As the 2015 Rose Bowl approaches, the defending national champions from Florida State return to the scene of their crowning moment nearly 12 months ago against Auburn. The team that stands in their way has been more than a decade in the making.
A perfect storm in the 21st century has made Oregon an annual national contender. This allowed the Ducks to go from an afterthought most years to dominating the West Coast like an army of ants are tearing at Halloween candy in kids’ closets right now.
The blueprint is something that many programs can use — some have tried it and not yet succeeded with it. The biggest question is: What characteristic, more than anything else, has Oregon on the brink of a possible national championship, the first in school history? This would be a fabulous first, one that would complement Marcus Mariota winning the first Heisman Trophy in school history.
The main ingredient that has the Ducks on the brink is the work the program has done with Nike. It’s simple how to catch these same kids with the Halloween candy’s eyes today: really shiny and flashy things. When a team looks like a highlighter more weeks than not and projects a bold, anything-but-stagnant mindset, it catches people’s attention. Being in Eugene gives Oregon a clear advantage.
However, nearly every team in the country has tried alternate uniforms in primetime games. While Twitter creates a debate on whether they are ugly or flashy, that is exactly what these decision makers want. There is no such thing as bad publicity.
The difference between Oregon and other schools is that the Ducks have started the trend and stayed ahead of the curve from day one. Again, much of this is due to the Nike partnership.
While it is clear that uniforms catch a recruit’s eye to a considerable degree, there is another way to catch national attention. That can be done with really big things that are in your face… kind of like an 80-by-100-foot banner in Times Square displaying those flashy uniforms. Not only that, but Joey Harrington did his part in UO’s 2001 season, finishing fourth in the Heisman race. It was the second straight season with 10 or more wins for the Ducks, capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory. It’s easy to be bold, but a plan has to be backed up on the field.
This is something Mike Bellotti brought to the table.
After winning just 50 games in the entire 1980s under Rich Brooks, who patiently built the program and reached the Rose Bowl in the 1994 season, Oregon grew under Brooks’ successor. Bellotti had only one losing season in his 14 years, and only two years without a bowl. This included four 10-win seasons and three seasons when the Ducks finished in both the AP and Coaches’ Top 25 polls. These were the first four 10-win seasons in school history and put the Ducks on the map, as three of those came after the billboard went up.
The final component Bellotti brought, which was developed under his successor, Chip Kelly, was an exciting offense that scores a ton of points. When recruiting offensive skill position players, the ability to show that you are having fun and dominating on offense means everything. Being able to not only use imaginative play designs, but show how well they work, will attract top athletes from multiple corners of the country. This is even easier when you wear really flashy uniforms to match an electric offense.
Kelly not only continued the winning culture which had been established at Oregon — he improved it. He lost only seven games in four years, which also included four BCS bowl appearances and a 2010 visit to the national title game against Auburn. Mark Helfrich is continuing the same trend: He has gone 15-3 over the past two seasons and has the Ducks in the first College Football Playoff.
One quality which knits together Oregon’s last three head coaches since 1995 is stability. Each of the three acted as the offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching role. The school showed what it values and stayed in house to continue to build on what the previous head coach had done. Turnover is going to happen at any coaching job, but having the ability to create a line of succession from within and not lose a beat is quite a strong way to retain recruits and keep the snowball rolling downhill.
Where the players come from is the final aspect of this operation that leads to success at a high level. While Oregon has traditionally been strong in Texas and points west of the Lone Star State, the program’s recruiting popularity has now spread nationwide under Helfrich. When you have a shot at any recruit in the country, and continue to attract and then bring in four-star and five-star players like Taylor Swift brings in fellows to ‘sing’ about, the roster will remain elite. Oregon annually finishes in the top four when pursuing many of the top recruits in the nation.
While these various sources of success are all separate in some ways, they are also all intertwined, and that dynamic is what has created a monster in the Pacific Northwest. Helfrich is now the man in charge of keeping it rolling, and so far he has not shown any signs of lightening up. A national championship in the coming weeks will push this to new levels and make the Ducks even more dangerous, if that is possible.