Oregon through the decades

Catholic families once displayed John F. Kennedy's framed likeness. Today throughout Oregon – inside rec rooms, barber shops and sports memorabilia stores – Duck fans save the same reverence for Kenny Wheaton.

Kenny who? If you want to trace the rise of Oregon football from college backwater to powerhouse, be mindful of the former Duck cornerback. He's the less-menacing equivalent of Gavrilo Princip and World War I, the bump-and-run counterpart to Atari and the video game industry.

With the Ducks clinging to a 24-20 lead and Washington driving for a possible winning score in October of 1994, Wheaton's interception return for a touchdown clinched a most pivotal contest. Regional dominance swung from the probation-laden (but ninth-ranked) Huskies to the long-suffering Quackers. It was the second of six straight Pac-10 wins for Oregon, which reached the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958.

The outcome more than ignited a series long dominated by Don James' Huskies. Football became a priority in Eugene once reserved only for Grateful Dead worship, or maybe jogging. Autzen Stadium grew from 41,000 to nearly 60,000 seats. The program built the West Coast's first indoor practice facility. Five-star recruits came aboard in droves.

Joey Harrington begat Onterrio Smith, who in turn paved the way for Dennis Dixon, Ed Hickson and LaMichael James. These are the key players. As far as the key dates in Oregon's ascent, take note of the following.

1978: Rich Brooks finishes his second season as the Ducks' head coach. His conference record stands at 3-11, his job security relatively stable. Stanford fans note Jack Christiansen, fired two years earlier, went 15-5-1 over his last three seasons in Pac-8 play.

1980: The Ducks finish 6-3-2 to make it consecutive winning seasons. Victories include a shocker at eventual Pac-10 champ Washington and also UCLA, which reached No. 2 in the polls weeks earlier. Oregon plays on network TV, but won't again until 1988.

1982: An eventual 2-8-1 team hosts Notre Dame and plays the Fighting Irish to a draw. Autzen Stadium's capacity is never approached for Oregon's other home games.

1984: Rueben Mayes of visiting Washington State unleashes what remains a Pac-10-record 357 rushing yards against the Ducks. The team rebounds a week later, beating host UCLA to end the Bruins' hopes of a third straight Rose Bowl.

1986: In its annual college football preview, The Sporting News wonders if Oregon's economic woes – as in the recent 30 percent decline in the state's logging industry workforce – will keep its two Division I football teams from ever being viable programs.

1987: The Ducks' 4-1 start earns a national ranking (No. 16 in the Associated Press poll), a first since the days of Dan Fouts and Bobby Moore (1970). Brooks says he's "tickled to death" over his team's rise. The fans get rowdy. They tear down the goalposts following a victory over Washington. On-field security prevents a repeat week later, after a win over USC.

1988: Dropping five straight after a 6-1 start hurts, a streak that occurs once quarterback Bill Musgrave is lost for the year with a broken collarbone. In a 16-6 home loss to UCLA, Autzen sells out for only the 11th time since being built 21 years earlier.

1989: Oregon not only wins the Independence Bowl for its first bowl victory in 26 years, but it saves the actual game from going under. The school's athletic department purchases 14,000 tickets – about 4,500 of which are used by fans to attend the game – to help it break even.

1992: A return trip to the Independence Bowl sees Oregon fall to Wake Forest, but it is the Ducks' third postseason trip in four years.

1994: A week after Wheaton's heroics against Washington, Josh Wilcox's diving touchdown grab is the difference in a 10-9 outcome against No. 11 Arizona. The successive games, coupled with an earlier win at USC where Tony Graziani subs at quarterback for the injured Danny O'Neil, decide the Rose Bowl race.

1995: Rich Brooks (career record 91-109-4) leaves Oregon to coach the St. Louis Rams. Under the capable hands of assistant Mike Bellotti, Oregon shows it has staying power, finishing 9-2.

1995: Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel runs a fake punt late in his team's 38-6 decision over the Ducks in the Cotton Bowl. Oregon fans still haven't forgotten.

1998: Quarterback Akili Smith shares Pac-10 Player of the Year honors, leading the league in total offense and passing yards per game. At halftime of that year's Aloha Bowl, sideline reporter Jack Arute notes that Oregon will undergo a radical change in uniforms for the following season.

1999: Stanford (7-1 in the Pac-10) may reach the Rose Bowl, but Oregon (6-2) is the lone Pac-10 team to actually win a bowl game. UCLA's home triumph over the Ducks eventually hands the Cardinal – who doesn't play Oregon – a Pasadena trip.

2001: Oregon marketing goes national. Joey Harrington's likeness watches over New York City from a massive billboard. The Ducks make good on the pub, going 11-1 and finishing No. 2 in the national polls. The seniors graduate with 38 victories in four years.

2002: Before the season, Autzen Stadium undergoes a $90 million renovation and adds 12,000 seats.

2003: Sports Illustrated puts Oregon ("The coolest team in college football") on its cover. Freshman quarterback Dennis Dixon, formerly of San Leandro, is one of 50 Californians on the roster.

2005: Make way for the spread. Thanks in part to a scheme installed by new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, Oregon finishes an all-time best 10-1 in the regular season and passes for over 300 yards per game. Crowton has since moved on to LSU. His offense, together with the high expectations in Eugene, are each firmly in place.

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