Ahh, 1994. Pulp Fiction. O.J. Simpson. Steve Stenstrom tossing touchdown after touchdown. The Stanford defense allowing touchdown after touchdown.
Still, all in all, 1994 was a good year, especially for Oregon Duck fans. They watched their football team make an improbable Rose Bowl run. Danny O'Neil and Cristin McLemore (he's in the Card-killer Hall of Fame, isn't he?) did their thing on offense, but Kenny Wheaton's game sealing interception against Washington was the major force that propelled the Ducks to Pasadena.
Even though mighty Oregon lost to mightier Penn State in the Rose Bowl, it was still a good story. The Ducks had been a middling program with less-than-middling resources and middling-at-best fan support. After a season or two of glory, it seemed certain that the Ducks were destined to fall back to the pack and the Pac-10's big boys in South Central and Seattle would reclaim their places as the conference's elite programs.
Fast forward nine years, and the Pac-10's elite program is… Oregon. The Ducks followed the Rose Bowl appearance with a trip to the Cotton Bowl. After a slight dropoff in 1996, the Ducks returned, and have now made six straight bowl appearances. Only the Huskies have a longer streak of consecutive bowl appearances among Pac-10 schools. Along the way, guys like Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Onterrio Smith, Keenan Howry, and Peter Sirmon passed through.
But what has set Oregon apart has been their off-field activity. For the 2001 season, the Ducks took Manhattan. A giant billboard of Joey Harrington was slapped onto Times Square. The $250,000 move was the centerpiece of Harrington's Heisman campaign that fall. The next year, the Ducks not only got a bigger billboard, this one featuring a 172-foot by 53-foot image of Keenan Howry, they also took to the airwaves, with the YES network broadcasting replays of Oregon football games late into the Bronx night. That whole deal cost $300,000.
But they didn't stop with New York. An even bigger billboard went up in downtown Los Angeles, right down the street from U$C. For a few months that fall, Onterrio Smith greeted me on my way into the office every morning, as Oregon put up another billboard on the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge, right in Stanford and cal's backyard. Ads were taken out in USA Today. The media blitz just kept on coming.
Last season, Autzen Stadium's $90 million facelift was completed, giving the place 12,000 more seats, plenty more skyboxes, and a Taj Mahal-like press box (which I'm looking forward to visiting this weekend).
This year, Oregon has raised a fuss with garish new uniforms for the players and hideously awful new uniforms for the band. But the Ducks really caught people's attention by building the only football locker room, college or pro, that could make the cover of Architectural Digest. For better or for worse, the locker room, next door to Autzen Stadium at the Oregon athletic department's headquarters, is the standard.
The locker room is so lavish, I'd need Robin Leach to recap all the amenities. But since he's not returning my calls, I'll try to do the place justice myself. Each individual locker is equipped with its own ventilation system, outlets for video games and the Internet, and a thumbprint-activated security system.
The door to the two-story locker room is wide enough to let eight players through at once and can shut at a rate of three feet per second. Three 60-inch plasma TVs adorn the walls. Two of the monitors are rigged up for Xbox games.
As locker room design director Tim Canfield told the Eugene Register-Guard back in August, "We designed something that's very expensive." Indeed. The locker room cost $3.2 million. The total tab for Autzen Stadium upon its completion was a mere $2.5 million.
All of this has caused critics in and out of college football to moan and throw up their hands in disgust. It's a blatant and frivolous show of decadence. It exploits the athletes. It's sparked an arms race in facilities and marketing. Instead of merely crossing the line, Oregon has crossed it, erased it, redrawn a new line, and crossed that one too.
When it comes to Oregon's off-field antics, I say: don't hate… appreciate.
Now, it is troubling to see this happen in a state where unemployment is high and the educational system is teetering on the brink. But, looking at this strictly in a sports vacuum, I think it's great.
