Ranking the Top 5 Oregon Football Players of All Time
With Oregon football season approaching, Marcus Mariota could join a conversation that includes Joey Harrington and LaMichael James as one of the best Ducks ever.
The Oregon Ducks have recently become one of the most celebrated teams in college football. But according to Andrew Greif from The Oregonian, a major theme for the team from their 2014 media day on August 4 was that last year’s 11-2 record simply “isn't good enough.”
With an already impressive career at Oregon, potential success in the inaugural College Football Playoff could cement Mariota’s legend as one of the greatest to ever play for the Ducks.
Now (I've decided on your behalf) would be a good time to refresh on some of the other greats whom Mariota would be joining. For argument’s sake, I decided to limit my list to only the top five players—don’t worry, there will be a few honorable mentions as well—to wear an Oregon uniform. Active players like Mariota do not count.
Some of the players, though, played for the Ducks before Nike had much to do with aforementioned uniforms. This is not just to avoid nearsightedness, but also to account for different eras, coaches and systems for the team. Just because someone played for the Ducks in 1978 when the team was 1-10 shouldn’t disqualify a phenomenal player from contention.
Imagine, for example, what Chip Kelly could have done with some of the stars from previous decades. Instead, my criteria looked for a variety of traits: intangibles and athleticism, stardom and success as well as swagger.
Most importantly, however, I hoped to find the players who had the greatest overall impact on the program. Beyond stats, I included the players who would be remembered at Oregon forever—both because of their performance and because of their lasting legacy.
Selections are based on play at Oregon, and not in the NFL. I did notice, however, that many of Oregon’s top performers did come in recent years.
Note: This list is imperfect. No amount of research could give me the “correct” answer, because there is no such thing as the right answer. I have my biases, considering when I attended the UO.
If and when you do decide to comment, I’d love to hear what you think a more appropriate top five may have looked like.
Darron Thomas: First all-time in TD passes (66); led UO to undefeated regular season in 2010; won Rose Bowl in 2011
John Beckett: Played halfback and defensive tackle; captain of 1917 Rose Bowl-winning squad
Dan Fouts: Established 19 school records, including passing yards (5,995) and total offense (5,871)
Patrick Chung: Started more consecutive games (51) on defense than anyone in UO history
Kenjon Barner: Set record for rushing yards in one game (321) with 5 touchdowns vs. USC
George Shaw: First two-sport All-American; established single-season passing record in 1954
Danny O'Neil: Led Ducks to first Rose Bowl in 36 years in 1994; named co-Rose Bowl MVP despite loss
Norm Van Brocklin: First All-American quarterback for UO; 9-2 record in 1948 is one of UO's best
Kellen Clemens: Ranked No. 3 in passing yards (7,555) and No. 4 in touchdowns (61) for UO
Haloti Ngata: First major recruit in the modern era for Oregon Ducks
Akili Smith: Set single-season record for passing yards in a season (3,763) in 1998
Samie Parker: All-time leader in receiving yards (2,761) for UO
Jonathan Stewart: Combination of speed and size made him one of the most coveted UO recruits ever
Reuben Droughns: Ran for 172 yards and a TD vs. UCLA, despite fracturing his tibula
Jairus Byrd: No. 2 overall for UO in career interceptions (17) despite forgoing senior season
Honorable Mention: Gary Zimmerman (1980-83)
Offensive line is just one of those things that people can forget to talk about. Yet Gary Zimmerman is considered to be one of the most talented offensive linemen to ever play for Oregon.
But Zimmerman, who was a remarkable asset to a team that only won a combined four games in his sophomore and junior seasons, always took pride in his university. “There’s nothing to be gained by individualism,” Zimmerman once said, according to GoDucks.com.
He was inducted into the University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and even made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008—recalling in his speech that Oregon’s offensive line coach Neil Zoumboukos would “shoot him in the rear” with a pistol if he was out of position.
Lack of overall team success and individual accolades prevent him from a spot in the top five, but Zimmerman is more than worthy of a mention.
Honorable Mention: Derek Loville (1986-89)
For a school known for its running backs, few are superior to Oregon’s four-year starter and San Francisco native Derek Loville.
Oregon’s victory at the 1989 Independence Bowl during his senior season marked the program’s most successful season (8-4) since 1963 (8-3), and his leadership played a significant role in this achievement.
His 3,296 yards rushing was the best of all time for the Oregon Ducks until LaMichael James broke his record. And Loville's 41 rushing touchdowns are still good enough for second best all time (tied with Kenjon Barner) at Oregon, which also ranks No. 11 in the Pac-12.
He had a then-best 11 games with more than 100 rushing yards and was a phenomenal counterpart to quarterback Bill Musgrave. Loville was long considered the best back in Oregon history before James and Barner came along.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Wheaton (1994-96)
Wheaton is often included in these conversations because of “The Pick” vs. Washington, which is now regarded as perhaps the greatest moment in Oregon football history.
