Past Oregon football players compare the game they knew to the big business it is today.
On a cold December night last year, nearly 60,000 screaming fans packed Autzen Stadium to watch the University of Oregon football team battle its longtime rival, Oregon State. It was the largest crowd to ever witness a sporting event in the state of Oregon, and the 71st straight sellout of Autzen Stadium. In a tense, back and forth game, Oregon beat Oregon State by four points, earning its first Pac-10 championship since 2001 and a trip to the Rose Bowl to play Ohio State.
For the former players from the 60s and 70s who were in the stands that night, this prime time spectacle was a reminder of how much the football program and the athletic culture at Oregon has changed. In their day, the Ducks weren’t the national power they are today: they were the kind of team that would be praised for playing valiantly even though they had lost, according to Ken Woody, a former Oregon kicker.
Woody still gets together weekly with a number of football players from that era, Mike Johnson, Don Stone and Scott Ferguson. The men, all in their 60s, call themselves the “Not-Dead-Yet Poet’s Society,” and meet on Monday nights in Eugene’s Villard Street Pub.
Though football brought them together, nowadays they are more likely to be caught talking about current events than reminiscing about the glory days—the late 1960s and early 1970s when they played football at the university. “We’ve all heard each other’s stories a million times,” says Stone. “And every time they’re a little different.”
Villard Street Pub is located in the growing shadow of Matthew Knight Arena, the new $200 million home of Duck basketball, which is scheduled to open in December. Large, sleek and austere, the arena is a symbol of what sports at the University of Oregon have become. Only a few blocks away sits the soon-to-be-abandoned McArthur Court, the venue built in 1926 that the athletic department has outgrown.
“It’s going to be awesome,” says Stone about the new arena. Stone, who sports a gray beard, a baseball cap, and a large football ring on his right hand, played tight end for the Ducks from 1969 to 1971. Ferguson agrees. A burly man with a thick mustache, Ferguson grew up in Eugene and attended every Duck home game as a child. Although he earned a full scholarship to play fullback for Oregon in 1966, a recurring knee injury robbed Ferguson of his chance to play much football. “I wish things had turned out different and I could have played more,” he says. “My knee is completely fine now.”
Not many people remember the teams that Woody, Ferguson, Johnson, and Stone played on in the 1960s. Oregon was a step behind the USC and UCLA teams of that era. The Ducks didn’t win a ton of games, and for the most part, languished in the bottom half of the Pac-8 (Arizona and Arizona State would not join until 1978). They suffered a bowl game drought that lasted from the 1963 Sun Bowl until the Independence Bowl in 1989.
For the players of the 1960s, the transformation of Oregon football is quite remarkable. But the changes go beyond the program simply achieving more success on the field: College football itself has grown into an entirely different beast in the past 40 years. The influx of money to the sport—skyrocketing TV revenue, more post-season bowl games, and contributions by wealthy benefactors—has blurred the line between a successful college football team and a professional sports team.
“It’s so different now,” says John Roche, a former outside halfback (comparable to wide receiver in today’s game) for Oregon. “It’s a business; it’s not a bunch of good old boys playing a game anymore.”
According to Rob Moseley, a sports writer who covers Duck football for the The Register-Guard, the transformation of the Oregon football program can be traced back to two key moments. “The scholarship limit, where each team gets 85 scholarships, had a pretty profound effect on leveling the playing field,” he says. After the limit went into effect in 1994, the big, successful football programs like UCLA and USC could no longer stockpile talented athletes. “That meant guys who wanted a full ride had to go other places, and that meant schools like Oregon could suddenly compete,” says Moseley. And secondly, he says, “So much at Oregon goes back to Phil Knight’s decision to become a serious financial backer of the program in 1994, 1995.”
Today, University of Oregon football is bigger than it has ever been. The program recruits players nationally, from places like Texas, Kansas, Illinois, and North Carolina. All of its games are televised locally, and some are televised nationally. This TV revenue represents a major source of income for both the university and the athletic department. “It’s so important for teams now to be on TV because that can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars every week,” says Moseley.
The financial pressure to win and be successful leads the university to try to attract the most talented players coming out of high school. Players who come to Oregon fully expect the Ducks to be one of the best teams in the nation year-in and year-out, and according to Moseley, “They all have professional aspirations. Football is the primary element of their college experience.” Mosely says the school makes accommodations by bending academic standards for student-athletes. “[They] are allowed [in] under the special admissions program because of their unique talents on the football field,” Mosley says.
The university also tries to attract first-class recruits with the quality of its athletic facilities. From a state-of-the-art weight room and a plush two-story locker room with 60-inch flat-screen televisions and Internet ports at every locker, to a stadium that received $90 million worth of renovations in 2002 and the new John Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, Oregon’s facilities for football players rival those of any other college football program in the nation. “It’s almost become like an arms race between all these schools,” says Woody.
When the Jaqua Center—whose top two floors are inaccessible to the majority of Oregon students—opened its doors last January, students and faculty questioned whether purposefully separating student-athletes from the rest of the student body was the right message to send. But in Moseley’s mind, the Jaqua Center is simply a manifestation of a separation that is already well underway. “[Football players] are over at the Casanova Center across the river from the university proper almost all the time, except [for] three hours a day when they’re in class,” he says. “There’s this level of physical separation that breeds a level of psychological separation between football activities and the university itself.” Players are also the beneficiaries of numerous perks, including free clothing, warm-up gear, meals, and academic tutors. “I do think that leads to a level of entitlement for these guys,” Moseley says. “And I don’t necessarily think that’s their fault.
