It's not cool, you Californians. Sorry, you Washingtonians. There's no new material to warrant a revival of University of Oregon football jokes. In fact, the only prudent one-liner is this: If it looks like a Duck and it walks like a Duck, then it is probably a Pac-10 contender again.
Those reports you've heard from Eugene are true: The notoriously mediocre Oregon Ducks, who went to the Rose Bowl last season for the first time in 37 years, have indeed lost their coach, their four-year starter at quarterback and three fourths of their kamikaze secondary. But coming off Saturday's spring practice game, the defending Pac-10 champion Ducks, the 11th-ranked team in the country last season, appear to be anything but one-year wonders. Something serious, something meant to last, is under construction in that former nowhere zone between California and Washington, the two traditional Pac-10 power states.
Gone is the Rodney Dangerfield mindset from the Oregon athletic department, now housed in a facility that ranks with any jock palace in the nation. Says Mike Bellotti, Oregon's former offensive coordinator who replaced Rich Brooks, now of the St. Louis Rams, as coach in February, "The players' perception is that we can and should challenge for the Pac-10 championship again. Going back to the Rose Bowl is a very attainable goal for our team. There is no reason why we should not compete for the conference championship for the next couple of years."
Yes, things are looking up. Oregon is halfway home in a $150 million fund-raising drive, begun last September, even though the state has only 2.8 million people. One reason for the quick success: the energy that football's rise brought to this intellectually serious campus. At this time last year the school seemed populated by 16,600 Rip Van Zappas, who woke up 20 years later with residual hippie indifference toward football.
Some of that hippie mentality—though not the indifference—has filtered down to the team, most notably in junior tight end Josh Wilcox, the free spirit of the Oregon offense. Wilcox has emerged as the Ducks' leader since catching 11 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, even while suffering two concussions.
On Wilcox's massive left biceps rests an ominous symbol for rivals up and down the West Coast: a tattoo, with the circumference of a grapefruit, of a skull bearing a rose in its teeth. In fact, the tattooed guys from the Rose Bowl team—all 10 of them, along with their attitudes—are coming back. The blood-red rose on senior inside linebacker Jeremy Asher's right ankle is more elegant, and more typical of the Ducks' tattoos, than Wilcox's. But all the tattoos are statements, reminders that Oregon means business when it comes to football.
"There is," says Bellotti, "a dogged commitment to get back to the Rose Bowl, and to do it right the next time."
The last time the Ducks went to Pasadena, just four months ago, they received their unlikely invitation after a 9-3 season. For three quarters they stayed with undefeated and second-ranked Penn State before falling 38-20. The bitter defeat, Wilcox says, "was like waiting in line for concert tickets and then having them close the door right in front of your face."
Says Oregon senior cornerback Alex Molden, "I would like to have another shot at Penn State." Tall talk. But, he adds, "there's a difference between cocky and confident."
There are good reasons for the Ducks' confidence. Junior quarterback Tony Graziani, who replaces Danny O'Neil, isn't completely new as a starter—he led Oregon to its 22-7 upset of Southern Cal last season—and, according to new offensive coordinator Alan Borges, could actually turn out to be better than his predecessor. True, the 6'2", 188-pound Graziani had some spotty performances as a substitute, and he admits he loathed the backup role, but Bellotti says that last year, "when Tony was the guy, he stepped up his level of play."