Tie-dyed Eugene unlikely home for football power

Updated: January 8, 2011, 5:39 PM ET
Associated Press

The McKenzie River comes crashing down from the Cascades, merging with the mellow Willamette a short walk from the University of Oregon campus. Everything is green from the almost incessant rain in a state with two seasons -- winter and August.

The school's legacy stretches from the LSD-inspired writing of one-time Oregon wrestler Ken Kesey to charismatic but ill-fated Steve Prefontaine, to the deep pockets of a spindly legged distance runner from the 1950s named Phil Knight.

Eugene, a tie-dyed city that was counterculture before counterculture was cool, is an unlikely home for a college football powerhouse.

Not that football hasn't had its moments.

"The Dutchman" Norm Van Brocklin returned from World War II to quarterback the Ducks to a tie with Cal for the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1948. Member schools voted to send the Bears to the Rose Bowl, with Oregon losing to a Doak Walker-led SMU in the Cotton Bowl.

Len Casanova, whose name lives on at the athletic department's swanky Casanova Center, got the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 1957, the seventh in his 16 years at the school.

But when Oregon, led by running back Mel Renfro and quarterback Bob Berry, made it to the Sun Bowl and beat SMU in 1963, who knew it would be 26 miserable years before the Ducks saw the postseason again, and even then, they had to buy their way in?

The only consolation was that 40 miles up the road, Oregon State often was worse.

In the 1960s, bad football was almost a badge of honor in a city at the forefront of the social upheaval of the time.

Kesey, who grew up on his father's dairy farm nearby was a standout wrestler until a shoulder injury in college not only ended his athletic career but kept him out of the Vietnam War. After getting his degree in journalism, he left for the creative writing program at Stanford and volunteered as a subject in U.S. government-funded experiments with the psychotic drug LSD.

He liked the results.

Kesey became the merriest of the Merry Pranksters and a mainstay of the legendary Bay Area "acid tests." With the proceeds from publishing his second novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," Kesey purchased a 1939 International Harvester bus, christened it "Further" and painted it with every color of the rainbow. What followed was a cross-country journey, with Jack Kerouac's old "On The Road" buddy Neal Cassady at the wheel, chronicled by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

The phrase was "you're either on the bus or off the bus," and much of Eugene and the surrounding hillside definitely were on the bus.

Kesey, who died in 2001 and is buried on his family's farm, had two sons wrestle at Oregon. Jed Kesey died when an Oregon van carrying the wrestling team slid off an icy highway in 1984.

With the remains of the original Further rusting away on the farm, son Zane put together a replica of the bus, donned his father's American flag shirt, and mounted an unsuccessful campaign to save the wrestling program, which was dropped in 2008 to bring back baseball.

In 1973, Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession of marijuana and no place embraced that lifestyle more than Eugene. Laid back was in, fierce football was -- amusing at best.

Not that there weren't some great athletes. In 1972, locals were infatuated with Prefontaine, the brash, gutsy, barrel-chested distance runner from the coastal logging town of Coos Bay. Prefontaine made the Olympic team that year, with Oregon's crusty Bill Bowerman coach of the U.S. men's track and field team.

Prefontaine lived through the horror of the terrorist attacks at those Munich Games and finished fourth in a thrilling 5,000-meter final. He and Bowerman, who was tinkering with his wife's waffle iron to make what would develop into the sole of early Nikes, helped kindle the running craze in America.

But in 1975, Prefontaine left a party and dropped fellow distance runner Frank Shorter off, then headed down a narrow, windy road in the wooded hills near campus. His MG convertible hit a rock and overturned. A nearby resident tried to pull the car off him, but Prefontaine died at 24.

The rock has become a shrine, with distance runners from around the world leaving shoes or etching their feelings on the smooth stone.

The 1972 football team had Dan Fouts at quarterback and Bobby Moore -- now Ahmad Rashad -- at running back. Still, the team managed to go only 6-4-1 and, in those days, only the conference champion could go to a bowl game.

The next season, with Fouts a senior, Oregon went 5-6. Jerry Frei resigned as coach rather than fire his assistants, a group that included future NFL coaches John Robinson, George Seifert and Gunther Cunningham.

The Ducks had three coaches the next five years, culminating with the 1977 hiring of Rich Brooks. Things got ugly, real ugly, bottoming out with a 0-0 Civil War tie with Oregon State in 1983.

But with Brooks' persistence and under aggressive athletic director Bill Byrne, Oregon bought its way into the Independence Bowl and on a frigid Dec. 19 night in Shreveport, La., Oregon beat Tulsa 27-24. Two minor bowl appearances followed.

But patience with Brooks was wearing thin and, when the team started the 1994 season 1-2, boos echoed through the half-empty stadium after a loss to Utah. Brooks thought he was about to be fired.

Instead, the Ducks won eight of 10 and were in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 37 years. Oregon lost to No. 1 Penn State, an imposing team led by quarterback Kerry Collins and running back Ki-Jana Carter, but the Ducks weren't embarrassed.

Oregon quarterback Danny O'Neill set a Rose Bowl record with 456 yards passing. Brooks resigned to go to the NFL, the Ducks named their football field after him and coordinator Mike Bellotti took over.

Brooks had plucked Bellotti from little Chico State, much like Bellotti would find Chip Kelly at New Hampshire. Since 1995, Oregon has appeared in a bowl game every season but one, including the 2002 Fiesta Bowl and 2010 Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, the money rolls in from Knight after the Nike founder ended a feud with his alma mater over the direction of the track program. Uniforms grew ever more bizarre.

And the Duck is no joke anymore. Nothing about Duck soup or quacking under pressure.

The mascot, whose hazy origins came when an old-time columnist labeled the team the "Webfoots," has been on a roll since his historic meeting with his look-alike Donald Duck at Disneyland during Oregon's 1995 Rose Bowl trip.

There is no fat on this Duck, either. He does a pushup for every point Oregon scores. That would be 592 and counting.


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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