For a moment last Tuesday night, Oregon senior quarterback Joey Harrington celebrated as he might have 10 years ago while playing in the annual Turkey Bowl at All Saints Elementary in suburban Portland. Two minutes from the end of a resounding 38-16 win over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, Harrington jogged toward the sideline during a timeout, beamed at the reserve who was signaling in plays and skipped gleefully back to his team's huddle. It was the sort of display, when made by a 6'4" man of 22 years and 220 pounds, that could melt only a mother's heart. "Joey made a lot of great plays today," said Valerie Harrington after her son passed for 350 yards and four touchdowns and gave Oregon grounds to claim the national title if Miami lost in the Rose Bowl, "but what made me most proud is when he did that little skip. He's been under a lot of pressure this year, and it was so good to see him having fun. For a minute I saw a glimpse of my Joey of old."
The pressure on Harrington this season had been enough to wind even the most fun-loving college kid a little tight. As the most important player on the Pac-10's favored team—and the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy candidate in more than 15 years-Harrington faced expectations loftier than the 100-foot-high billboard bearing his likeness that Oregon boosters had paid to have posted in New York City last summer. When, at season's end, the Pac-10 champion Ducks (10-1) were fourth in the BCS standings and denied a chance to face undefeated Miami for the title, despite being ranked No. 2 in both Top 25 polls, Harrington refused to snap. While Oregon coach Mike Bellotti likened the BCS to "a cancer," Harrington said simply, "We had a great season, and we have a legitimate claim to be playing in Pasadena."
He then set out for the Arizona desert to knock off another team that made the same claim. Mixing bullet passes with arcing bombs, he connected with seven receivers, and the Ducks scored from all over the field. "Not only was it the biggest win, but it was on the biggest stage, and we did it in one of the most emphatic manners," Harrington said. "We made a statement today, 38 unanswered points, and shot down the hottest team in the country."
He was surprised at the poor play of Colorado, whose three-headed rushing monster of Chris Brown, Cortlen Johnson and Bobby Purify was limited to 49 yards by Oregon's relatively small defenders. However, even when contemplating the Buffaloes at their best, Harrington said, he had "always believed that we were going to win."
That had become a favorite postgame refrain for these Ducks. One month ago Harrington and his teammates started wearing bracelets with the word BELIEVE spelled out between green and yellow beads. But more than three years earlier Harrington had become convinced that Oregon, then a middling Pac-10 team, was worthy of a big-time bowl. "Every year we tell the players to write out their goals," says offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. "A few years ago Joey informed me that he planned to lead Oregon to a national championship. That was before anyone at Oregon was thinking about getting to that level. Before the kid was even playing." It's easy to forget that Harrington, with his 24-3 career record and well-publicized pedigree (Joey's father, John, was a Ducks backup quarterback from 1967 through '69), was a scrub. His debut throw, a halfback option pass that fell incomplete in the third quarter of a 1998 game against USC, was his first and last play as a freshman. Although he entered the next season as a reserve, Harrington unseated senior A.J. Feeley midway through the season when he drove Oregon 79 yards in the final 49 seconds for a come-from-behind victory over Arizona State.
After a junior campaign in which he led the Pac-10 with 257.6 total yards per game, Harrington's improvement in 2001 was subtle. Over the summer and well into the fall, Tedford helped him fine-tune his release, drilling him on an over-the-top throwing motion that sharpened his short passes. While his average passing yardage per game dropped to 219-5 this season from 247.3 in 2000, his completion rate rose to 58% from 53%. More important than that was a lesson Harrington learned on his own. "I'm convinced that nothing is as improbable as it seems," he says, "not even coming back after a midseason loss to try to get into the national championship picture."
Harrington directed the Ducks to four fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories this year, bringing his career total to 10. After kicking off the 2001 season with six straight wins, Oregon was shocked 49-42 by Stanford at home. "That was a turning point for us," says Ducks senior fullback Josh Line. "The team was devastated, knowing that we had lost a dream that day, in front of our home crowd. No one left the stands afterward—it was bizarre. Then, in the locker room, Coach Bellotti said something important: 'Don't let Stanford beat you twice.' The next day before practice, Joey and [senior cornerback Rashad] Bauman and [senior tailback Maurice] Morris challenged us to think not about what we had lost but about what we would gain with a strong finish. We ended up having the best week of practice this year."
Secretly, though, Harrington struggled to reset his game face after the Stanford loss, in which he allowed a fourth-quarter lead to slip through his fingers for only the second time in his career. "I knew I had to bounce back the next day," he says. "That's what being a leader is all about. If the other players see you in a non-positive mind-set, that affects them. I have to present an air of confidence at all times."
By Nov. 10, when he made up six points against UCLA with just over 10 minutes to play, Harrington had the act down pat. Teammates recall his poise when he beckoned all the Ducks—not only the offense but also the defense and special teams—to join him in the sideline huddle that preceded the 70-yard scoring drive that put Oregon ahead for good. "He told us, 'This is our future, right here,' " says Line. "That little speech not only inspired the offense but also helped the defense make a great stand to prevent UCLA from coming back."
Oregon's seniors would learn two weeks later, through a televised announcement by the BCS, that the game against UCLA was to be their last game in the Rose Bowl this season. "We were in a team meeting, and the first thing someone said was, 'Ain't that a bitch?' " remembers Bauman, a product of downtown Phoenix who would combine with fellow cornerback Steve Smith for four interceptions in the Fiesta Bowl. "There were a lot of damns and oh, wells. Then we went out to practice."