Commentary

Oregon brand built on constant change

Originally Published: January 9, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- During Rich Brooks' tenure as coach at Oregon, campus recruiting visits were more of a walk of shame than a chance to show off.

"We housed [recruits] at the Valley River Inn," Brooks recalled. "Coaches would meet with them at the hotel. We didn't want them to see our offices. They were atrocious."

[+] EnlargeRich Brooks
Stephen Dunn /Allsport Count former coach Rich Brooks as among those amazed at the transformation at Oregon.
This was the 1980s. The coaches' offices were cramped rooms in Oregon's ancient basketball gym, complete with cracked steam pipes and broken windows. There was no practice facility -- practices were on the primitive artificial turf in Autzen Stadium regardless of weather. If the Ducks needed to work on natural grass, the only available area was a divot-filled field where the school's track team threw discus and shot. Divot-related ankle sprains were a routine danger.

"It was terrible," Brooks said.

One thing Brooks and his coaches did show recruits was a model of a proposed domed stadium. No more practices in the rain and cold, they assured the kids whom they were trying to woo from California and other sunny climes. Just wait.

When practicing in a freezing rain for the 1989 Independence Bowl -- the Ducks' first bowl game in 26 years -- the Oregon seniors wryly asked Brooks where the dome was. Like many other Oregon capital improvements, it never got off the drawing board.

Monday, Brooks will watch the Ducks play for the national championship. In amazement.

"It's almost surreal," said the guy who first got the program up off the ground on its way to the stratosphere. "The players that are there now don't understand where it came from."

It came from nowhere and landed here, site of the Tostitos BCS Championship Game. In roughly 15 years, Oregon has gone from having almost nothing to having an excess of everything.

[+] EnlargeJeff Maehl
AP Photo/Matt YorkEven the Oregon sweats turned heads at BCS title game media sessions.

Today's Oregon players enjoy facilities that compare favorably to any in America. They enjoy every imaginable creature comfort, technological advance and fashion indulgence. A program that once was as trendy as Larry King's suspenders is college football's capital of cool.

"The performance wear we get, from a fashion standpoint, and the facilities and infrastructure, they fit with the innovative theme of who we are," said Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who just arrived at the school during the summer. "Very forward-thinking. It is kind of a hip brand."

Mullens said that while wearing DayGlo green Nike sneakers and a sweatshirt with DayGlo trim. His football players were walking around in sharp hoodies with their numbers on them in the same futuristic font the Ducks use for their jerseys.

Auburn's players looked good in their Under Armour sweats. Oregon's players looked better in their Nike gear.

And yes, that four-letter word is vital to understanding how the Ducks went from football pushover to powerhouse. The benefits of Nike founder Phil Knight bestowing most-favored-program status on his alma mater are impossible to understate.

One question for former coach Mike Bellotti, who succeeded Brooks and set the table for current coach Chip Kelly: How important is Knight's influence on Oregon football?

[+] EnlargePhil Knight
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesPhil Knight's contributions to Oregon's rise are impossible to overstate.

"How important is the sun to life on Earth?" Bellotti said. "We wouldn't be here without him."

By most calculations, Knight has spent more than $300 million on Oregon athletics. The money just keeps coming, and the facilities just keep getting built. A $41.7 million academic-support building is under construction. Then there will be a six-story football operations building.

And unlike that old domed stadium, those will get off the drawing board and into active use.

Like a lot of big-money boosters and a lot of big-time schools, Knight got seriously invested in Oregon football when Oregon football showed signs of serious promise. He'd helped bump up coaches' salaries, but he got really interested during Brooks' breakthrough Rose Bowl season of 1994.

The correlation was direct and dramatic. When Oregon won nine games in '94 for the first time since 1948, Knight went all in. From that point forward, the Ducks have won nine or more games in a season nine times.

The more they spent, the more people noticed. Facilities lured recruits on official visits. Bold marketing moves -- remember the huge Joey Harrington Heisman Trophy billboard in Times Square in 2001? -- drew media curiosity.

And then Nike went all mad fashion scientist with the uniforms, turning initial public disapproval into widespread public fascination.

And that's the interesting thing about this "hip brand": It's radically different from the other great brands in college football.

Think of Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State, and what generally comes to mind? Tradition and continuity. The uniforms almost never change, and neither does much of anything else associated with those programs.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe trendy Ducks get a jump from their uniforms.

But Oregon has gone the other way, building a brand on constant change. The Ducks change clothes more often than Vegas showgirls, making their uniform combinations a newsworthy item every football game. Anticipation for the Dec. 14 unveiling of what they would wear in their first title game was immense.

(The answer: white jerseys, white pants, pewterish helmets, DayGlo green socks, white cleats with DayGlo green accents. I was hoping for jerseys with built-in cloaking devices.)

It's a smart strategy. If the object is to appeal to teenagers who are so comfortable with the staggering pace of change in today's society, then what better way than putting an emphasis on here-and-now trendiness?

"If anybody pays a visit to Oregon and sees the facilities and the uniforms and everything," said star running back LaMichael James, "as a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid, who wouldn't want to go to Oregon?"

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.