Ducks Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

So Close!

Ducks lose national championship game in the last seconds.

As the clock wound down toward five minutes left in the national championship game, I made my way down toward the field from the sea of Ducks in the upper reaches of the stadium in Glendale, Arizona, where I had spent the entire game up to that point, yelling and screaming with the rest of the yellow-clad crew, doing all we could to offset the often coordinated and always deafening chants of the Auburn throng. I had media credentials that allowed me to be on the field in the final minutes of the game. I wanted to be there if the UO somehow managed to win, despite trailing by eight points for most of the second half, to see the celebratory faces, the hugs and backslaps, the tears of joy, the shouts of champions.

I tried to time my descent—down three levels from the upper deck to field level—to miss as little of the game as possible. Oregon failed on a third down with 5:36 to go and was set to punt when I left my seat. The elevator accessible to the press was agonizingly slow, so I took an escalator down the first two levels, checking video monitors along the way whenever I could. Oregon punted and Auburn got the ball at its twenty-nine-yard line.

From the first seating level, I was directed to a stairway to take me to the field. On first down, Auburn quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Cam Newton was stopped for a one-yard gain as the clock hit 5:00.

The stairway was a blank and hollow gray space, a sudden and jarring switch from the color and buzz of the stadium. I was halfway down when I heard an echoey roar that I later realized was the crowd’s response to UO senior linebacker Casey Matthews knocking the ball from Newton’s grasp and Oregon’s sparkplug sophomore Cliff Harris recovering the fumble.

Coming out of the stairwell, I could see the stadium’s artificial daylight past a line of a dozen or so mounted policemen, poised in the tunnel to take positions on the field when the championship had been decided.

I moved fast. When I got on the field—in the corner beneath the UO marching band, in front of the yellowest sections of the stadium, near the end zone toward which the Ducks were driving—officials were still sorting out the aftermath of Oregon’s fumble recovery. A personal foul penalty after the play moved the ball back to the UO forty-five-yard line. I was confused but thrilled to see that the UO had the ball with plenty of time left. The action was half a field away from me and I was jostling for a spot amid all the reporters and photographers and officials who clustered along the sidelines.

On first down, UO quarterback Darron Thomas completed a pass to senior receiver Jeff Maehl for ten yards and an Oregon first down on the Auburn forty-five-yard line. I cheered, then looked around to see if that was appropriate sideline behavior—I’d never been this close to the action in a college football game before. But I saw others in Oregon gear also yelling their support.

On the next play, the Ducks got lucky, when Thomas’s pass was almost intercepted by Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes—but wasn’t. On second down, Thomas ran for five yards, going out of bounds at the forty. On third-and-five, Thomas’s pass was just out of the reach of junior Lavasier Tuinei, who was open at the twenty-five. Fourth down. 4:18 to go. People around me had moved so I was now in the front line of those gathered on the sidelines, about the seven-yard line, the Ducks driving toward me.

Thomas’s fourth-down pass was caught at the thirty-eight-yard line by senior receiver D. J. Davis cutting across the middle and he broke free, running, for a second, right at me. He made it all the way to the eleven-yard line. Wow. This game that had been so distant just a few minutes before—big guys in distinct uniforms moving like game pieces on a slippery green background—was now surreally close. I could smell the grass-stained intensity, hear the heavy-breathing, feel the hard-hitting focus of these TV and newspaper names: twenty-two young men—kids, really—giving everything they had to this moment, carrying the hopes of thousands and thousands of people . . . playing a game.

* * *

I’ve been an Oregon sports fan since the late ’70s, before I had any other connection to the University. Going to football games back then was kind of a goof. Winning wasn’t much of a concern. We’d have a few drinks and go out and have a good time. No frenzy, no heartbreak. In those early days of the Rich Brooks era, we could usually count on the Beavers being worse, and that was enough. When my son (Corey, MBA ’01) was old enough to start going to games, we bought general admission season tickets and became loyal fans. In those days, Autzen was so empty, we could change our seats every quarter, moving from one end zone to the other, depending on which way the Ducks were going. We went to every game, staying to the end, no matter what. We took great pride in that. In 1987, the Beavers were particularly bad, and the Bill Musgrave–led Ducks were beginning to show signs of things to come. The UO led 44–0 late in the fourth quarter with temperatures diving into the teens. We watched the last several minutes from big-donor reserved seats on the fifty-yard line, among the few hundred people who hadn’t fled to warmer quarters.

I loved those days. And my attachment to the University had grown as I went back there to finish my degree in the mid-80s. And it was cool when the Ducks started winning regularly: the Independence Bowl, the Freedom Bowl, and the culmination of that surge with the Rose Bowl in 1995. My family went to Pasadena, had a wonderful time, and even dared to dream we could beat Penn State.

