and saw his last pass tipped and picked as Vince Williams ran unopposed down the opposite sideline. 

Oregon won four of its last five to finish the season, including a big revenge win at UCLA — their third win over a ranked team, the first conquest of a top 10 team since Air Force in 1970, and the first win in LA since ‘71. And, in what had become the annual ritual destruction of the Beavers, Ogburn tore up the turf at Parker Stadium, setting the school record for a QB of 173 yards on 14 carries, including a 59-yard touchdown the first time he called his own number. A season-ending loss to ASU was a bummer, but Reggie almost pulled off a huge comeback in his last game, with three 4th quarter TDs in a 42-37 loss.  

Even on probation, 6-3-2 seemed like a great season. And Ogburn was the catalyst; without him, it’s unlikely they would have seen four wins with all the injuries and chaos that season.

***

Reggie shared team MVP honors with Vince Goldsmith in 1980. His on-field performance made a strong case for his consideration as the Pac-10 MVP, and for selection on at least one post-season All-Star team. But no further honors were forthcoming. The stench of probation could have influenced the voters.

He didn’t get drafted. Too short to be a NFL QB, they said. Nobody runs option in the NFL, they said. He played in the CFL for a year, then signed as a free-agent before the ‘81 fall camp with the Raiders as a running back. He didn’t make it. He spent time with the Oregon City Steelheaders in 1982, where he doubled as quarterback and offensive coordinator. He was offered a contract with the Boston Breakers of the USFL in late 1982, sight unseen; he didn’t make the team. He eventually returned to Miami, and at last report (1998) was married with a daughter and working a manager in the shipping industry.

The winning seasons soon disappeared into the depths of the Suffering, but for a couple of years, Reggie Ogburn gave Oregon fans reason to think things could be better.

***

Reggie Ogburn: By The Numbers

1979  
Rushing — 644 yards on 165 carries (4.1 ypc), 5 TDs  
Passing — 71 of 139, 51.1%, 905 yards, 6 TDs, 11 INT 
1980
Rushing — 527 yards on 130 carries (4.1 ypc), 7 TDs
Passing — 99 of 183, 54%, 1257 yards, 8 TDs, 9 INT

 

 

 

Friday
Mar252011

Nine games. 53 points. Total, not average. 

(Originally posted 11/9/10 on Addicted to Quack)

After nine games of the 2010 season, Oregon was averaging around 55 points per game.

To put this in historic perspective:

In the 22 seasons of The Suffering (1972-1993), the Ducks had..

  • ·         15 stretches of six games where they did not score more than 55 points in total; 
  • ·         8 periods of 7 games totaling less than 55; 
  • ·         3 streaks of 8 games 

and, during one magical period of nine games, between 19 October 1974 and 27 September 1975, Oregon scored a *total* of 53 points.

Inconceivable! 

But true! Here’s how it went down, one miserable week at a time..

1:   10/19/74 — USC 16, Oregon 7 

Ducks put up a valiant defensive effort at Autzen against Anthony Davis & Co., holding Trojans to one touchdown, but untimely interceptions and an inability to stop the USC ball-control ground game wastes the effort.

“If they keep playing like that they won’t lose another game.”

USC assistant coach John Robinson

2:   10/26/74 — Washington 66, Oregon 0
The less said about this game, the easier to match the Oregon effort.

3:   11/2/74 — WSU 21, Oregon 16
Student section boos Ducks as they head to the locker room with a 7-0 halftime lead. Don Read elects to run out the clock after a long run by George Bennett results in a first down near midfield with 45 seconds left.

“If we’d been behind 7-0.. we’d have thought about doing something different.”

Oregon HC Don Read

Late in the game, facing 3rd and one at the Duck 29, All-Conference tailback Donnie Reynolds watches as QB Norv Turner runs up the middle twice for no gain. Few fans remain to boo this time.

4:   11/9/74 — UCLA 21, Oregon 0

 “We believe, if we do everything right, we are capable of beating Stanford.”

Don Read

5:   11/16/74 — Stanford 17, Oregon 0

“Our kids had a hell of a week of practice.. I have no reason to think they won’t do it again.”  

Don Read

Fully supporting their coach, the kids do indeed show up for practice again.

R-G columnist Blaine Newnham describes Oregon offense as “constipated.”

6:   11/23/74 — OSU 35, Oregon 16
Ducks fall in the Civil War for the 10th time in 11 seasons to conclude their only winless Pac-8/Pac-10 campaign at Corvallis. Oregon would not finish behind the Beavers again in conference play for the next 28 seasons, which might have made them feel better if they’d known it.

“The right things are happening. The program’s in the right direction..”

Senior QB Norv Turner after his last game

7:   9/13/75 — Oklahoma 62, Oregon 7
Of all the paycheck games the Ducks have played, this was one of them.

8:   9/20/75 — San Jose St 5, Oregon 0
Former Duck Rick Kane returns with Spartans to spoil home opener under the lights; tells reporters he bailed because he “didn’t like the coaches, it’s as simple as that,” an opinion undoubtedly shared by many who paid for tickets.

“[We] can’t hope to out-recruit USC for 260-pound linemen.. We need to recruit 230- or 240-pound streetfighters.”

Don Read, addressing an Oregon Club luncheon

9:   9/27/75 — Minnesota 10, Oregon 7
Duck streetfighters outgain Gophers 306 to 305, more than doubling their season yardage, but lose 11th straight as poor end-game clock management dooms a field goal attempt that could have tied the game.

All this was amid a record 14-game losing streak, a string bookended by victories over Utah (23-16, 9/28/74; 18-7, 10/25/75), which may make you wonder how bad Utah must have been back then. (Pretty bad; the Utes were 1-10 in both ‘74 and ‘75.)

Nine games. 53 points.

So. Enjoy your current orgy of scoring, Duck fans.. we’ve been saving them up for you all these years.

 

 

Thursday
Mar242011

Rich's Rude Awakening: October 1977

In retrospect, Rich Brooks could have been forgiven for being a bit optimistic during his first season at Oregon in general, and about his first shot at the Huskies in particular.

The billboards around Eugene read “The dawning of a new era of Oregon Football!” and featured the stoic, unsmiling gaze of a confident young coach, superimposed over the majestic Three Sisters, silhouetted by the rays of the sun. (A wise-ass observer noted that, based on the arrangement of the peaks, the “dawning” was actually a sunset.)

Brooks and his young Duck team hadn’t exactly shocked the nation. But, with losses at Georgia and at home to Wisconsin sandwiched around a road victory at lowly TCU, the team had at least been more competitive than expected.

“[Brooks has..] whetted a moribund appetite. Expectations have been raised. To be in the game is no longer enough. And let’s hear it for that.” 
— Register-Guard columnist Blaine Newnham

In nine months on the job, Brooks had shaken the tree. Suddenly, Oregon had one of the highest-paid coaching staffs in the league, and the recruiting budget had been substantially increased. It seemed there might at last be some stability and discipline in the program. LB Reggie Grant: “Before, we didn’t know how to work hard enough to win. This new staff will not coach down to a loser’s level.”  DB Bruce Jensen: “Coach Brooks knows how to win and will make the changes necessary to win.. The other coaches wanted to win, but they hadn’t been places that had won. Coach Brooks is more realistic.” 

Even QB Jack Henderson, an ardent Don Read supporter, admitted he’d gotten it wrong. As a member of the steering committee for the coaching search, Henderson said “it was hard to sit there and listen to him criticize the offense we ran last year (in a 46-0 loss to the Bruins), but he told us it was the easiest offense UCLA had to defend last year, and showed us why.” And Brooks had already showed a willingness to recruit hard against the California schools, and had yanked JC transfer LB Willie Blasher away from Cal, UCLA and Stanford.

Brooks told reporters:

“if Oregon had never won in football, it would be foolish for me to come in here and think I could win. Lately it just hadn’t been important to win. Football is again important at Oregon.”

So, the groundwork was being laid. Things were changing. It was the dawning of a new era. No more blowouts. Even after a 20-10 loss on the Farm to Darrin Nelson and Stanford, the Ducks were coming home hungry; they’d been in the game, and Brooks thought they should have won.

It was time to get over the hump, and the Huskies looked ripe for humping.

***

Third-year Husky coach Don James hadn’t yet set the world on fire.  They’d only played .500 ball his first two years, but after a couple of top-tier recruiting classes, at least one national pre-season mag had pegged them for 11-1 in ‘77, and others had them finishing 2nd to USC. James was having none of it; he was talking about his four-year plan, and it was merely year 3. James wanted to dampen expectations.

His team was helping him with that. Coming into the Oregon game, they had played four games with only a win over San Jose State to show for their efforts. Eugene marked UW’s third consecutive road game. The trip started out with a bad effort at Syracuse - a bad team that had lost earlier to Oregon State —  where the Orangemen had won on a last-minute field goal to snap a six-game losing streak; then a revenge loss at Minnesota, on another last-minute field goal. 

The Huskies were banged up. Three out of five offensive linemen were injured against Minnesota and stayed in Seattle; Warren Moon, fighting a foot injury that had limited him all season, would be standing behind a line consisting of a walk-on sophomore guard (converted from a tackle), a second-string guard, a converted center at tackle, and a sophomore playing in his first collegiate game at the other tackle. And starting tailback Joe Steele was recovering from a groin pull.

Worse, the Huskies seemed to be losing the rabid support of the Seattle community they had become accustomed to. The Seahawks had just opened their first season in the Kingdome, and several years of horrible teams under former coach Jim Owens had led to a fair amount of apathy. Exhibit one: As of the day before the Oregon game, the UW athletic department reported it had sold all of ten student tickets for Autzen - all ten having been purchased in the last two days. Overall, only about 1,400 seats had been claimed by Husky fans. This, of course, left more seats for Duck fans.

Thus the 1977 Border War was a battle between teams with identical records, but divergent characters. One team had played below expectations, and one had been surprising most observers (if not its coach). Washington had superior talent, but was battling injuries, while Oregon was thin but relatively healthy. A good crowd of potentially-rabid Duck fans was expected. All of this was reflected in the spread, which had UW favored by a touchdown; a pre-season prediction would have likely been in the low 20s. 

Brooks liked his team’s chances.

[Washington is] a pretty good defensive team, but they haven’t played as well as they have in the past, for some reason.

It’s a very critical game for us. We play USC and LSU after this, so obviously, we’ve got a better chance to win against Washington.

This game, more than likely will be decided on turnovers - somebody coughing up the ball deep in their own territory.

— Rich Brooks, in pre-game comments

**

R-G box score, 10/14/77The game may not have been decided on turnovers, but it certainly started out that way.

If Don James had lost confidence in his team, it didn’t show. Facing fourth and one on his own 30 in the opening series, James elected to “go for it”. It was, clearly, an attempt to draw the Ducks offside.  

The Ducks jumped offside. First down, Huskies. UW moved downfield for what proved to be the winning points, on a field goal.

On Oregon’s first play from scrimmage, RB Ed Radcliff fumbled. “It might be lack of concentration”, he said. Three plays later, UW back Joe Steele scored. 10-0, Huskies.

Next series. One run, then Henderson muffs a pitch to Don Davis, Davis can’t get to the ball in time and S Kyle Heinrich recovers for UW. Six plays later, Steele scores again, and it’s 17-0, Huskies. 

In the 2nd quarter, UW RB duo Joe Steele and Ron Gipson took turns gashing the clueless Oregon defensive front. First, 47 yards on three runs, Kyle Stephens diving in from a yard out to make it 24-0. Brooks swapped in freshman Dan Daly at QB, for no obvious reason; James responded by dialing up blitzes, and after a couple of sacks it was 4th and forever at the Oregon 3. Geiger, punting from the back of his endzone, saw UW linebacker Bruce Harrell almost get to him before the snap did. Geiger’s kick was blocked out of the end zone. 26-0. A free kick, UW had the ball again, and nine plays later it was 33-0 on a pass from Warren Moon to TE Scott Greenwood.

And, nineteen seconds later, Oregon finally made a first down.

The laughs continued. The Huskies couldn’t lose for winning. In the third quarter, after another three-and-out, Geiger shanked a 23-yard punt to his own 44. Moon hit receivers on four straight passes; on the last, Oregon DB Kenny Bryant finally forced a mistake, stripping the ball from receiver Kyle Stevens.. only to see Greenwood grab the ball and jog two yards into the end zone. 40-0, UW.

Another bad punt by Geiger, and the Washington depth chart went to work. 47-0 after three quarters. Then another turnover, a fumble by Vince Williams on his own 28 yard line, led to the last score on another run by Stevens. Washington 54, Oregon 0.

Fittingly, the final possession by the Ducks ended with a fumble on their own 7 yard line.

Perhaps understanding what had happened in 1974, when former UW coach Jim Owens lost his best passer for the season with a broken leg after putting him in for the final series with a 59-0 lead, James ordered his backup QB to take a knee three times and run out the clock.

**

The Ducks had severely miscalculated on defense, and couldn’t make adjustments during the game. They came out in a 6-2 alignment, showing an eight-man front, in an attempt to take away Moon’s out-routes and end runs. Fine, said Moon, and the Huskies alternated between smashing the outmanned Oregon line up the middle on runs and vertical passes to backs and TE Greenwood.

“Their strong safety was blitzing a lot, and I’d just go to the area he left.” 

— UW tight end Scott Greenwood, who caught 7 passes for 120 yards and a TD

On offense, Oregon’s game plan went way beyond miscalculation. The offensive output of 97 yards, on 58 plays, stands to this day as one of the worst performance by an Oregon team in the post-war era. Geiger punted 9 times and averaged 30 yards.  Oregon had six turnovers; UW lost four fumbles, but they didn’t matter, as Oregon routinely played the gracious host and returned the ball.

The Ducks were stunned.

We weren’t ready to play.. We didn’t do anything right all day.. Everything we did was wrong.

We didn’t quit. We never got started.

I would have bet my salary that there was no way Washington could score more than 20 points against us.

Rich Brooks

The home crowd was equally stunned. The first car, a clapped-out grey Vega, was spotted leaving the parking lot with 2:20 left in the first half.  If the crowd didn’t dwindle to nothing, it certainly dissipated, with a third or more of the fans out of the stadium by the 4th quarter. Eugene police called in on overtime to work the expected post-game traffic jams found themselves with little to do.

Local insurance broker Ken Higgins, before the game, noted the party atmosphere of the tailgaters.

“It’s this kind of thing that’s going to save Oregon football,” he said. “It has to be a social occasion to bring people out. If it all hinges on whether we win or lose, it’s a lost cause.”

Given mid-70s Eugene’s attitude towards social convention, to say nothing of the local football team, it wasn’t a capacity crowd. The official gate was 29,500; Eugene was, obviously, still in a show-me mood regarding the Ducks, regardless of the new coach and attitude.

Those who stayed home, or went fishing, or just stayed in the parking lot, had the right idea. The team that had been in the doldrums found new wind under its sails;  the team that had to learn how to win, learned instead what it’s like to get its teeth knocked in by a rival.

**

Epilogue

Days later, Brooks was still fuming over the early fumbles. After reviewing game film, he felt at least one should not have been awarded to Washington. Showing the hubristic optimism of a young coach, Brooks said “I know it’s a hell of a game if we get that fumble.”

The next week, at USC, the scoring drought continued. But, down 26-0 at halftime, Oregon cams storming back, holding the Trojans to a single score, and another moral victory was recorded in a 33-15 loss.

A return trip to the SEC found even more Southern hospitality. Up 49-17 with six seconds left, LSU put its starting tailback Charles Alexander - who had already broken the school record for rushing yards with 235 — back into the game so he could score from two yards out and set a school scoring record. What did Brooks tell Tiger coach Charlie McClendon during the post-game handshake?

“I told him I wish Alexander would have broken a leg, along with a couple of records.”

The humbling of the first-year coach continued in Pullman, with a 17-14 lead in the 2nd quarter turning into a 56-20 loss to Jack Thompson and WSU. In the third quarter, Henderson went down with a knee injury, and Oregon faced fourth-and-inches at its own 20. Like he’d seen James risk against him a month earlier, Brooks went for it, but new QB Tim Durando couldn’t convert on a keeper. The Cougars took over, scored two plays later to make it 35-20, and the rout was on as Wazzu rolled up 377 yards on the ground.  

The saving grace of the season was the soon-to-become-ritual season-ending beatdown of the Beavers, 28-16, giving Brooks a first-year record of 2-9, and a ride off the field after the game.

 

History notes that first-year Oregon coaches had compiled a rather dismal record across the board. Read went 2-9. Dick Enright was an ugly 4-7; Jerry Frei, 2-8. Len Casanova beat Arizona and Idaho, and was soundly pummeled by ever other opponent in 1951. In the post-war era, only Jim Aiken, who went 7-4 in 1947, had a winning season in his first campaign, until Mike Bellotti reversed the curse in 1995.

**

As for Washington, Don James made lemonade of that 1-3 start in 1977, winning his first conference championship by going 6-1 in the last year of the Pac-8, and beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl. It was the first of six conference championships for James in his 18 years at Washington.

Warren Moon was Rose Bowl MVP, and went on to a stellar professional career; he is the only player to be enshrined in both the NFL and Canadian Football Halls of Fame, and gets to spend his retirement getting paid to do things like this..

 

Wednesday
Mar232011

The Kevin Willhite Story: The last time Oregon recruited the #1 player in California

The last time Oregon signed the highest-rated recruit out of California, the circumstances were eerily similar to the De’Anthony Thomas coup this year.

Like Thomas, this athlete wanted to attend a school with a great track and field program. He’d originally made a verbal commitment to an established football powerhouse, but almost immediately had his doubts.

His decision to change schools at the last minute stunned the football world.

The local newspaper declared his choice to attend Oregon the #2 sports story of 1982.

It all turned out to be what’s recently been called “the greatest false alarm in football recruiting history.” Because he wasn’t just “Mr. Football” in California; he was considered by many the #1 player in the nation, and winner of multiple national HS Player of the Year honors.

A recent issue of ESPN The Magazine profiled the last 25 players named #1 in their high school recruiting classes. With very few exceptions, they all went on to at least reasonable success in college and life. Many continued on to NFL superstardom. If the story had gone back five more years, the authors would have found perhaps the most spectacular recruiting flameout of all time.. and a media frenzy that angered his coach even after the player left school.

Kevin Willhite’s story is a cautionary tale for recruiters, coaches, and fans everywhere.

**

Recruiting

Running for Rancho Cordova, 1981Willhite, a quick and strong tailback out of Rancho Cordova High in Sacramento, had rushed for almost 5000 yards and 72 touchdowns during his prep career. He was named national HS player of the year in 1981 — over Bo Jackson and Marcus Dupree, no kidding — and, as a consensus All American, had offers from “over 500 colleges,” which meant there must have been some very optimistic D-III coaches out there. He had good genes; his brother was Gerald Willhite, who had just finished a stellar career at San Jose State and went on to a solid career at Denver as a first-round draft pick, and his cousin was Bears legend Gale Sayers.

Kevin Willhite, 1981To call his recruiting process “intense” would be a severe understatement. “It seemed like Jackie Sherrill called me every half-hour,” Willhite said. “I’d tell Joe Kapp, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Cal,’ and I’d still see him the next week.”  Willhite narrowed the 500 suitors down to four — Notre Dame, SMU, Oregon and Washington. On his visit to Eugene, he saw his name in eight-foot letters on the billboard of an auto dealership near Autzen.

In late January, Willhite announced he’d be playing for Don James at Washington during his recruiting visit to Montlake. “They are going to have a great team next year,” he said. “Everybody’s back and nobody’s on probation and we’ll be on TV — national coverage.” (Oregon was on NCAA probation at the time.)

But a week later, Rich Brooks heard that Willhite was having second thoughts, and assigned assistant Jim Skipper to an exclusive project — prying Willhite loose from Montlake. Skipper was sent to a Sacramento motel room to take advantage of every opportunity to talk to the prize recruit.

He still hadn’t decided on the morning of signing day. UW assistant coach and chief recruiter Al Roberts arrived at Willhite’s home at 6:55am, five minutes before the start of signing day, only to find Skipper in the living room. “What are you doing here?” Roberts asked. Skipper replied, “He never told me no.”

Meanwhile, Willhite was in the bathroom, staring at the man in the mirror. He hadn’t slept all night. But looking in the mirror, he decided he’d be happiest at Oregon, because the coaches had promised he could continue with track. One of the fastest sprinters in his age group, he’d run a 20.81 200 meters, and had a personal goal of making the ‘84 Olympic team and running for his country in the LA Coliseum.

Don James had assured Willhite that “if he could run 10.2 in Eugene, he could run 10.2 in Seattle,” and that UW’s track program was the equal of Oregon’s, a colossal fabrication to which Oregon’s track staff took great exception. Duck assistant track coach Dennis Whitby ensured Willhite’s advisers and family understood the difference between Oregon and Washington in track was roughly equivalent to the difference between the teams in football, in the opposite direction. “I supplied people in Sacramento with the facts… I listed the standing of the two teams in the Pac10 over the last five years, and the scores of the dual meets… and if Kevin still thought they were equal, then so be it.”

