Bob Baum

Bob Baum

The Pac-12 will soon be playing football again, although under strange circumstances forced by the pandemic.

And the Oregon Ducks are one of the favorites to win the league title, as they have been most seasons. They are perhaps the top program in the Pac-12.

But it wasn’t always so.

Oregon did not suddenly burst onto the national scene. It was a slow, long slog for the Webfoots.

And I was there.

Growing up in Union, my earliest memory of Duck football was when, at age 12, I watched on a black-and-white TV as Oregon (without their star running back/defensive back Mel Renfro) beat SMU 21-14 in the 1963 Sun Bowl, coach Len Casanova’s only bowl victory.

It would be 26 years before Oregon appeared in another bowl game. Even when the Ducks had a decent season, which was rare, there was no bowl game because the conference (first AAWU, then the Pac-8) allowed only the conference champion to appear in the postseason.

Oregon was in its final year as an independent in that Sun Bowl win.

I was there for 16 of those years, two as an Oregon student and 14 as Oregon sports editor for The Associated Press.

I received a degree in journalism (I’d say I earned it but that’s a matter of some dispute) from Oregon in 1973. Dan Fouts was in my class. Ahmad Rashad (then known as Bobby Moore) was a year ahead. Even with those two players, the Ducks struggled.

The Pac-8 rescinded its champion-only rule in 1975, but still the Ducks stayed home. The drought finally ended in 1989, when Oregon bought its way into the Independence Bowl.

Athletic director Bill Byrne, seeing a chance to finally shed the program’s bowl-less image, authorized purchasing what he said was 10,000 to 11,000 tickets to the game against Tulsa.

I hitched a ride to Shreveport, Louisiana, with a plane-load of boosters. I drove from Portland to the Eugene airport, but the fog was too thick to fly so we boarded a bus back to Portland. It was a long day.

The evening of the game was frigid. A numbing breeze blew into the press box, as cold as I’ve been at a sports event.

Oh, and quarterback Bill Musgrave led the Ducks to victory.

On the trip home, I may have been the only sober passenger. These long-suffering boosters were almost delirious with their joy. So what if it was a lower-tier bowl game? It had been a long time.

Oregon made it to the Freedom Bowl in 1990, but the real breakthrough came unexpectedly in 1994.

Rich Brooks was in his 18th season as coach and he sensed his time at Oregon was nearing an end. It was a suspicion that grew when the Ducks started 0-2. They lost at Hawaii and, after a home loss to Utah, were booed by their home crowd in a half-empty Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks, unexpectedly, won seven of their next eight to earn their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 37 years. Oregon lost to No. 1-ranked Penn State 38-20.

I spent a wonderful week covering the team ahead of the game, darting across greater Los Angeles, including staffing the meeting of the Oregon Duck and his distant relative Donald at Disneyland.

But, suddenly, the Ducks were no joke.

Brooks left for the NFL, and the Ducks named their field after him. Mike Bellotti moved up from offensive coordinator and promptly got Oregon to the Cotton Bowl.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been treated as well as I was when I covered the team in Dallas. A buffet always available in a ballroom. There was a party where you could ride a bull (which sadly looked a bit drugged up). A young girl sang. It was LeAnn Rimes before her breakthrough national success.

Oregon was on its way.

Bellotti had some big seasons in his 14 years as coach. Then, just as Bellotti once did, Chip Kelly moved up from offensive coordinator and nearly won an NCAA championship.

The money keeps coming from Phil Knight. The wins keep piling up. The Ducks have gone to a bowl game in 21 of the last 23 seasons.

So different than those long-ago days of mediocrity or worse.

Bob Baum, who grew up in Union, retired in 2019 after 43 years with The Associated Press, the first 23 in Portland and the last 20 as a senior sports writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He lives and his wife Leah live in Island City with their four cats and two dogs.

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