But the stakes were raised and have continued to be raised ever since. I had moved up to reserved season tickets. When Autzen was expanded, our seats became part of the Club section and priced beyond what we could afford. I was mad, but still got season tickets in a different section. And I had come to work at the University at Oregon Quarterly and, up close, became much more conscious of the cultural and financial gap between the academic and athletic sides of the University. It was a palpable irony that as cuts in state funding put the squeeze on UO academic programs, the athletic department was thriving and strutting its stuff. I didn’t like this new big-time attitude. But I still went to all the home football games and yelled my head off on defensive third downs.

* * *

On first down from the Auburn eleven-yard line, Thomas threw a short pass to senior tight end David Paulson, who ran right at our sideline, then turned toward the end zone, finally being tackled at the four. Before the next snap, Auburn’s brute of a defensive tackle, Nick Fairley, jumped off sides, moving the ball to the two-yard line. On second down, the UO’s Heisman finalist running back LaMichael James was stopped for no gain. Less than three minutes left. Twice before Oregon had been inside Auburn’s twenty-yard line and failed to score—once failing on a fourth-down try only a half-yard shy of the end zone. Oregon set up with James to Thomas’s left and three receivers split out farther that way. As the thirty-five-second play clock wound down, Thomas and the entire offense looked back toward the UO bench and then spread the word of whatever adjustment had been signaled in. James moved to the right side. Suddenly coach Chip Kelly came running down the sidelines, fervently signaling time out, sensing, it seems, some confusion on this critical play.

Thomas and James conferred, and Kelly moved on the field to meet them, giving James a gentle tap on his helmet. The Ducks huddled. The teams resumed their positions on the field, James once again to Thomas’s left. Everyone in the stadium was standing (as most had been for most of the game). Anticipation swirled like a spiraling sonic wave around the stadium. Thomas took the shotgun snap and darted to his right, pulling the defense with him, then flipped the ball to James, who cut inside him and between defenders and found a clear path to the end zone. The yellow stands above me exploded, the orange multitude stunned to sudden silence. Auburn 19, Oregon 17. Two minutes, thirty-three seconds to go.

For the extra point, the Ducks had to go for two, to try to tie the score with time running out. Oregon lined up, loaded heavily to the right side of the formation. Thomas and most of the offense sprinted in that direction, but Maehl curled back to the left and, free in the middle of the end zone, leaped to grab Thomas’s pass, thrown perfectly, even though all his momentum was taking him in the opposite direction. Tie score. Ducks fans go crazy. It’s “Kenny Wheaton’s going to score.” It’s Josh Frankel’s field goal against USC (for those of us who stuck around). It’s Keenan Howry’s punt return in the driving rain against the Beavs in 2001. It’s Jeremiah Masoli’s fourth-down run in the Civil War last year. But more than all of those.

I took a pause from my own celebration of this spectacular moment in Oregon sports to turn to see University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere, a few feet away, raise his arms in the touchdown signal, a gesture of triumph.

* * *

It had been a busy weekend for Lariviere and the rest of the University leadership who had travelled to Arizona. Early on a surprisingly chilly Sunday morning—the day before the game—Lariviere had led a team of University deans, administrators, students, alumni, and supporters to the Saint Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix—the nation’s oldest food bank—where they joined with a contingent from Auburn to pack boxes that contained 250,000 meals for families in need. The joint service project had been initiated by the UO’s Holden Leadership Center, but Auburn supporters embraced it enthusiastically. There was a hint of the positioning of rivals preparing to do battle: I overheard one Auburn fan say, “If I hear one more Oregon guy say ‘Roll, Tide’ [the slogan of Auburn’s archrival, the University of Alabama], I’m going to kick his ass.” But Lariviere reminded the assembled group that though the competition would heat up the following day, this was a time for cooperation. And Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, who had come with the UO contingent, helped put things in proper perspective by asking for a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Tucson at the community event put on by Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which had happened the day before and just 100 miles away. For many of us, news of the Tucson shootings was the first thing that popped up on our cell phones when we turned them on after our flights to Arizona. Moments of silence and other reminders of that tragedy hung over the weekend as a kind of constant reality check.

After putting in some time on the packing lines, the UO leadership team was hustled off to a Celebrating Champions brunch at a hotel in north Scottsdale, twenty-four miles away, where achievements of all UO academic programs were highlighted, to share the glowing spotlight of the football team’s accomplishments. In the afternoon, they were shuttled to an admissions event in central Scottsdale at the site of a pep rally, where they had to snake their way through an already dense crowd more than an hour before the UO rally was to begin. Auburn’s rally had been held at the same location, two hours earlier. At the UO admissions reception, Lariviere and deans from almost every UO program chatted one-on-one with seventy-five potential future Ducks from nine different states, competing with the driving deep bass music coming from the PA on the pep rally stage, right next door.

I attended both the Auburn and the UO pep rallies. Auburn people were perfectly friendly. They had learned to respond to a UO supporter’s “Roll, Tide” with a smiling “Go Beavs.” (And “War Eagle,” but I don’t even want to get into that). No asses were being kicked. The rallies demonstrated the differences between the cultures of the two schools. Auburn’s was what I would imagine a traditional football pep rally would be. Lots of chants and cheers that everybody seemed to know. Football highlights. Rah-rah kind of stuff. Oregon’s was, well, a lot more fun: Sebastian Bach, suddenly a Duck icon after performing a “power ballad” for the UO on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon just a few nights earlier; Supwitchugirl, who went from being outlaws to UO headliners when their “I Love My Ducks” video went viral last year; sudden national television stars, the UO a cappella group On the Rocks; and Otis Day and the Knights, from Animal House, a movie some past UO administrations have tried to disassociate the University from; and Chip Kelly telling jokes: “If you believe in karma . . . we are playing in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and your head coach is named Chip.” The crowd roared.

I watched most of the UO pep rally from a five-level Nordstrom parking structure looking down on it. Even there, the crowd was overwhelming, four or more deep all along the top level, people straining to see the entertainment, reacting with the same exuberance as the packed-tight Ducks filling the grounds across the way. Official estimates, I understand, put the crowds at both rallies at 30,000. But I swear the Oregon crowd felt bigger.

Game day was loaded with pregame parties from the posh hotels in Scottsdale to the sprawling parking lots surrounding the stadium in Glendale, thirty-two miles away. I ran into Lariviere at the UO Alumni Association tailgate party, about two hours before kickoff. “It’s a great day,” he said.

* * *

And it was a great day. After the Ducks tied the score with just over two minutes to go, Cam Newton and the Auburn offense charged down the field. As exhilarating as the Oregon drive had been, Auburn’s answer was stunningly deflating. With the action moving away from me now, Auburn got fifteen yards on a first-down pass. Then freshman running back Michael Dyer seemed to be stopped after a modest gain . . . and then he wasn’t, and suddenly Auburn was at the other end of the field, already in position for a game-winning field goal.

After Auburn’s kick went through the uprights and the clock ran out and confetti rained down on the stadium and Auburn players raced around in celebration, I watched the Oregon players leave the field, dejected and silent. Some tears muddied the eye-black some wore, but there was a remarkable strength in these strained, strikingly young faces, more evidence that they had given everything they had on a bigger stage than most of us can even imagine.

UO leadership was committed to making the University’s time on that stage about more than football. At every opportunity—from the Celebrating Champions website (champions.uoregon.edu) to all the events surrounding the bowl game to the Eugene parade (also called Celebrating Champions) in late January—Lariviere and others talked about the national champion debate team, the gospel choir that won a national contest, National Medal of Science winner Michael Posner, Josh Lupton, a Clark Honors College senior recently named a Marshall Scholar, and other bragging points for the UO besides its Pac-10 champion football team.

It’s a tough sell. Larivere makes clear the distinction between the core academic mission of the University and the entertainment provided by big-time college football. But many die-hard UO football fans frankly don’t care about the academic mission; many academics and those who support them still resent the resources and attention that go to this “entertainment” side of the University.

After his team’s victory, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said, “Football in the southeast is king. It is a way of life.” As others, like Eugene Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch ’76, have said, football is not life here in Oregon—and may it always be so. But it is—despite what some critics may say—an intrinsic part of what the University of Oregon is. In five obituaries in this issue, mention is made of how much the deceased loved their Ducks, and, sorry folks, they’re not talking about our Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners.

At the festivities after the parade on January 22, Lariviere said that as much as he admired the football team’s creative offense, he was most proud because it was a great reflection of the University’s values: “Innovative. Irreverent. Stubborn. Scrappy. Work hard and play hard. We have an attitude that exceeds our size.”

The UO is trying, I am convinced, to have a championship level, self-supporting athletic program that complements the educational mission of the University, and the values that Larivere described. That’s not easy and it’s not always apparent. I still recoil at what seem like excesses on the athletic side. The debate about the proper place of athletics at an institution like the UO is important, and the critics should be heard and heeded. But we can love our Ducks and the UO’s educational mission and keep that irreverent and scrappy Oregon spirit. But getting and keeping the right balance among those things is a challenge just as steep—and ultimately more important—than getting back to the national championship game next year.

But there was something truly special about this team, this year.

At the pep rally the day before the national championship game, Coach Kelly did not talk about victory. But, he promised the swarm of Ducks fans, his team “will make you proud.”

And, man, did they.

Guy Maynard ’84 is editor of Oregon Quarterly.