Because while the critics howled, Oregon secretly giggled. They knew that all of their over-the-top actions would spark equally and oppositely over-the-top reactions. They knew people would talk about the Ducks.
And people did. Even the New York Times editorial department weighed in. But Oregon couldn't have cared much about the type of reaction they were getting from the pundits, because they knew that, in the words of Oregon athletic director Bill Moos, "whether the response is positive or negative, it is about Oregon football." They knew that their mission to get Oregon athletics out there to fans, corporations, and recruits beyond the Willamette Valley was accomplished.
Last year, former Trojan offensive lineman Allan Graf looked at Oregon's downtown L.A. billboard and sniffed, "you don't see [U$C] putting billboards up in Eugene." I say, "Why not?" Oh that's right, I forgot… when in L.A., nothing exists outside of L.A.
Is it exploitative? Sure. But what level of big-time college athletics doesn't exploit the athletes? Besides, if I'm a 20-year old kid, I could think of worse ways to be exploited than to have a 9,116-square foot billboard of me hovering over 47th and Broadway in Manhattan.
Will it open a Pandora's box and force everyone else to try to catch up? From a facilities standpoint, it already has. Every Pac-10 football program up in the Pacific Northwest now has an indoor practice building.
Has all the success caused Oregon fans to lose their perspective? No question. Football has replaced the spotted owl as the state's passion.
Of course, it's a bit easier to pull off what Oregon has done when you've got Nike founder Phil Knight ("the best owner in the Pac-10," according to former UCLA coach Bob Toledo) in your corner. It's also easier to achieve those accomplishments when you don't have a world-class academic reputation to worry about.
But I will never fault a program for being creatively (and legally) aggressive in trying to set a standard for everyone else to follow. Quite honestly, and it pains me to say this, but I can't wait to see what the hell they're going to come up with next.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
Just a few Pac-10 thoughts, since I actually have a full plate of Pac-10 picks coming up…
The next time you see any member of the Stanford defense walking around campus, pat them on the back and shake their hands. A great effort against a very dangerous team…
I guarantee you this: penalties will cost the Cougars at least one game down the stretch…
Welcome back to the party, Washington!
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… what do Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein have in common? They both can't point their finger at themselves! Thank you, tip your waitress, try the veal…
I made history last week…it's the first time I've ever posted an oh-fer, whether it's straight-up or against-the-spread. Again, that's why I always say that these picks are for entertainment purposes only. So if some guy named Guido comes knocking on your door, don't come crying to me…
Stanford @ Oregon. Seriously… do the Ducks strike fear in anyone right now? I don't think so. And they shouldn't… a bad defense and an inconsistent offense shouldn't give too many folks cause for worry. But still, this Stanford team needs to prove it can score. Why do I have a funny feeling it happens this weekend? Do I dare? Do I dare? Yes, I do! I like Stanford by 2.
U$C @ Washington. Washington finally woke up last week, but the Trojans might put them right back to sleep. If the Huskies' offensive line can keep Cody Pickett clean like they did last week, they might have a shot. But still… I like U$C by 9.
Oregon State @ Washington State. Maybe the most intriguing Pac-10 game this week. Can Steven Jackson pound the quick Cougars' defense? I think so. But at some point Derek Anderson has to put the ball in the air… and that's where the Beavers' problems begin. I like Washington State by 9.
Arizona State @ UCLA. Good test for UCLA defense. Derek Hagan is starting to assert himself as the Sun Devils' main receiving threat, which is good news for Andrew Walter. The bad news is that UCLA defense is no joke. I like UCLA by 3. Why not? Don't they win all their games by three?
Last week (straight up): 2-1, (ATS): 0-3.
This year (straight up): 11-4, (ATS): 7-8.
Got a thought on this column or on Stanford sports? E-mail me at email@example.com! The ones I like best will end up in next week's E-Mailbag…
Troy Clardy is a reporter for the Stanford Cardinal Farm Report, which airs Saturday mornings at 8:30 on Fox Sports Bay Area.
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