And UW was loaded at running back. Jacque Robinson was back for his senior year after being named MVP of the Rose Bowl, and Willhite — if he didn’t redshirt — would find himself no better than third on the depth chart. There were much better prospects for playing time at Oregon, where all the depth was at fullback; at his preferred position of tailback, Willhite would be competing with Harry Billups and Alex Mack, and only Billups had ever carried the ball in a game.

Willhite came out of the bathroom wearing an Oregon hat. Roberts screamed an expletive and insisted on talking to Kevin in private; they spent 10 or 15 minutes in the next room; they came out, Roberts shook Skipper’s hand and left the house.

“Oregon told me I didn’t have to play spring football,” Willhite explained to reporters the next day. Don James had a long-standing policy that all freshmen had to show up for spring ball; no exceptions. Ultimately, this turned the tide in Oregon’s favor, as Brooks told Willhite he didn’t have to participate in any spring football practice if he didn’t want to..

 “I have the option of redshirting a year in football at Oregon and training for the Olympics. Washington wouldn’t offer me that… they said I had to play spring ball the first year. I didn’t think, being the top sprinter in the nation right now, that I should have to do that.”


“We’re not expecting miracles from him,” Brooks said on signing day. “He’s a good young back, but how he does and when he does it is up to him… Certainly, he’s the most highly recruited and touted player we’ve ever signed.” 

At the first meeting of the Oregon Club in Portland after signing day, 250 excited boosters packed a location set up for 75. Clearly, they weren’t there to talk about Eugene King or E.J. Duffy.

Brooks commenced what would become a five year campaign of dampening expectations.

“People have to give him a break.. When a guy is being compared to Tony Dorsett and Hershel Walker — as Kevin has been — then if he has just a good year as a freshman, people will be disappointed in him…

“We never told Kevin he would be a franchise for us, and I think he appreciated that. We’ve told him we’ve got good running backs, and he’ll have to come in here and earn a spot. But there’s no doubt he’ll have a chance to do that.”

The Injury

After signing with Oregon, Willhite went back to track. Steve Kester, his coach at Rancho Cordova, in an effort to wring as many points out of his star sprinter as possible, worked Kevin to the bone. “I was running 12 races a week sometimes.. [Coach] would say, ‘You have to run, we have a chance to win the track meet.’”

Forced to run multiple events without what Willhite considered sufficient rest, he suffered a severe hammy tear during the Sacramento Metro meet, and either quit the team, or was dismissed, depending on who was asked. His side:

 “It was in the 200.. I tried to pop off the turn like I usually do, and it went. I just stopped..
“Coach was so mad, he didn’t even give me any ice. My friends had to go to the store to get it.

“I haven’t talked to him since that day.”

Willhite rested most of the summer. But, in the first 1982 practice, on the first morning of daily doubles, he tried to make a cut and tore some more of the hamstring.

It wasn’t a good start to a career as an anointed star.

 “There was a point during the summer when I didn’t even want to come up here… I was hurt and depressed about coming up here and not being myself… [Brooks] told me there wouldn’t be any pressure as far as he was concerned. He said he wanted me to get well.”
The injury was serious; he was instructed not even to jog for months. The ‘83 track season was now in doubt.

On “Picture Day” in August, Brooks asked for everyone to have some perspective.

“How can you expect a lot of someone who can’t practice?

“Kevin’s earned the attention he’s getting, but he hasn’t done anything yet… “

All that attention had, perhaps inevitably, led to some chinks in the armor. The dispute with his track coach - was he a team player? There were allegations that USC had dumped him from the Trojan recruiting list for cause. Recruiting “experts” (yes, they had those in ‘81) were now calling him the “most overrated commodity” of the year. There was his demand to be assigned jersey #1, which was granted, along with subsequent jokes that it really should have been an “I”.

Oregon SID Steve Hellyer heard the noise. “We were taking pictures of all the freshmen and I told them we’d do it in alphabetical order. I half expected him to say, ‘Oh, I’m not sitting through that.’ But he was very patient.. he joked that he was going to change his name to Kevin Alexander.”

The injury? WIllhite was noncommittal. “It all depends on the leg. Maybe I’ll play soon, maybe I’ll play in the fifth game, and maybe I won’t be able to play at all.” 

From Seattle, you could probably heard Don James smiling.

Willhite essentially sat out the entire week of daily doubles, only practicing in non-contact drills and at less than full speed. A week later, he was declared out for the 1982 season; that promised football redshirt would come for cause, not convenience, and a year sooner than he’d hoped. “I don’t think anybody should feel sad for me,” he said. “I’ll be 100 percent next year instead of 65 percent this year.”

Brooks said he wasn’t even concerned that Willhite might miss spring practice.

“I don’t want to treat a racehorse like a mule,” he said.

Without Willhite, the Ducks didn’t win a game in 1982 until late November, stumbling through another 2-win season.

Year One 

Running the ball in his first fall camp, 1983Willhite sat out the track season and participated in non-contact drills during spring ball. Brooks noted that he was “close to 100%,” but didn’t want to risk damaging Kevin’s confidence by putting him into contact before he was ready.

Oregon’s 1983 media guide profile didn’t exactly downplay his potential:

“Willhite’s celebrated hamstring was badly damaged and required six months total rest. Needless to say, Kevin was redshirted last fall and should be back to full speed this season.”