But fewer remember that Wheaton was also a three-time All-American. In addition to leading the team in interceptions all three seasons he played for the Ducks, he led the team in tackles as a cornerback in 1996. Wheaton was just the second player (first was Norm Van Brocklin) to leave the program early to begin his NFL career.
Talk around the schoolyard, however, goes something like this: Due to the successful play of the 1994 (9-4, Rose Bowl loss) and 1995 (9-3, Cotton Bowl loss) teams, Phil Knight developed his interest in helping his alma matter maintain their national relevancy. This, as the legend goes, is when Nike began to establish their relationship with the program.
Wheaton, of course, was the most iconic player of the era for the Ducks and just barely missed being named in the top five.
Honorable Mention: Dennis Dixon (2004-07)
The curious case of Dennis Dixon leaves the multipurpose quarterback at No. 1 overall in a previous Bleacher Report list of ”50 Top Players in School History” but completely excluded from "Top Ten Greatest Oregon Ducks" by Athlon Sports.
Figuring out his enigma stems from Oregon’s biggest tragedy: when Dennis Dixon was shut down by injury during his senior campaign in 2007. That season, he was named starting quarterback by head coach Mike Bellotti. He led a team that was unranked at the beginning of the season to victories vs. Michigan on the road, as well as wins over ranked opponents (No. 9 USC, No. 6 Arizona State) at home.
For their subsequent game against Arizona, Oregon was ranked No. 2 in the country and Dixon was considered to be a Heisman favorite. After leaving the game with a buckled left knee, it was revealed that he had reportedly torn his ACL vs. Arizona State before being cleared to play just two weeks later.
The aggravation he suffered to the injury required surgery, and he missed the remainder of the season.
Oregon was 8-1 with Dixon starting, but in his absence, the team lost three straight to end the season. He finished the year with 20 touchdowns and 2,136 yards throwing as well as 9 rushing touchdowns and 583 yards on the ground in limited action. If not for 12 snaps in 2004, Dixon could have returned to UO for 2008.
Dixon, certainly, could have been in the top few had he remained healthy for his entire senior season. Perhaps another factor for his sudden success in 2007: the arrival of a new offensive coordinator by the name of Chip Kelly.
No. 5 Bobby Moore/Ahmad Rashad (1969-71)
When Booby Moore (now known as Ahamad Rashad) played in Eugene, Ore., he was considered to be "the greatest” to ever play for the Ducks.
Rashad, who began his career as a wide receiver before converting to running back, established the record for most rushing yards in a game (249) and in a single season (1,211) for the Ducks, while also leading the conference for two consecutive years. From 1969-71, the Portland native also set records for rushing yards (2,306), passes caught (131) and points scored (226) that stood for 18 years in Oregon. He led the conference in receiving in 1969, as well as rushing in 1971.
According to Athlon Sports, Rashad broke (at least) 14 records while playing at the University of Oregon.
Despite just two years playing running back for the Oregon Ducks, Rashad still ranks in the top 10 in career rushing yards—ahead of names like De’Anthony Thomas, Reuben Droughns and LeGarrette Blount.
The All-American running back was named to the University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992 as well as the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. He later became a sportscaster for NBC and ABC and hosted NBA Access with Ahmad Rashad on ABC.
While individual accolades make him a member of my top five, Rashad never led the Ducks to a bowl game and didn’t have the same pedigree as players named ahead.
No. 4 Mel Renfro (1961-63)
You want to talk about setting a legend for yourself at Oregon? Look no further than Mel Renfro.
The two-sport athlete quickly became the poster child for the University of Oregon, playing both offense and defense for the football team as well as being a star for the track and field program. In 1962, Renfro helped set a world record in the 440-yard relay while leading the team to its first ever NCAA outdoor track championship.
That year, he became Oregon’s second two-sport All-American while rushing for 1,540 yards in his career as well as finishing second in high hurdles and placing third in the long jump at the NCAA Championships.
You thought De’Anthony Thomas was electrifying on the football field? In one of Renfro’s first football games for Oregon, he scored four touchdowns while only touching the ball five times. Renfro also had a touchdown run that exceeded 80 yards as well as one kickoff return touchdown in the same game.
At another game at Rice University in Houston, Renfro reportedly received a “loud and appreciative” ovation from a crowd at an otherwise whites-only facility. When one local Texas sportswriter was asked if he had seen such a reaction before, he reportedly responded by saying: “We've never seen any player that good!”
The 1963 (8-3 under head coach Len Casanova) Oregon Ducks team led by Renfro went on to win the Sun Bowl. It was the last time the Ducks would appear in a bowl game until 1989.
Renfro was an All-American in track and football, he was selected to the College Hall of Fame and he is one of six Oregon Ducks in the NFL Hall of Fame. In 1981, Renfro became the fifth player to be included in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor. He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992.
With a few more people spreading his legend these days, Renfro could easily be considered one of the best ever.
