- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Long before Autzen Stadium became known for its lack of hospitality, long before visiting teams contracted case after case of the false starts, long before ranked teams from Wisconsin and Michigan and Oklahoma learned the loud way that Autzen is the toughest place to play on the West Coast, it wasn't like this. It wasn't like this at all.
The Autzen of two decades ago shares a name, a location and little else with the Duck Pit where No. 10 Oregon will play host to No. 5 USC and its head coach, Pete Carroll, on Saturday. Oregon caps season ticket sales at 41,000 in a stadium that seats 54,000. The string of sellouts will extend to 66 this week.
"They have a good attitude about supporting their team," Carroll said at his news conference Tuesday. "That's a good way of putting it. They are very outspoken and, of course, they do a great job of orchestrating the game environment."
And so the stories are told. How UCLA quarterback Pat Cowan lost his voice shouting audibles above the din in 2006 (Oregon 30, UCLA 20).
How Dennis Erickson, when he returned to the Pac-10 at Oregon State in 1999, didn't realize how Autzen had changed since his time at Washington State in the 1980s and neglected to create hand signals for audibles (Oregon 25, Oregon State 14).
And how USC sophomore Mark Sanchez, making only the third start of his career, threw two interceptions in 2007 (Oregon 24, USC 17). The Trojans are back, this time with an even younger quarterback, freshman Matt Barkley.
Oregon fans are buying "Fright Night" T-shirts, complete with a Duck-in-Crossbones, for the Halloween night showdown. Two decades ago, Autzen had a Halloween theme every week: It looked and sounded like a graveyard. Autzen, built in 1967, spent its first two decades inhabited by struggling football teams and apathetic fans.
"We had no home-field advantage," recalled Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, who led the Ducks from 1977 to 1994. "It was ridiculous. There wasn't any noise. We had 17,000-18,000 fans in a 41,000-seat stadium. It was pretty bleak."
Brooks came along before Nike co-founder Phil Knight bestowed love, affection and eight-figure gifts upon his alma mater. Brooks came along when the athletic department would book anyone into Autzen to generate money. A Grateful Dead concert. A circus. Area high school games. The rare sellouts usually involved an invasion of the hated Washington Huskies, a few hours up I-5.
"Washington would fill up the parking lots with RVs," said Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne, who held that job at Oregon from 1984 to 1992. "Half of the stadium would be purple. One of my goals was to keep purple out of the stadium and fill it with green and gold. We did."
It took 10 years for Brooks to move the Ducks past mediocrity. In the den of Byrne's home in College Station hangs a poster from the 1989 Independence Bowl, Oregon's first postseason game in 26 years. Laid out as a border around the poster are unused tickets to the Independence Bowl.
To get the bid, Byrne agreed to buy 14,000 tickets to a game 2,300 miles away. He had some leftovers available to frame his poster -- with enough remaining to wallpaper the house.
"We sold 8,000 or 9,000," Byrne said. "The next season, we got a bid to the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim. We guaranteed to sell 8,000. We sold 11,000 or 12,000. We were off and running."
As Oregon began to win, the fans began to buy tickets. Once Autzen filled up, the fans, the Ducks and their opponents made a discovery that surprised them all: The stadium is loud. The fans can make a difference. Who knew?
"Lloyd Carr came in in 2003 and said it was as loud a place as he ever played in," Bill Moos, Byrne's replacement as athletic director until 2007, said of the Michigan coach. The third-ranked Wolverines lost, 31-27 (Carr did not respond to a request for an interview).
Moos hustled to bring big-name opponents into Autzen. At the meeting in the mid-1990s in which the Big Ten and Pac-10 discussed and agreed to join the BCS, Moos used barbecue and beer to get athletic directors Merritt Norvell of Michigan State and Pat Richter of Wisconsin to agree to play home-and-homes with him.
"Wrote it up on a cocktail napkin," Moos recalled.
The Ducks sent them home with losses, too. The difficulty of playing in Autzen is not merely the noise. After all, its crowds top out at 59,000 (the school sells 5,000 or so standing-room seats), barely half of the crowds at the biggest stadiums in the country.
"You know, the noise is one aspect," Carroll said, "but you can feel the intensity of their crowd."
If Duke ever built a Cameron Outdoor Stadium, it would be Autzen. No one set out to build a stadium that promotes claustrophobia. The acoustics that make the current Autzen so intimidating to opponents are a result of dumb luck and parsimony. And not in that order.
"The fans are right on top of you," Brooks said. "They were trying to save money and there's not all that much space down there."
The fans are so close to the teams on the sideline that they can hear the players and coaches talk. There's even less room from the back of the end zone to the seats. The field is sunken, so the noise rains down.
"It's a potato-chip design -- high on the sides and it slopes down," Moos said. "There's no track or anything. The seats come right down to the field and they come down pretty steep."
In 2002, Moos directed a $90 million expansion of the stadium. He and a delegation of Oregon officials visited Notre Dame and Alabama, which had undergone recent expansions, and the new stadium at Louisville. Those venues convinced the university not to add a second deck onto Autzen.
"Notre Dame just took Notre Dame Stadium and made it bigger," Moos said. "It's the same configuration. So we swept the stadium upward. We also put in the foundation to swoop it up on the other side."
But they didn't add those seats. Not yet. Moos said Oregon had the money and space to take Autzen to 60,000 seats but he held back. The university held capacity at 54,000 and used the remaining money and space to add 32 sky boxes to the original 12. Oregon sold those out on three-year contracts at $45,000 per year.
"I thought, 'Don't let it get too big. Fans will think there's always a seat available,'" Moos said. "It's like when you go by a restaurant and there's a line outside the door, you want to get in there."
The circus no longer sets up in Autzen Stadium, save for six or seven Saturdays a year.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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