Willhite reported for daily doubles in August of ‘83 in what Rich Brooks called “100% healthy condition.”  His first touch, in the first scrimmage of camp, after almost two years without contact, went for a 26-yard TD and wowed onlookers. He ended the scrimmage with 49 yards on 7 carries. Showing his versatility, he caught three passes for 53 yards, including a 29-yard TD pass from Chris Miller, where he showed some flair by flipping over freshman CB Ed Hulbert for the score.

Brooks downplayed the effort, only saying Willhite “did very well.” Willhite was less circumspect.

“There’s no doubt in my mind now that I can play and get where I want to be. I know everyone has been doubting me, including the guys on the team and including myself, but I believe I can run and be myself now.”

Vs Pacific, 1983In the season opener, at Autzen against Pacific, Willhite didn’t start at tailback, but was in the backfield by the third play. Believers in the eternal power of foreshadowing will not be surprised that he fumbled, at the Duck 32, on his first carry. The Tigers scored three plays later. Oregon lost the game, 21-15.  Willhite had carried the ball seven times for 28 yards.

The following Monday, he suffered a badly bruised shoulder in practice.  He shook it off, saying he was looking forward to lining up against Ohio State in Columbus. And in an interview, he admitted that in high school, he’d kind of been dogging it.

“I didn’t play anywhere near my potential because I didn’t want to get hurt and lose what I had.. I do not want to be on a high horse and get knocked off again. I will not let that happen. I will not take myself that seriously again. I just tell myself that I’m really not that good.”

By now it was common knowledge that many of his teammates thought Willhite was still dogging it. RG reporter John Conrad wrote: “In a sport where the motto is to play through pain, a lot of the Oregon players undoubtedly had trouble understanding how a hamstring injury could keep a player sidelined an entire year, or how an injured player could get so much attention … During fall camp there was no shortage of people willing to challenge both his ability and his toughness.”

Willhite wanted to prove he was tough. But he knew the process of recovering from the bad hamstring had taken away some of his blazing speed. “Now what I need is to do some speed work. I still believe in my ability.”  Unfortunately, speed drills aren’t commonly a focus of mid-season football practices.

Willhite did play in Columbus, gaining 34 yards on 10 carries in a 31-6 loss, and once again fumbled deep in Oregon territory, leading to OSU’s final touchdown.

Then, he sprained an ankle in practice during a bye week. He sat out the Houston game, but was back at 2nd string for the loss at San Jose State (12 carries, 35 yards). Willhite finally earned his first start, at home against UW, through attrition, but was no more impressive than the rest of the team in a 32-3 loss.  And that’s pretty much how the season went, with Willhite the second-string tailback on one of the more inept offenses in Oregon history (only 152 points for the season and just 283 yards per game).

Willhite told a Sacramento reporter he wished he’d gone to UCLA.

Track Season

Willhite finally got his shot at track in the spring of 1984, after Brooks made good on his promise to release him from spring ball. Oregon track coach Bill Dellinger noted in a pre-season interview that Kevin “needs to lose more weight, but he doesn’t seem afraid of his leg… Realistically, we shouldn’t and I shouldn’t expect too much after being away from the sport almost two years.” He joined fellow running back Harry Billups on the sprint relay, and Dellinger planned to run him in the 100 or 200 as well.

In his first exhibition, a meet in his hometown of Sacramento, he pulled up in the 100 meters, and skipped the rest of the meet. Onlookers noted he didn’t collapse in pain, just kind of slowed down and walked off the track. He told reporters after the meet that he felt a twinge.

Dellinger was not impressed, and told reporters he suspected Willhite wasn’t as threatened by injury as he thought.

“Willhite feeling his leg in the 100 was disappointing… I’m no doctor, but from my experience with people who have pulled muscles, there are going to be twinges as you break loose the adhesions that build up after such an injury… Hopefully he’ll get through that and be able to sprint again. It’s obvious at this point that we don’t have any sprinters.”

And Willhite felt compelled to once again question his coach, calling out Dellinger for putting him in the sprints, saying that running 400s would improve his conditioning and put less strain on his leg.  Dellinger fired back:

 “He’s run 100s without the leg bothering him. I think there’s a greater chance of him getting hurt right now in the long races because of his lack of conditioning. He’s still about 10 pounds overweight, but he’s making progress.”

In a dual meet against Washington, Willhite stirred the pot some more; the Ducks had a walkover victory in the sprint relay taken away after Willhite was judged to not have given an “honest effort” in a race with no competition. (Washington’s team had been DQd for a false start.) He later finished last in the 200, trailing the UW winner by a full second.

A week later, having failed to convince his Hall of Fame coach that he knew nothing about sprinters, he finished last in the 100 against Cal.  Obviously, the speed wasn’t coming back. He was a half-second off his PR in the 100, and almost two full seconds off in the 200. He couldn’t even stand out among Oregon’s extremely weak sprint corps. Dellinger held him out of the sprint relay in the final meet, a triple with Fresno State and OSU; he ran a season-best 10.92 in the 100, good for sixth.

That was it for Willhite’s track career. He didn’t qualify for the Pac-10 championships. The Olympic aspirations, the desire to be a two-sport star, couldn’t survive the injury. “I’ve hung up my spikes unless I think I can get my times down, then I might go out for track again,” he told a reporter.

Year Two

Autumn of 1984. A somewhat humbled redshirt sophomore arrived at fall camp. Rusty from missing spring practice, Kevin was now the fourth-string fullback, just ahead of his little brother Randy, signed by Brooks on Willhite’s recommendation. Brooks told reporters that Willhite “needs to get in shape and have confidence in his leg… He’s down on the depth chart, but I’m sure he’ll be a major factor for us.”

Oregon’s media guide profile of Willhite in 1984 was a howler, a masterpiece of wishful thinking:

Willhite’s first season was excellent by most standards set for freshmen… The only possible disappointment was that Willhite didn’t score a touchdown.

He got that first touchdown in the first game, towards the end of a 28-17 win over Long Beach State. But it was obvious that Brooks had given up any hope of making Willhite a featured part of the offense. Starting tailbacks and QBs got the star treatment in the 80s, not bench-warming blocking backs. And Tony Cherry was the exciting, speedy juco transfer getting all the attention, while Chris Miller worked on his future NFL passing skills.

Willhite carried the ball sporadically in his sophomore season, getting few touches, and not doing much with those. He scored one more touchdown, on a one-yard plunge at Cal, but managed only 15 yards on 9 carries that day.

Brooks had seen enough. Willhite was a DNP (coach’s decision) for the next five games. “He hasn’t shown us the speed he once possessed,” Brooks told reporters before the Washington game. In the middle of the spell on the bench, Willhite, once again, disputed the opinion of his coach:

 “I’m not back to full speed, but I have enough to run the football. I can call on it when I need it… When you don’t play in three straight games, it bugs you. But I can’t say I regret coming here. I’ve made my decision and I’ll stick with it.
“I’ll excel in school and other areas.”

He did get the majority of plays at fullback in a win at UCLA, when Alex Mack was injured on the first series, and saw action against ASU and OSU. But, for a player three years earlier hailed as the finest in the country, the lack of production — 27 carries for 111 yards in six games — had to be as frustrating for Willhite as for his fans. His weight had ballooned to 216 pounds from 190 as a freshman; not much of the difference was muscle.

Still, Brooks, ever the loyal master, didn’t give up on his grounded meteor.

“I would hope that Willhite will work hard during the offseason toward getting his speed back. He made progress this year, but there’s still a lot of potential there he hasn’t reached.”

***

vs Washington, 1985By the spring of 1985, Kevin Willhite was just one of four returning fullbacks on a team with a star quarterback and bowl aspirations. It seemed he understood the importance of showing well in his first full spring camp. And he did, with Brooks pointing out that Kevin had “looked the best he’s ever looked.”  He entered fall practice as the #1 fullback, and although it wasn’t a clear-cut choice, “all Willhite needs is better conditioning and he’s ready to be a quality player.

“Kevin is a young man who has been under tremendous pressure since his high school days. People tend to forget that he was 18 years old when he first came here and was holding press conferences for a dozen reporters. I’m not disappointed with Kevin. I know what he’s had to go through.”

Year Three

By now, Oregon’s sports information department was pulling out all the stops to put their disappointments in perspective. Willhite’s media guide entry for his junior season of 1985 was carefully and coyly written.

“Willhite’s obsession to be the player he was billed to be has turned into a desire to be the best he can be. With less pressure to perform, Kevin had the best spring of his career …”

(an interesting way of looking at it, since he’d been no-contact in drills in ‘83, and skipped camp for track in ‘84)

“… and played the best football he has at Oregon regardless of the time of year.”

 (Again, one way to look at it, if you ignore that they don’t play actual games during spring camp.)

“Willhite will be hard to dislodge this fall if he improves his conditioning…”

That “conditioning” thing continued to haunt him. While supporting him in public, privately his coaches had been frustrated with Willhite’s attitude; his willingness to train seriously, to get his weight down and improve his fitness level, was being questioned. He’d been skating along, relying too much on his natural talent and quickness. The former couldn’t compensate for the drop-off in the latter after his injuries, but for some reason that message just wouldn’t sink in. But he reported to fall camp at under 200 pounds, and in his best shape since high school. Maybe he’d figured it out at last.

He said things that sounded good to reporters.

 “It hasn’t been easy at all. I’ve been up and down the depth chart .. Being sixth string can be pretty tough on you, [but] my career hasn’t been an overall disappointment. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned not to depend on my natural ability anymore. And I like the lifestyle in Oregon. It’s not fast and crazy like California.”


— interview with Sacramento Bee, October 1985

But the old ego was still there. Asked about Rueben Mayes and Kerry Porter, the backfield tandem of their opening opponent, WSU, Willhite - along with his starting tailback, Tony Cherry - complained that the Cougar stars were getting all the ink. Maybe, they pleaded, they were being overlooked.

This concept amused WSU coach Jim Walden.

“Hey, their popping off doesn’t worry me. You brag about those that have done it. You people in the press don’t write about guys who haven’t run the length of their nose.”

Considering that Mayes had run for more yards against Oregon in the 1984 game (357) than Willhite had managed in two seasons, Walden had a point. But Cherry had the last laugh; with Willhite blocking for him, Cherry outgained Mayes 143 yards to 81 as Oregon won a 42-39 shootout in Pullman.

Willhite played in every game in 1985, although the numbers again weren’t Heisman caliber. No TDs rushing, under 200 yards on the season, not quite 4 yards per carry. Little brother Randy, behind him on the depth chart, had as many starts as Kevin. But he protected the ball, didn’t fumble, and his blocking helped Tony Cherry become Oregon’s first 1000 yard rusher in 12 seasons.

Still, every time he went on the road, he was the center of attention for reporters.  At a mid-season game in Berkeley, he told an interviewer of his frustration at not living up to anyone’s expectations.

