Oregon's pursuit of perfection continues
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- It is not all that far from the University of Oregon to the University of Phoenix Stadium. The site of the BCS National Championship Game is within the footprint of the Pacific-10 Conference.
But if you measure the journey by how far the Oregon Ducks have come in the last 25 years, you would understand the giddiness that enveloped a few otherwise businesslike men Saturday evening outside the Oregon locker room.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti asked the cameramen not to show the tug he had just taken from his postgame beverage.
"This is the best-tasting beer I've ever had in my life, in my absolute life," Aliotti said.
The No. 2 Ducks had just defeated their archrival Oregon State Beavers 37-20 to clinch a sideline opposite No. 1 Auburn on Jan. 10 in the Valley of the Sun. The official coronation will come Sunday night when the pairings are announced.
"I've coached at the University of Oregon in five different decades," Aliotti said. "I was here in the '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000, now 2010. I'm extremely proud of that. The fact is, when I got here in 1978, we were 2-9. People would leave at halftime. Nobody [was] in the stands. Nobody really gave a hoot."
Aliotti is in his 20th season with the Ducks. He left and he came back. He remains only fourth on the staff in seniority.
Nike chairman Phil Knight, his smile as wide as a swoosh, said, "When I started getting involved in the program, we were only five years from a 0-0 tie with Oregon State . It ain't easy getting there."
It took 22 years of Knight's involvement as head booster, head checkwriter and head cheerleader to reach the heights that the Ducks reached Saturday. Did he ever see this day coming?
"We're exactly on plan," Knight said.
Special teams coordinator Tom Osborne -- no, not the Hall of Fame coach -- a relative youngster in only his 10th season in Eugene, thought of the 2007 season, when the Ducks climbed to No. 2 in November only to have injuries, chiefly the torn ACL of quarterback Dennis Dixon, derail their championship hopes.
"When you've had some adversity, you appreciate the prosperity," Osborne said. "Those years when we were 6-5 or didn't do well, or you lose to Oregon State, you're working your tail off, you're trying to get your guys going, and it doesn't work out your way. Now when you're 12-0 and undefeated, it means more to me by going through those years, all those years and all that time and all that work."
Oregon coach Chip Kelly might understand the feeling. But Kelly does not indulge in displaying emotions in public. Besides, he has been at Oregon for only four years, and head coach for the last two. Kelly has won the outright Pac-10 championship in each season. What could he know about how far this program has come?
Kelly spoke as softly and rapidly as a spring cloudburst. He knew how far this team had come since last season. In the offseason, he threw All-Pac-10 quarterback Jeremiah Masoli off the team. He loves how hard the Ducks worked.
"We have never once talked about a national ranking," Kelly said. "We never once talked about the national championship game. I left that all to you guys. You guys did a very good job of it. I'd like to commend you for that. We just go out and play football. This group loves to play football. They love to practice football and they love to play football."
Kenjon Barner's return from a frightening injury is the best of many good stories for Oregon this season.
A few minutes later, out of Kelly's earshot, defensive tackle Brandon Bair said, "We don't pride ourselves on the way we play. We pride ourselves on the way we practice."
The Ducks won the league by two games last season, and they never suffered from self-satisfaction. They came back and worked harder.
"We lost our last game," Kelly said, referring to the 26-17 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. "That always leaves a sour taste in everybody's mouth. Heading into the offseason, that's a hard thing to swallow. We didn't play very well and we lost to a very good Ohio State team, but I don't think we played very well in that game. Their last experience on the football field was disappointment."
The motivation, Bair said, is fear.
"We're running from good, trying to get to great," Bair said. "We're going to do everything in our power to get to great."
The victory Saturday in the 114th Civil War didn't have a whole lot of great about it. It had a personality unlike the 11 that preceded it this season. All save the California game came at you with flash and sparkle. The Ducks could score on any play -- and often did. No matter how one-sided the game became, Oregon remained must-see TV.
The victory Saturday did not look like that. The victory Saturday wore a blue collar. Oregon won with all the elan of a plumber. The Ducks drove north from Eugene, did their job, and left the bill on the Beavers' kitchen counter.
The Ducks ground out this one. Tailback LaMichael James rushed for 134 yards on 28 carries. His backup, Kenjon Barner, rushed for 133 yards on 15 carries. The Beavers took away the big play from Oregon and made the Ducks sustain drives. Oregon's longest play from scrimmage came on a fake punt, a 64-yard run by linebacker Michael Clay. That set up the third-quarter touchdown that put the Ducks ahead 23-7 and pretty much ended any hope TCU had of playing for the national championship.
"It really hasn't sunk in what we've done as a team," Barner said.
And he's only a sophomore. Imagine what it feels like for the old men of the program. Oregon -- Oregon, for heaven's sakes -- is playing for the national championship.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.