Once upon a time … in Eugene, the University of Oregon was known as “Track Town.” It still is in that tight circles of runners and jumpers and throwers at the elite levels of track and field.
My alma mater has hosted several national championship track meets and Olympic Trials and has a roster of national and Olympic heroes deeper than any other college.
There’s Alberto Salazar, Mac Wilkins, Steve Prefontaine (who had two movies made about his life), and the amazing present-day couple Ashton Eaton, who has won the last two Olympic gold medals in the decathlon, and his wife Brianne Theisen-Eaton, a bronze medalist in the 2016 Heptathlon. In the 1970s Oregon tracksters had run more sub four-minute miles in competition than the rest of the running world combined.
Of course Track Town all started with legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who years ago was talked into starting an athletic shoe company, Nike, with one of his favorite mile-running pupils, Phil Knight.
If it’s now not sacrilegious to consider the Ducks to be a football school as much as a track school, the lion’s share of the credit goes back to that venerable old miler Knight. Over the last half century, Phil managed to build Nike into a world power not only in sports, but in marketing as well. The Nike swoosh is probably the most identifiable company symbol in the world. You see it on billboards in China. Aborigines in the jungles of New Guinea recognize it.
Although the company was birthed with an ugly waffle-soled running shoe, Nike quickly grew into a dynamic corporate sponsor in all levels of sport. It was shortly after the company formed an agreement with the NFL’s Denver Broncos to provide their uniforms in the mid-to-late-1990s that the team won back-to-back Super Bowls.
Nike was then not only deemed to be cool, but a winner. It didn’t hurt that Michael Jordan was all Nike all the time.
The Oregon football team in the ‘90s had progressed from decades of mediocrity to having regular winning seasons and the occasional Rose Bowl appearance under head coaches Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti. Phil Knight and his creative marketers and designers didn’t see any reason that the same magic dust that had inspired the Broncos and the Chicago Bulls couldn’t be sprinkled over Oregon football.
Thus began the era of colorful, stylish, occasionally outlandish youth-oriented football uniforms for the team. It was a vast improvement over the muddy green and yellow jerseys that looked like so much recycled guacamole.
It was around that same time that the UO logo of years past, often confused with that of the far more successful Oklahoma Sooners, was redesigned into the present-day O. The simple but identifiable symbol clearly resembled the shape of the Hayward Field track that had brought so much glory to the school.
Fanatical and occasionally lubricated fans now flash the O with their thumbs and forefingers whenever a TV camera gets within range of them. It’s almost as identifiable a hand signal as Hook ‘Em Horns in Texas or the tasteless Tomahawk Chop at Florida State. It probably doesn’t hurt that the team mascot, an inflated Donald Duck, has amassed his own cult following.
When faithful alum and volunteer athletic director Pat Kilkenny lured offensive wizard Chip Kelly to Oregon 15 years ago to run an offense for Coach Bellotti, Oregon football quickly became must-see TV. Kelly ascended to the head coach’s role in 2009 and over the next four years won 46 games and lost only 7. The team averaged nearly 50 points a game, won a Rose Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl, and lost the national championship game in overtime.
More than half their touchdown drives lasted under two minutes. Their backs and receivers darted downfield like runaway Beta particles.
Since Kelly left for a checkered NFL coaching career, the team has made one other national championship game and crowned a Heisman Trophy winner in Marcus Mariota. The Ducks’ current quarterback, Justin Herbert, is a straight-A student who returned for his senior season although he was slated to go as an early pick in the most recent NFL draft. Many analysts consider him a strong contender for the his own Heisman if he can avoid injury.
In my time at Oregon, as mentioned, it was inconceivable to me and my friends that football at our university would ever be mentioned in the same breath as track and field. Yet it’s even more remarkable that one man, Phil Knight, would pilot the ascendency of both programs.
Sports Illustrated recently ranked the Ducks ninth in the country in the magazine’s first preseason college football poll. A week from Saturday Oregon takes on Auburn in the season opener. The Tigers beat us for the national championship in 2011. That wound still stings. Auburn just happens to be my wife Carol’s alma mater.
It will be unusually quiet in our house until Labor Day.