It was almost as if Kellen Clemens felt compelled to apologize. "I come from a small town," said the native of Burns, Ore., "and things like this just blow me away. Sometimes it seems like a bit much." It was two days before the biggest start of his career, and Oregon's sophomore quarterback stood at his stall in the Ducks' preposterously posh, two-story, Internet-wired $3-2 million locker room.� "I've got shelf space for toiletries," Clemens said, motioning to a tube of toothpaste. "And here's a little lockbox, for valuables." Pointing at a gleaming vent at the bottom of his Jetsonian locker, Clemens noted that fresh air circulates through it day and night. "That keeps odor under control, which is nice, especially with some of the guys who don't do their laundry as often as maybe they should."
He glanced toward a trio of offensive linemen, center Dan Weaver, left guard Nick Steitz and left tackle Adam Snyder, who were sitting on a sofa playing Xbox on one of three 60-inch plasma-screen TVs. When asked if such opulent surroundings might make them, well, a bit pampered, the three hogs took slight umbrage. After making the point that Oregon players are put through "one of the toughest fall camps around," Weaver added, "Just because we have a nice locker doesn't make us soft."
"Every program has to rise up sometime," added Steitz. "The Michigans and Ohio States were powerhouses from way back. For Oregon, I guess, it took a little longer."
Usually it's the other way around. The Beaver State has long been in the vanguard of change, from legalizing euthanasia to voting by mail. This nonconformity extends to Oregon football—Ducks coach Mike Bellotti is a wizard of the passing offense—and to the way it's packaged. Between plastering pictures of players on Times Square billboards, donning buzz-generating jerseys and erecting palatial new facilities, Oregon is hands-down the most creatively marketed team in the nation. "Hopefully," said Clemens, "our play is gonna put us on the map pretty soon."
Mission accomplished. Michigan arrived in Xanadu—er, Eugene—with a 3-0 record and a No. 3 ranking. The Wolverines were coming off a thrashing of Notre Dame and entertaining hopes of their first national championship since 1997. The Ducks were 3-0 but less impressively so, having allowed a combined 57 points in their first two wins, against Mississippi State and Nevada. Even taking into consideration the storied raucousness of Autzen Stadium, magnified by a recent $90 million makeover that added 12,000 seats, this one had the makings of an early-round knockout for the Big Ten. Instead, Michigan found itself knocked out of the national-title picture after a 31-27 loss best explained by a single integer: minus-three. That's how many rushing yards the Ducks allowed.
On third and long with 1:14 remaining, Wolverines quarterback John Navarre completed a 12-yard pass to tight end Tim Massaquoi, moving the ball to the Oregon 41. From within a lonely knot of maize-clad Michigan fans in the stands behind the west end zone, one of the visitors shouted, "Hey, Knight, how do you like that?"
Down on the field, minding his own business and dying a thousand deaths as his Ducks clung to their precarious lead, stood Oregon alum and Nike founder Phil Knight, who has been the patron of the Ducks football renaissance. It was clear, after Oregon stopped Michigan and time expired and Knight joined the joyous mob storming the field, embracing players and congratulating coaches, that he enjoyed it very much.
A local columnist had likened Saturday's matchup to a clash of old and new money—the tradition-bound Wolverines versus the arriviste Ducks, whose nouveau riches come to a large extent courtesy of Knight. It's worth noting that even though one of the stalls in their Taj Mahal locker room is reserved for him and a plaque on the wall dedicates the room to Knight, he donated none of the money for that building. Which puts it in the distinct minority. He has donated more than $50 million to the university and has been especially generous to the football program, writing a check that covered a sizable chunk of that $90 million Autzen upgrade. (Other private donations covered the rest of the renovation cost.)
According to Clemens, jealous rivals have accused the Ducks of trying to buy success. But Oregon athletic director Bill Moos, who took the job in 1995, makes no apologies for attempting, as he says, to "level the playing field." For decades coaches at other Pac-10 schools had too easy a time running down Oregon. No more. "The USCs and UCLAs of the world ask recruits, 'Why do you want to go up there where it rains all the time and you can't work on your game?' How do you neutralize that? You build a 117,000-square-foot indoor facility [the $14.6 million Moshofsky Center]. They can tell recruits, 'If you go up there, no one's ever going to hear about you.' Hey, guess what? We'll put you on a billboard in Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York. We'll market you in ways no one ever imagined."
Oregon has long attracted players from outside the state; there are 50 Californians on this year's roster. One measure of the Ducks' recent success in recruiting is the itineraries of the players coming to campus. "When I first got here," says Moos, "our prospects were also visiting Mountain West schools, some WAC schools, maybe Washington State and Oregon State. Now their other visits are to USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas, Tennessee."