Oregon Football: Top 10 Most Memorable Moments in Ducks History
How do you take the entire history of a football program and pick out the 10 most memorable moments?
Well, there aren't any national championships to speak of, and Rose Bowl victories have been few and far between. In fact, much of Oregon's history in football is filled with losing seasons and irrelevance.
That all began to change in the '80s, when the Ducks slowly made their rise as not only a team to be reckoned with, but as a national brand, too.
Let's be clear on the guidelines. First, memorable moments can include both single plays and entire games. They can also include the hiring of coaches or any other major decisions that influenced the direction of the program.
I'll leave off events such as the birth of the program (which would obviously be the biggest moment for any team) and the 1917 Rose Bowl, because 96 years later, exactly how memorable was that game to fans or the direction of the program compared with the other moments on this list?
Basically, I looked at how the moment shaped the program and what kind of relevance it had when it initially occurred as well as today still. In some instances, the word "memorable" can certainly be interchanged with "important."
Here are the top 10 moments in Ducks football history.
Honorable Mention: 1983 "Toilet Bowl" (0-0 tie against Oregon State in the Civil War), birth of the Washington-Oregon rivalry (if you don't know the story, look it up. Yes, Washington started it) and recruiting of Mel Renfro (one of the greatest Ducks ever).
10. Dennis Dixon's Knee Injury
When Dennis Dixon finally got his game together in 2007, the Ducks experienced unprecedented success on offense.
Despite an early-season loss to Cal, Oregon was in perfect position to reach its first ever national championship game. Dixon, the dual-threat whiz leading the offense, was atop the majority of Heisman lists.
Then, late in a nationally televised game against Arizona State, Dixon took off running before getting tackled awkwardly. He walked off the field and nearly everyone in attendance left that night without any concern over the star's future.
He even started the following game against Arizona, rushing for a long touchdown, before the unthinkable happened. As Dixon moved to avoid an oncoming defender in the backfield, his knee buckled and any thought of postseason awards or an appearance in the championship game went out the window.
The Ducks went on to lose their final three games. Hey, memorable doesn't always mean something positive or happy.
The reason this makes the list is that Oregon was finally relevant in the national discussion and Dennis Dixon had a chance to win the program's first Heisman Trophy and BCS title in the same season. Many still believe that would have been the case without the injury.
But fate intervened and it was not to be. The Ducks have gone on to achieve great success, but the knee injury to Dixon remains the ultimate "what could have been" for Oregon.
9. BCS Championship Appearance vs. Auburn
In Darron Thomas' first season as the Ducks' starting quarterback, everything came together.
The Ducks blew out every team they played aside from a narrow 15-13 win over California. LaMichael James was the best running back in the country, Jeff Maehl and Lavasier Tuinei formed a solid receiving duo and the defense flew around the field.
In the championship game, they faced Auburn, led by Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. The game was billed as an offensive showdown yet played out like a hard-nosed defensive battle.
After the Ducks tied the game at 19 with a couple minutes left, Auburn drove down the field and kicked a game winning field goal as time expired.
Two moments stand out from this game, which caused me to simply put the entire game as a memorable moment.
First, Casey Matthews' strip of Cam Newton. The Tigers were driving and salting away the clock before Matthews made an incredible individual effort and forced the turnover.
Second, Dyer's was-he-down run in which he was wrapped up but somehow kept his balance with his hand (and wrist/forearm, depending on who you ask) and continued downfield to put Auburn in field-goal range.
Why is the program's only title appearance so low on the list? Well, they lost. And it will never be more than just an "appearance." Still, coming within three points of the ultimate prize is enough to make the countdown.
8. Rose Bowl Following the '94 Season
The first Rose Bowl appearance in 37 years came at the end of the 1994 season, when a 9-3 Ducks squad was matched up against an undefeated Penn State team.
The team went 7-1 in league play, and there are many moments throughout the season that could be on this list. There was a 10-9 win against 11th-ranked Arizona, a 17-13 win at Oregon State to close out the season and a 31-20 victory over Washington. Safe to say the last one here will be brought up again in the slideshow.
So why does a Rose Bowl loss make the list? And ahead of the 2011 title game appearance? Well, the Ducks put up a valiant effort against a Penn State team led by future All-Pro QB Kerry Collins and running back Ki-Jana Carter, who finished second in Heisman voting that season. That team finished 12-0 and ranked second in the country.
Oregon tied the game at 14 early in the third quarter before the Nittany Lions flexed their muscles and pulled away. But to play in the Rose Bowl after so many seasons of complete and utter ineptitude was an accomplishment in itself.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the Ducks were better than the Huskies. And better than the rest of the Pac-10 Conference, too.
Oregon may have lost, but it was a monumental achievement for the program, and much more important at the time than the title game appearance was in 2011.
7. 2002 Fiesta Bowl Victory
After the Rose Bowl appearance in 1995, the Ducks had several up-and-down seasons before making their way back to the top.
In 2000, Joey Harrington led the Ducks to a Holiday Bowl victory over Texas and fans had huge expectations for the following season.
Captain Comeback did not disappoint. He led the Ducks to a 10-1 record in the regular season with the only loss coming at the hands of Stanford. Many felt that Oregon was snubbed of a chance to play Miami in the title game, and yet most "experts" had the Ducks losing to Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
Leading up to the game, Oregon was seen as the physically inferior team that would get pushed around by the mighty Buffaloes. Following a dominating 38-16 win, that script was put in the trash can and Oregon ended the season ranked second in the country.
The win makes the list because it finally put Oregon over the hump. The Ducks were no longer a team that simply put a scare into top teams every now and then—they were one of the top teams.
It also capped off the incredible career of Joey Harrington, arguably the greatest Oregon Duck ever.
6. 2012 Rose Bowl Victory
Everybody knew the number. It was 95. As in 95 years since the Ducks had won a Rose Bowl.
They had a shot against Ohio State following the 2009 season, but were outmatched. In January 2012, the Ducks put on an offensive showcase against a terrific Wisconsin team led by QB Russell Wilson.
An interception by linebacker Kiko Alonso put the Ducks back in the game, and after a couple scores and a final defensive stand, Oregon had erased the number 95 from everyone's minds.
The win was important for a couple reasons. First, it ended any thoughts of "Chip Kelly can't win the big one." But it also put Oregon on the mountaintop. The Ducks hadn't won a national title, but it put them into the realm of teams that not only make BCS games with regularity, but also win them as well.
The game itself was a thriller, and the win grows in magnitude with each great play Wilson makes in the NFL. This wasn't the same Badgers team Stanford scraped by this past January. This was an elite team that had lost just two games, both in the final seconds.
The 2012 Rose Bowl victory was a monumental moment for the Oregon football program.
5. Hiring of Chip Kelly
The next three slides can probably be put in any order, but I'm starting with the hiring of Chip Kelly.
It's ironic that when Kelly was initially brought on, Ducks fans everywhere probably failed to even notice. A new offensive coordinator? Eh, OK, cool.
But when Kelly turned Dennis Dixon into a Heisman contender and dual-threat nightmare, fans took notice of the team's new offensive guru.
After the 2008 season in which the Ducks again put up impressive offensive numbers, Kelly was given the job of head coach, upon which he led the team to four consecutive BCS bowls, including an appearance in the 2011 championship game.
Many thought that the 2002 Fiesta Bowl victory would spur the program on to new heights, but several halfway decent seasons followed instead of great ones. Oregon even went 5-6 in 2004. The 2005 team made the Holiday Bowl, but the 2006 squad underwhelmed. How would Oregon make it back to the top? And how would it stay there?
Well, Chip Kelly was exactly what the Ducks needed, and almost every part of Oregon's current national image can be traced back to Kelly. Hiring him, while quiet at the time, was one of the loudest, most memorable moments in Oregon history.
4. Promotion of Mike Bellotti to Head Coach
After the Ducks' appearance in the 1995 Rose Bowl, head coach Rich Brooks left for the NFL and offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti was promoted to replace Brooks.
The move would pay off, as Bellotti coached Oregon until the conclusion of the 2008 season, piling up 116 wins, which included multiple bowl victories as well.