“It’s like you were one of the elite people, who was going to become a millionaire, and all of a sudden, you were blown out of the water.”

He admitted to being depressed and gloomy about his situation.  But his big brother Gerald had given him a pep talk and helped bring him out of the doldrums.

“I’m going to try to come back to that athlete I was… it’s not in my family to sit back and not fight… I want to show that I can play.”

Year Four

In his senior season, his fifth year in Eugene, Willhite was still fighting the depth chart. But motivated by a desire to follow his big brother Gerald into the NFL, he’d had another excellent spring, worked on his conditioning all summer, and again started the season as the #1 fullback. The ‘86 media guide insisted that “unquestionably, Willhite had his best spring practice since coming to Eugene four years ago.”

By game three, he was back on the bench, behind Alan Jackson.

And before game 7, both Kevin and brother Randy were suspended from the team without explanation.

Kevin returned to the first team a week later against Washington, and started the rest of the way. Brooks singled him out for praise after the Civil War, after he ran for 66 yards and threw some excellent blocks outside for Derek Loville and Latin Berry. “Willhite had probably his best game ever at Oregon… He ran hard and got more chances than usual.

“Kevin’s gone through some difficult times, both personally and physically … If he hadn’t had that ‘greatness’ label coming in… there have been a lot of guys with the greatness label who didn’t turn out so great. He was overrated coming out of high school.

“Kevin’s done the best job that he can do. If he’d come out of high school without the label, people would probably think he’d become a pretty good fullback for our team. Which he has.”

After four years as the center of attention everywhere but on the field, Willhite’s career at Oregon ended without fanfare. There were no encomiums in the media, no special tributes on Senior Day, no post-season accolades. He was just another second-string blocking back who had used up his eligibility.

In his four seasons, he carried the ball 182 times for 731 yards and two touchdowns.

Willhite had never considered the possibility that he wasn’t the best running back in America, like almost everyone was saying, back in 1981. He summed it up in an interview during his senior year:

“I was a pretty good player, who left Sacramento and learned there are other people who are just as good.. Sometimes a setback will help you grow up.

“I should have been a millionaire by now, but I’m not.”

***
Epilogue

Postseason, Willhite was selected for the Japan Bowl, an east-west all-star senior game, and played well. His name wasn’t called in the draft, to little surprise. But the NFL strike that year gave him an opportunity. He signed as a “replacement player” with Green Bay during the scab weeks of ‘87, and in three games ran for 251 yards, including a 61-yard rumble against the Eagles. It was his first time over 100 yards in a game in six years. He dislocated a finger in that game, and the Packers placed him on injured reserve; fortunately for Willhite, that was the last scab game, sparing him the discomfort of playing against defenders who didn’t cross picket lines.

He didn’t survive the Packers training camp the next fall. 

**

In the ‘87 Skywriters tour press conference, Rich Brooks closed his session by making an unsolicited observation.

“Wait a minute, I got to get one shot in here. Today is the first time in six years I haven’t had a Kevin Willhite question.”

After pausing for the laughs, Brooks continued.

“I’m here to tell you that Kevin Willhite is a graduate of the University of Oregon and I’m proud of that. He was not a total failure like some writers have said in the past several years.”

Why was he so defensive? Brooks had always resented the way the media had treated Willhite, setting him up as the savior of Oregon Football, then questioning why it wasn’t working out. But there is no question that Brooks himself had fully bought into the hype back in 1981, even discussing how exciting it was going to be to work Kevin’s speed into the offense with two-back sets.

Could a player today be as clearly and wildly overrated as Kevin Willhite had been? Probably not, if the measure of “overratedness” is related to an analysis of talent and potential.

The competition in the Sacramento schools wasn’t sufficient to keep Willhite, who did have talent, from looking like a much better back than he was. In the age of the internets, the level of coverage should make it less likely that a player will be assumed to be good. And the top players now all participate in shoe-company camps and all-star games.

Willhite, in 1981, was never seen outside of his high school team environments. The football world was expected to take his performance on the field at face value, and project it against the next level.

But recruiters and analysts, then and now, find it difficult to measure the intangibles, like a player’s heart and motivation. And of course they have no way of knowing if an injury is going to severely limit a prospect. Another featured back in the 1981 recruiting class, Marcus Dupree, made a tremendous splash during his freshman season at Oklahoma. But there were questions about Dupree’s conditioning and motivation; he clashed with his coach, and didn’t make it through his second year. Dupree is now driving a dump truck for a living in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Kevin Willhite lives in Sacramento, not far from the scene of his greatest triumph as an athlete. He’sKevin Willhite, 2010 happily married with two children, and works as a supervisor for International Paper. Last fall he was named to the San Joaquin Section Hall of Fame for his high school exploits.

For all his struggles on and off the field at Oregon, Kevin did take advantage of the life opportunity that his scholarship to Oregon gave him; he graduated, with a degree in rhetoric and speech communications. This put him in the minority of minority athletes, then and now. So, we can’t consider him a failure.

The media, as usual, can be accused of setting Kevin up to knock him down. But they’ll tell you that’s their job. The fans, who were so disappointed that he hadn’t given them more to cheer about, might have considered spending less time buying into the hype in the first place, but can’t be blamed for their initial excitement and subsequent frustration.

There’s your cautionary tale with regards to what a highly touted recruit might bring to your school this fall.

One player doesn’t make a team. Or break it.

Adjust hopes accordingly.