No. 3 Bill Musgrave (1987-90)
What Bill Musgrave may have lacked in flash he certainly made up for in intelligence while playing at the UO.
Known more for consistently moving the chains than making the highlight reel, Musgrave was able to help transform Oregon into a bowl champion for the first time in 26 years. In the process, he put up some ridiculous numbers as well. You want to hear some absurd stats? In his four-year career, Musgrave threw for 8,343 yards (first all time for Oregon), 634 completions (2nd all time), and 60 touchdowns (third all time).
The three-year captain was just the second player in Pac-10 history (first: John Elway) to throw for 8,000 yards and 60 touchdowns.
“For his impact on the program in all the years to come ... Musgrave is a must,” said Kurt Liedtke, named “The Official Unofficial Oregon Football Historian” by Yahoo! Sports. “Musgrave is the starting point of modern Oregon.”
In the six years before Musgrave joined the program, the Ducks had finished above .500 just once. In his freshman year in 1987, however, Oregon had climbed to No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25—which was Oregon’s highest ranking since 1970.
Oregon was 25-10 in games that Musgrave started and finished; his 57.4 completion percentage was also the best of all time for the Ducks.
In his junior year in 1989, with an 8-4 record, the Ducks became champions of the Independence Bowl. It was their first bowl appearance in 26 years, the first time they had won a bowl game since the 1963 Sun Bowl and only their third bowl victory ever.
Oregon has been to 20 bowl games since then (including nine victories) and have missed postseason play only four times since Musgrave was quarterback.
Musgrave was named GTE Academic All-American of the Year, received a Scholar-Athlete Award by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame and was inducted into the University of Oregon Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000. He received the Leo Harris Award for “continued service and leadership to the university” in 2012.
Arguably, neither of the subsequent players would have had the opportunity to have any of their successes at Oregon had it not been for Musgrave. Though his accomplishments were instrumental to future Ducks, they did not have the same pedigree as where Oregon has now recently ended up.
No. 2 LaMichael James (2009-11)
When it comes to overall dominance and impact on the program, I don’t think anyone can touch LaMichael James.
James currently holds the record for most rushing yards in University of Oregon history (5,082 yards), and it isn’t even close. The person who is behind him (1,459 yards behind him, mind you) was his backup, Kenjon Barner, whom he shared carries with for the majority of his career at Oregon. James' 53 touchdowns are also a school record (12 ahead of Barner). He is Oregon’s all-time leader (5,869) in all-purpose yards.
James won the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s best running back in 2010 and was a Heisman Trophy Finalist. He became a Walter Camp All-American two years (2010-11) in a row and was the first two-time consensus All-American in program history.
In 2010, James helped the Ducks finish the regular season with an undefeated record and their first appearance in the BCS Championship Game. It was the first time that the Ducks received a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll. That season, James led the NCAA in overall rushing yards with 1,731 (Oregon single-season record) and also set an Oregon record with 24 touchdowns.
During his final season in 2011, he averaged a career-best 7.31 yards per carry and led the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl victory since 1917. It was his second career appearance in the Rose Bowl, and he rushed for 159 yards on 25 attempts.
I was at the 2011 Rose Bowl Victory, so maybe I'm biased. But I heard Oregon fans from across the world chant “LaMichael James!” after the game. It was one of the purest moments I’d ever seen in sports, and something that myself (and countless other Oregon fans) will never forget.
He'd be No. 1 if it weren't for the repeated successes of another Oregon legend. Time will tell how James will be remembered: as a product of Chip Kelly, or as a pivotal instrument to Oregon's success.
No. 1 Joey Harrington (1998-01)
This Portland native seemed to always be destined for greatness at the University of Oregon.
Shortly after Harrington was born, Oregon Ducks coach Len Casanova sent him a “letter of intent” to play football because his father played quarterback for Oregon from 1967 to 1969. Casanova’s early intuition proved to be correct. Harrington became a legend for Oregon. With a 25-3 record, he is now considered to be one of the best to ever play at Oregon.
His 512 completions and 6,911 yards both make the top five in Oregon football history. With a victory in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, the Ducks reached 11 wins for the first time ever. Oregon's season-ending No. 2 ranking was the highest Oregon had ever been ranked.
In 2001, “Captain Comeback” led the Pac-10 in completion percentage (58.8), passing touchdowns (27) and was second in passing yards with 2,764. That season, Harrington became Oregon’s first Heisman finalist (finished fourth), which included a campaign highlighted by a “Joey Heisman” billboard in New York City.
Despite the disappointing Heisman finish, Harrington was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. He was also the first player in conference history to lead his team to three straight bowl victories. Harrington was selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft and made the cover of EA Sports' NCAA Football 2003 video game.
It’s noteworthy to mention, however, that Harrington recently said current Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota will become “the greatest quarterback to ever play at Oregon.”
Many consider Harrington to be the best to ever play at the University of Oregon, and with good reason. What, then, would it take for Marcus Mariota to somehow surpass Harrington next season?