So why is Bellotti's promotion in the 4-hole? Well, somebody had to continue the momentum Brooks had started the previous year. If Oregon reached its first Rose Bowl and then completely fell off the map again, then Brooks' tenure would have meant nothing.
There were certainly ups and downs during Bellotti's time as head man, but he remains the all-time winningest coach and was a key cog in helping the Ducks get to where they are today.
Let's not forget that he was the one who hired Chip Kelly, too. And Bellotti was instrumental in building a relationship with Phil Knight and Nike, but let's not get into that just yet.
3. Hiring of Rich Brooks
While Chip Kelly and Mike Bellotti may have more significant wins on their resumes, Rich Brooks is the guy credited with the revival of Oregon football.
He took over in 1977 and led the team to back-to-back 2-9 records, which would get most coaches fired in today's quick-trigger landscape. But Oregon kept Brooks, and despite nearly a decade of mediocre-to-poor football, the Ducks never let go of the head coach, perhaps in part because of his winning ways against the Beavers.
But in 1989, Brooks and the Ducks finished 8-4 with a win in the Independence Bowl, and times began to change. He would help the Ducks to three more bowl appearances in the next five years, which culminated with a spot in the 1995 Rose Bowl.
Without the promotion of Bellotti, the Ducks may have had trouble reaching the college football mountaintop. If Oregon hadn't noticed Kelly, we don't know what would have happened these past six seasons.
But if Rich Brooks had never set foot in Eugene, those issues may have been irrelevant, because the Ducks might not even have had the foundation to build a program up. A foundation that Rich Brooks created, and one that gives his hiring the No. 3 spot on this list.
2. Conversation Between Bellotti and Knight Following 1996 Cotton Bowl Defeat
Rick Neuheisel is not a very well-liked man in Eugene. But it would be funny to hear his reaction if you told him that he was largely responsible for the rise of the Oregon football program.
You see, it was his Buffaloes that dominated the Oregon Ducks 38-6 in the 1996 Cotton Bowl. And it was his decision to fake a punt late in the game with his team way up on the scoreboard. And it was that loss that caused Mike Bellotti and company to look at the larger picture.
As detailed here, that larger picture meant Phil Knight and his money going toward a new practice facility, stadium expansion and a bold marketing strategy that put Oregon on the minds of every high school recruit.
When Bellotti, Knight and several others met following the loss, they discussed what it might take for Oregon to become great. Not just in football, but great across all athletics. Great, as in, what you see today.
The "O," the uniforms and all of the innovation can be traced back to Bellotti's meeting with Knight. Had Knight shied away from the program or Bellotti been unwilling to meet, the Ducks would have gone on a remarkably different path.
Instead, Oregon is a perennial title contender in football, basketball is on the rise, track and field just won its fifth consecutive league title for the men and the women, and both baseball and softball are Top 10 teams.
This is another moment that may have escaped fans at the time, but it proved to be a memorable one for anybody involved with Oregon athletics.
1. The Pick
Was there ever any doubt about the top spot?
While much has taken place off the field to help Oregon's ascension, it was a single play on the field that defines the Ducks' move to the top.
Everything about the pick is simply unbelievable.
The Huskies were driving late in a pivotal game during Oregon's run to the Rose Bowl, its first in 37 years. The score was 24-20 and UW was in position for the go-ahead touchdown. Ducks fans feared the worst, that Washington would do as it had always done and stomp on the Ducks' hopes.
But as Damon Huard dropped back to pass, he looked toward an open receiver on the left. Upon releasing the ball, cornerback Kenny Wheaton sprinted in front of the receiver and intercepted the ball, returning it all the way for a touchdown and helping to seal the Ducks' 31-20 win.
The call on the radio is infamous because of how excited Jerry Allen was, and as Wheaton reached the end zone, it was Allen who yelled out in a hoarse voice, "the most improbable finish to a football game!"
The Ducks had beaten their longtime rivals, and they went on to win the league and reach the Rose Bowl. It was truly the turning point for a program that had seen so many losses for far too long.
Until Oregon wins a national title (and one could argue maybe not even then), "The Pick" will be the most memorable moment in Oregon history.