DALLAS — When Gary Campbell asks a Texas boy who has never known life outside state lines to move an hour and a half from the Pacific Ocean, he knows the weight of the question.
He faced it himself as an 18-year-old in Ennis, Texas in 1969. Back then, he attended a mostly white high school and became the first black player from his town to play for a Division I program, rather than attend a historically black university.
The segregation and overt racism that helped push Campbell to a four-year career at UCLA–his college decision came a little more than a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination–isn’t a factor in teenagers’ decisions to leave Texas anymore, but for many, it’s still a decision with plenty of gravity, much of it pulling talent to stay in the Lone Star State.
"Being from Texas, you usually only think about being in the state of Texas and staying close to home," linebacker Torrodney Prevot, a four-star prospect in the 2013 class from Houston, told Fox Sports Southwest this week. "I had to go away and just be different."
Prevot was one of the highest-profile signees in a growing trend: Oregon’s ability to pull top-shelf talent from the state of Texas. Back in 1986, Campbell implored then-Oregon coach Rich Brooks to mine the talent back in his home state. The Ducks tried, and failed.
That changed when Phil Knight began pumping money into Oregon’s facilities, which bred more success and prestige, which later translated to the recruiting trail. A long drought without a top-flight Texan signee–two-star prospects with few offers in the state don’t count–ended in 2008 when LaMichael James and Darron Thomas both agreed to leave the state and become Ducks.
By 2010, Thomas and James teamed up to carry Oregon to a national title appearance and undefeated regular season. Four years later, the Ducks are back in the state to play on the sport’s most prestigious stage on Monday night for the win that eluded them in the desert four years earlier.
"Texas is big for us. Football is big here. You want to recruit kids from that type of atmosphere, where football is important," Campbell said. "A lot of places you go, they’re good players, but they’re not all about football. And Texas football is a religion. You want to get that kind of guy. The kind of guy who really loves the game."
Considering the time and travel resources necessary for Oregon coaches to recruit the state, coach Mark Helfrich’s staff can’t waste time. Their first question is more complex than it seems on the surface, but necessary: Are you going to be comfortable leaving everything you’ve known for something completely different?
"Some kids will say, ‘Ah, I’m OK with it.’ I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear, ‘Coach, I want to go to the best place for me,’" Campbell said. "Those guys I want to recruit. That’s the big thing for me."
The Ducks rise in the past decade gives them something no Oregon team has had before: Nationwide name recognition.
"Oregon was one of my top five schools before they even started talking to me," said receiver Chance Allen, a three-star prospect who spurned offers from Oklahoma State and Mississippi State to follow his best friend, four-star prospect Bralon Addison, to Oregon. "What kid doesn’t want to wear that O?"
The Ducks have positioned themselves as the game’s most fashionable brand, in part by becoming synonymous with the Nike brand Phil Knight founded. And if a kid like Allen loves Nike, which he did, he’ll probably at least like Oregon.
Allen had heard of Thomas and James, but counts Josh Huff, who signed with Oregon as a four-star prospect in 2010, as a mentor. In 2013, Huff broke the school record for receiving yards and helped players like Addison and Allen learn the intricacies of playing the position in Oregon’s system.
The relationship only grew during Allen’s recruitment and short time sharing a campus with Huff, who was drafted in the third round last year.
Thanks to Oregon’s increased profile, Campbell is being modest when he talks about "little" interest from players when the Ducks make initial contact. Allen told his high school coach to stop messing with him when he first told Allen Oregon had called the school’s field house when Allen was in the weight room.
A decade ago, the more common response might have been "Who and where is Oregon?"
Those opportunities come at Oregon, along with an opportunity to win, which was a big draw for Allen. The Ducks have lost just seven games since the end of the 2009 season.
Prevot met his teammates at the facility at 5 a.m. during fall camp and got on a bus. No one knew where they were going, but when they stepped out, they found themselves as the base of Mount Pisgah, prepping for a hike to the summit.
He’s also made five trips to California since arriving in Eugene.
The stigma still remains. In 1969, Campbell met cock-eyed stares and constant questions about why he’d ever leave Texas after he announced his intentions. Prevot’s mother broke into tears after he slipped on an Oregon hat at his signing day announcement.
Oregon’s recruiting success in the state has most often come at the expense of programs like Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Modest sanctions in the wake of the Willie Lyles recruiting scandal haven’t outweighed the success on the field that came because of talents like James, Thomas and Huff.