Back in 1967, Autzen Stadium, with its 41,097 capacity, was Oregon’s newest athletic venue. Before that, the Ducks had played home games at Hayward Field, a 21,500-seat stadium that rarely sold out. Inside Autzen Stadium, the same group of 20,000-odd faithful fans seemed even smaller against the backdrop of thousands of empty seats.
“It was a really neat stadium, it only cost like $2.5 million to make,” says Woody, the former Oregon placekicker and part-time defensive back.
“Lots of available seats, however,” interjects Johnson, a former two-way lineman for the Ducks.
“Yeah, we used to go introduce ourselves to the fans personally,” jokes Woody.
“Smaller town, smaller time,” says Keith Sherman, another player of that era.
The former players agree that there was a drastically different feel about the program 40 years ago. Sherman, a fearsome linebacker and native of Puyallup, Washington, chose to play for Oregon instead of Washington or Washington State because Oregon had “a kind of family, caring atmosphere” that he felt during his first visit. “It was a totally different environment from a Washington or a Washington State. Everyone was on a first-name basis with all the coaches.”
The players themselves were also very different in that era. Nationwide recruiting hadn’t really started and the majority of Oregon football players were still from the Northwest. “Our freshman class had 26 scholarships and 22 [of the recruits] were from Oregon and Washington,” Roche says.
Players were also smaller and more versatile, as platoon football (where players only play either offense or defense) was still in its embryonic stages. Recruits often had to play more than one position. “That’s why we were so little,” Johnson says. “Nowadays they make a left tackle a certain way, an outside linebacker a certain way. And they are all much bigger and better than we were.” Undersized players like the 5–foot 8–inch, 170–pound Roche, who was a local kid and the son of an Oregon football assistant coach, were beginning to be phased out. As Roche freely admits, he was mostly a bit-part player for the Ducks. “If you had a bunch of guys like me on a team, you wouldn’t win a ton,” he says with a chuckle. However, he kept his spot on the roster for four years, through “a tremendous willingness to work hard and battle,” a 1967 program notes.
When the Ducks still played at Hayward Field, both the locker room and the weight room were situated in McArthur Court. The players referred to the locker room, with its wooden stalls, four showerheads, and nails for hanging their equipment, as “the Bastille.” “Everyone had rusty nails, except the starters. They had shiny new nails, that was the only difference,” says Woody. Sherman remembers the team’s weight room vividly. “It was about 20-by-20 back in the corner of McArthur Court underneath in the basement,” he says. “You were down in the plumbing and the toilets and stuff. We had a better weight room in high school.”
Football players of the time had to work for their scholarships: Roche was an assistant for Oregon’s track coach, Sherman taped ankles before and after games in the athletic treatment room, and Stone worked as a groundskeeper clearing rocks off the baseball field. Aside from being allowed to register early for their classes and having access to tutors, they had very few special privileges. “We could trade our five game tickets for meat at Tommy Hodges’ meat market, and we got $5 of food money after the game, which, most of the time, was spent on beer. That was about it,” says Woody.
The teams of the 1960s did not receive anything like the media coverage teams experience today. Reporters didn’t swarm their practices, the players’ names and faces weren’t nationally known, and they didn’t have to deal with the constant glare of the media spotlight and the 24-hour news cycle.
Duck student athletes were far less recognizable. “[They were] pretty much just part of the normal student body,” says Sherman. “It’s a lot more glorified now than back then. You kind of just grew up playing sports with your buddies. Being good at sports wasn’t such a big deal.”
Moseley, also the author of What It Means to be a Duck, an anthology of testimonials from Oregon football players of different eras, agrees with Sherman. “For guys who played in the ’50s and ’60s, football was just one element of their college experience. Most all of them didn’t have dreams of playing professionally. Those guys were just looking at it as part of their growth—they appreciated their coaches for helping mold them from boys into men and sending them off in the world to pursue whatever career they were going to.”
For the players of that era, the Ducks’ rise from mediocrity is nothing short of astonishing. “There was a time, when Arizona and Arizona State were coming into the league, I didn’t see how Oregon was going to get in the top half of the league,” says Roche. “I just thought, ‘Wow, who are we going to beat?’ But they’ve done it.”
None of the former players begrudge the Ducks their recent success. They savor Oregon wins with the same relish as the other fans. Most still have season tickets and all follow the Ducks religiously. “I take pride in what goes on out there because I feel we were all part of making the program into what it is today,” says Stone.
But while their support for the Ducks is unwavering, they still question some of the negative effects success has had on the program off the field. “These facilities are nice, but when guys used to come here to play football it wasn’t because of the facilities,” says Woody. “There’s a certain mentality you are appealing to and are attracted by big plasma televisions and the rest of it.”
“Whenever you start winning games, people start jumping on the bandwagon,” adds Johnson. “I think Oregon football fans themselves have become entitled. I don’t remember anyone ever booing the team or a player back in our day. I can’t stand any of the booers. Some of the people they’re booing happen to be 19 years old.”
Oregon football may well be entering uncharted waters in terms of success on the football field. On January 1, 2010, after a 10-2 season, the Ducks played in their first Rose Bowl since 1995. Despite a loss at the hands of Ohio State, high hopes surrounded the program entering the off-season, and fans whispered that this team might be the one to finally carry the Ducks to their first national title game. But as a number of the former players agree, on-the-field accomplishments shouldn’t be the ultimate barometer of a college football program’s success and success shouldn’t come at too high a price.
“The other day I heard President [Richard] Lariviere say we’re in the entertainment business,” Sherman says. “Well, we should be in the business of educating kids and teaching them how to live productive lives in society. If they’re not doing that, they’re in the entertainment business. And I’m not for that.”