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The Year of the Duck.

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

AT THE UNIVERSITY of Oregon, basketball season ended deep into March, and spring football drills began the very next week, and both were big stories.

We'd be remiss, and even spoiled, if we didn't appreciate how historically important that is for Oregon. If we didn't recognize that the 2001-02 school year is the Year of the Duck:

A Pac-10 Conference championship in football and a victory over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day, and a record of 11-1 and a final ranking of No. 2 in the nation.

A Pac-10 championship in men's basketball, and a run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, and a final record of 26-9 and a tie for No. 6 in the final coaches' poll.

A championship trophy for the Oregon women's basketball team in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, and a 22-win season in a year of transition, and 10 wins in the last 12 games to close out the college coaching debut of former Oregon star Bev Smith.

The best year in the history of Oregon sports? In the marquee sports, in fact it really is.

Furthermore, the only years that really come close have occurred within the past decade. There might be some more history needed before we can decree that this magnificent year is simply part of a trend, but it wasn't a statistical aberration, either.

Browse through the history books and you are struck by how special this success was.

Keep in mind that that until 1989, Oregon played in only six bowl games. Until 1995, the men's basketball team had reached the NCAA Tournament only four times, plus three straight NIT berths in the mid-1970s when that was still a relatively exclusive field. Until 1973, the Ducks didn't have women's basketball.

For years, Oregon's most nationally prominent sport was men's track and field, and two of coach Bill Bowerman's four national championships came in years the Ducks were also strong in football. In 1963 the UO football team went 8-3 and won the Sun Bowl, and the following spring Bowerman won his second national title; the next school year the Ducks were 7-2-1 in football, and repeated as national track and field champions.

But men's basketball was only 14-12 in the 1963-64 season, and 9-17 the season after.

UNTIL THIS SCHOOL year, two years that stood out for Oregon as exceptional were relatively recent.

In 1994-95, the Ducks won the Pac-10 football title and went to the Rose Bowl under coach Rich Brooks, Jerry Green took the men's basketball team to a 19-9 mark that included a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1961, and Jody Runge took the women's team to 18-10 and the second of eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

In 1999-2000, coach Mike Bellotti's football team won the Sun Bowl, the first of three straight bowl victories. Ernie Kent took Oregon men's basketball to 22-8 and the NCAA Tournament; Runge's women's team won its second straight Pac-10 title in a 23-8 season that also reached the NCAA tourney.

For Oregon athletics, those were great years (though the since-mended rift with benefactor Phil Knight two years ago cast a pall over 2000). This has been the greatest year.

Some trends have helped Oregon. The 85-player scholarship limit in football has given more schools a chance to win. Underclassmen leaving for the NBA brought some Pac-10 men's basketball powers, primarily Arizona this season, back toward Oregon.

Yet those same realities are there for all the schools that now want to be like Oregon, and there's more to the Ducks' success: Investment in facilities; unprecedented financial support, by Knight and other donors; innovative thinking and a willingness to take some risks.

In the end, so much comes down to people.

To special athletes, such as quarterback Joey Harrington and point guard Luke Ridnour, who would have been stars anywhere. And to coaches who must be measured against the best Oregon's ever had. Beyond securing Knight's return as a cornerstone donor, the best thing Bill Moos has done as UO athletic director is to not let Bellotti get hired away. The next best thing was to hire Ernie Kent.

And while Runge finally burned too many bridges, she was a bold and determined builder who turned an outdated program into a Pac-10 power; she was the right person at the right time, as Bev Smith is now.

In the Year of the Duck, Autzen Stadium is being expanded, and an intriguing potential downtown site for a new basketball arena has surfaced. And the first day of spring football drew a throng of spectators, and while the Moshofsky Center was ready in case of rain, the sun was shining brightly on the Ducks.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 7, 2002
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