Rich Brooks looks back at "The Pick"

I know, this is a Husky website, and articles like this one may be difficult to digest, but I think it's good to go back into the past and not only relive the good memories, but to also remember the painful ones. It's how we learn to appreciate those good times even more. Besides, it's Friday the 13th.

So let's rewind back to 1994 for a bit. It was following early season losses to Hawaii and Utah that former Oregon coach Rich Brooks began to question his situation. His football team was drastically underachieving. Suddenly "Ditch Rich" bumper stickers were cropping up around Eugene, and Brooks was started to feel the pressure.

Rich Brooks recently recalled that time to, from his current office at the University of Kentucky, where he is the head football coach. "We had played horrendously in Hawaii. Our starting wide receiver had suffered a spinal injury and was out. Utah came to town and we were expected to win handily, but lost. Utah ended up 9-2 at the end of the season, but nobody knew that they were that good at the beginning of the year. So it was a disappointing loss to many people. That's when those bumper stickers came out."

But in the weeks leading up to their game against Washington, The Ducks' season turned around. "We beat Iowa soundly," said Brooks, "then we went down to Los Angeles and beat USC soundly, for the first victory in the Coliseum since 1971, I believe. That really got our season going in the right direction."

Washington was now coming to town, and entered the game with a record of 5-1 and a #9 ranking in the country. They had beaten Ohio State 25-16 and Napoleon Kaufman had rushed for 211 yards. They had beaten UCLA 37-10 and Kaufman had rushed for 227 yards. Finally, they had beaten the Miami Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl 38-20, snapping the NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak. Despite being on probation, the Huskies were rolling right along. But Oregon came out fired up and played them tough.

"We had controlled and dominated the game in the first half," recalled Brooks. "We felt we should have gotten a few more points".

The game came down to a 4th quarter battle. An interception gave the Huskies the ball deep in Oregon territory. UW fullback Richard Thomas subsequently scored from 10 yards out, and Washington led 20-17, with 7:44 to play.

A personal foul was committed by an Oregon Duck, who was ejected from the game and allowed the Huskies to "pooch kick" the ball up in the air and right down to the goal line. In fielding the floating kick, Oregon's Pat Johnson had his knee accidentally touch down at the 2-yard line, and things started to seem bleak for the home team. It seemed like it was 1st down with 98 yards to go.

"We screwed up the kickoff and started at our 2-yard line," said Brooks. "But the first play was a Danny O' Neil throw that got us out to the 38 yard line. We then drove all the way down the field and scored a touchdown. So we're ahead 24-20.

"Washington gets the ball back and comes right down the field, converting on a fourth down," said Brooks. "They had a great running back named Napoleon Kaufman, and we were well aware of him. But throughout that drive, they elected to throw. When they got down to our nine-yard line, with a first and goal and enough time left, we were very surprised that they didn't try to give him the ball."

Someone once said of life, that it isn't one thing after another, but rather it is the same damn thing over and over. That is how Duck fans felt at this point. One minute to go, and it seemed that the Duck faithful, ever famished for Husky blood, were going to see their dreams disintegrate once again into a cloud of feathers. Even former Duck QB and future broadcaster Mike Jorgenson literally left the stadium, heading to the nearby Casanova Center, as he found it unbearable to watch the Huskies' final drive.

Said Brooks: "It was just like a lot of Washington-Oregon games, where the Huskies come back we could almost feel the whole stadium sink, like oh hell, here we go again."

The ghosts of defeats past were parading back into the collective Duck consciousness; UW's Mark Lee returning a punt 59 yards for touchdown in 1979 to give Washington a miracle win; The Duck defense holding the #1 ranked Huskies to 109 yards and 3 first downs in 1984, and still losing 17-10; The Duck wide receiver who failed to turn around on the perfectly-thrown Chris Miller pass in the end zone, a pass that would have beaten Washington in 1985, but instead left the void of a 19-13 loss. Combined with various lopsided losses through the years, Washington had won five in a row, and 17 of the last 21 against their rivals from Eugene.

So Washington had the ball first and goal at the nine, and Damon Huard took the snap and was immediately looking left. An out-route had been called by offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, who now holds that same position at Notre Dame. Wide receiver Dave Janoski broke toward the front pylon of the upper corner of the end zone.

As the ball floated in the air, freshman defensive back Kenny Wheaton took a big gamble and made an early break, guessing that an out would be thrown. He guessed correctly and stepped in front of the Husky player, picking it off cleanly and racing suddenly up the right sideline.

It was at this moment that things changed forever in the minds, hearts and psyches of everyone associated with Oregon football.

Kenny Wheaton ran in a zigzag pattern all the way down the field as the Duck faithful went delirious. This was right out of their wildest fantasy. As Wheaton made his way, every Duck fan ran right along with him in spirit. Everyone except for Rich Brooks, that is.

"I was actually wanting him to Get down! Get down! I didn't want him to fumble", said Brooks emphatically followed by a laugh. "When he finally crossed that goal line, then it felt pretty good."

Husky fans in the opposite end-zone seats could only watch in horror as the carnage unfolded before them. It was pure bedlam in Green and Gold and it would be a long drive back to Seattle.

Explained Brooks: "Kenny saw that they were lined up with a slot route. He had made up his mind that if he saw the slot man (Janoski) run an out, he was going for it. If Washington had run a delayed slot, or had faked that and had thrown into the end zone, he would have been beaten. But fortunately, Kenny guessed right."

Time soon expired and the University of Oregon was celebrating the 31-20 triumph. It would prove to be a vital springboard. The very next week, #8 Arizona came to town, and the Ducks, with their "Gang-Green" defense, throttled the Wildcat offense en route to a 10-9 win. Ultimately, Oregon would win its final six games to carry them to their first Rose Bowl in 37 years, where they lost to #2 Penn State.

The "Ditch Rich" bumper stickers had been ditched themselves. Said Brooks: "The best part was seeing the crowd at the Rose Bowl, seeing the 35-40,000 Oregon fans who made the trip was an extremely gratifying experience."

When in 1995 Brooks took the St. Louis Rams job, it was BYE week that provided the opportunity to come back to Autzen Stadium for a special ceremony. The University of Oregon named the field after him, in honor of his many years of service and of his leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.

"I don't remember who they played," said Brooks with a light chuckle. "But I know it was a win. My family was with me there and it was an enjoyable time."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories