Heisman hype used to be so simple. Back in the last century (say, 1997), if you were an underexposed school in the Pacific Northwest (say, Washington State), you would just grab some leaves, stuff them into envelopes, and then mail them to a few hundred writers who vote for the award. Presto, Ryan Leaf for the Heisman Trophy!
These days, a Heisman campaign requires far more than a little ingenuity. Take Oregon. In June, still glowing from their first 10-win season, the national title contenders from Eugene began promoting the candidacy of senior quarterback Joey Harrington by commissioning a billboard. Not just any billboard, but a 10-story, leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound billboard. In New York City. Right across from Madison Square Garden.
The Joey Heisman billboard cost Ducks boosters $250,000 and sent the national tide contenders at Oregon State, 37 miles north in Corvallis, into a tizzy. After all, the Beavers, still glowing from their first 11-win season, have an even stronger Heisman candidate, senior tailback Ken Simonton, a Barry Sanders-style slasher who could become the first player in Pac-10 history to rush for 1,000 yards in four seasons. Those nouveaux riches Ducks couldn't one-up them now, Beavers alumni roared. Six public relations firms were invited to design Simonton-for-Heisman campaigns, and the proposal that won included a dynamite hook: a 12-inch-tall action figure, Li'l Ken, with removable helmet and pads, and a li'l Heisman Trophy that Ken could hold in his li'l plastic hands.
One problem: Li'l Ken was cute, and the Beavers don't do cute. The p.r. firm was hired, but with a caveat: Lose Li'l Ken. "We won't go the route of an advertising campaign," says Oregon State athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "We're not some corporate giant that can throw dollars at problems. Oregon has the Madison Avenue look, and we're the ol' junkyard dog."
About the only thing these two schools have in common is their sudden and unlikely national prominence. Last season, in the Pac-10's most topsy-turvy year in decades, the Beavers and the Ducks shared the league title with Washington. In two seasons Beavers coach Dennis Erickson has gone 7-5 and then 11-1 at a school that hadn't had a winning record in 28 years, while Oregon has won more games (49) than any other team in the Pac-10 since coach Mike Bellotti took over six years ago. Both schools' season ticket packages are sold out, and both coaches have turned down entreaties from some of the nation's most storied programs. ( USC wooed Erickson in December 2000, and Ohio State courted Bellotti at about the same time.) This season's Oregon-Oregon State showdown is so tantalizing that ABC has moved it back two weeks, to Dec. 1, Championship Saturday, to be shown nationally between the Big East and Big 12 title games.
It's the most fascinating rivalry in college football, 2001 edition, and in the drought-stricken Willamette Valley, venom is more plentiful than water these days. From the Beavers' standpoint. Oregon is a Grateful Dead-listening, granola-munching hippie school with a high-gloss football team bankrolled by. Nike co-founder (and Ducks alum) Phil Knight. The Ducks regard Oregon State as a redneck school with a suddenly potent football team run by a renegade coach who gives free reign to renegade players, particularly junior college mercenaries.
The Ducks and the Beavers: They sound as if they'd be so playful and Disneyfied—but then the players open their mouths. "We're a classier team. Oregon State is more the clowning type," says Oregon cornerback Rashad Bauman, pointing to Oregon State's 41-9 Fiesta Bowl win last season over Notre Dame, in which the Beavers racked up 18 penalties, five of them for personal fouls or taunting. "We don't need to showboat and get out of hand for our crowd to get into the game. We carry ourselves in a different way."
The Beavers' response? "People always want to put the rap on Coach E, that he's always getting thugs," says Simonton. "But you know what he does? He gets dudes who want to win—at all costs. I had those J.C. transfers runnin' up mountains last summer. You can take your prissy little four-year college boys with trust funds, and I'll take these J.C. dudes who are hungry to win, and we're gonna go bust their heads!'
Is it any wonder they call this rivalry the Civil War?
The top three reasons that Beavers are better than Ducks: