Yesterday my beloved Oregon Ducks lost the annual “Civil War” football game against Oregon State, which is for me virtually always the worst possible thing that can happen in sports. And not only did the Ducks get clobbered 50-21, but losing the game meant Oregon has now suffered its first losing season since 1993. I’m not going to dwell on the negative, though. Instead, I’d like to celebrate Oregon’s unprecedented streak of success.
The decade of winning seasons began in 1994 with an improbable Rose Bowl run after Oregon had lost two of its first three games, only to bounce back with a string of wins and just get better each week. That year brought the greatest moment in Oregon football history: Kenny Wheaton’s game-saving, 93-yard interception return for a touchdown against Washington. Later that year, Oregon overcame a fourth quarter deficit against Oregon State to earn its first trip to Pasadena in 37 years. I remember watching the Civil War in a sports bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the New York chapter of the Oregon Alumni Club. Not long after Dino Philyaw’s winning touchdown, I walked to the subway with a red rose in hand and tears in my eyes. Even though the Ducks ultimately lost the Rose Bowl to undefeated Penn State, being there to see Oregon run onto that field with my dad was wonderful, the culmination of a lifetime’s cheering for the Ducks.
The next season Oregon’s success continued with a 9-2 season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. I especially remember three games. In a come-from-behind win against Illinois, Oregon sacked their quarterback in the end zone and recovered his fumble for the go-ahead score after earlier being 19 points down. Later that year, the Ducks won at UCLA after stopping them at the one-yard line on the game’s last play. 1995’s regular season concluded with a hard-fought 12-10 win over Oregon State. The Ducks were behind almost the entire game, and Sara and I were sitting right behind the OSU marching band. You can bet some trash talking went on, first from them but with us getting the last word.
1996 and 1997 were tough years, but each time Oregon squeezed out winning seasons. My best memory was the 1997 Las Vegas Bowl, a harbinger of successes to come. On the very first play from scrimmage against Air Force, Akili Smith threw an 80-yard touchdown to Patrick Johnson. After stopping the Falcons on defense, on the very first play of the next possession, Oregon tailback Saladin McCullough ran for another 80-yard touchdown. We won 41-14.
The 1998 Ducks were even better than their 8-3 record indicated. The season began with a 42-14 drubbing of Michigan State on ABC, with new tailback Ruben Droughns (the best Oregon RB of all-time in my opinion) running for 200 yards. Halfway through the season, though, came a gut-wrenching game against UCLA. Both teams were ranked in the Top 10, and before the game ESPN was broadcasting live outside the Rose Bowl. After falling a couple touchdowns behind early, the Ducks climbed back to take the lead. But Oregon fumbles gave UCLA the chance to force overtime and eventually win the game. Droughns also broke his leg that day and was lost for the season. Still, Oregon bounced back and finished with one of its better season records.
The Joey Harrington era began a few games into the 1999 season. Harrington had initially lost the starting job battle to AJ Feeley in fall camp only to wrestle it back mid-season. But while Feeley was more polished at the time, Harrington showed a remarkable fearlessness and relentlessness that would help Oregon come from behind to win countless games, none more impressive that season than against Minnesota in the Sun Bowl when Harrington found Keenan Howry for a go-ahead score with just a minute or two left.
2000 was like 1998 in that a very impressive record (this time 9-2) could have been even better. Oregon’s only losses were squeakers on the road at Wisconsin and Oregon State, the only time both Civil War teams were ranked in the top 10. The season-ending Holiday Bowl against Texas was a classic. Joey Harrington threw for one touchdown, ran for another, and caught a third. Cornerback Rashad Bauman outplayed receivers practically twice his size. Oregon finished in the Top 10 for the first time in its history.
Then there was 2001, that magical season. There were so many memorable wins, such as the 56-55 double-overtime game at Arizona State, or of course the come-from-behind Civil War win, which came thanks to Keenan Howry’s dramatic punt return for a touchdown in the driving rain. I walked around Portland for three hours waiting for that one to conclude, and ruptured my vocal chords with just one enthusiastic yelp upon learning we’d won. Oregon got screwed out of the national championship game after being #2 in both polls. But the Fiesta Bowl seemed like just as much of a challenge. Our opponent, Colorado, was considered college football’s hottest team at the time. But the Ducks won easily, 38-16. I remember Sammy Parker’s long touchdown reception in the second quarter and Maurice Morris’ astonishing touchdown, in which he rolled over a defender on his back, regained his footing, and marched for a third-quarter score. Tears again came to my eyes as the last seconds ticked away.
The last three years, while winning seasons, have been disappointing, but after enduring lots of losses in the 70s and 80s I never want to discount what a 6-5 record can mean. And those years were not without their wonderful moments. At the top of the list is last year’s historic win over Michigan, which put quarterback Jason Fife on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 2002 there was a dramatic 31-30 win at UCLA. And of course last year culminated with a 34-20 victory over Oregon State.
However disappointed I am with this season, or no matter optimistic I remain about the future for Oregon football, neither is the subject here. We Duck fans have enjoyed a wonderful decade of unprecedented success, and sometimes you've got to smell the roses, even when you don't win the run for them.