Ducks poised on doorstep of greatness
By CRAIG MORGAN
Jan. 7, 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Mike Bellotti feels a mixture of pride and envy as the Oregon football team prepares for the BCS Championship Game against Auburn on Monday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
Pride because he played a major role in elevating the Ducks to national prominence. Envy because he walked away from that plum head coaching job two seasons before Oregon finally reached the biggest stage.
"Sure, I'm envious I'm not there," Bellotti said. "Oregon football is a big part of my identity, and you always dream of playing for a national championship.
"But I chose to walk away, and I'm very comfortable with that decision. I'm also comfortable with the people I helped put in place to carry on that tradition."
When former Oregon coach Rich Brooks hired Bellotti as his offensive coordinator in 1989, the Ducks hadn't been to a bowl game in 26 years. The program's facilities were lousy. The recruiting grounds were barren, and the team's resolve was shaken after a five-game losing streak to end the 1988 season.
"Confidence was lower than the proverbial bottom of the ocean," Bellotti said. "It was a shame, because my perception was they had a pretty talented team. They had just lost a lot of players to injuries and lost games because of it."
In Bellotti's first season in Eugene, the Ducks went 8-4 and beat Tulsa in the Independence Bowl, starting a chain of events that culminated with this 12-0 season and a dream matchup with the Tigers and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Now, with USC suffering through a downturn, Oregon's national profile as high as it's ever been and state-of-the-art facilities in place or in the works, the Ducks seemingly are positioned to be permanent players on the big stage.
"People think it just happened, but it was a steady building process," Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. "There have been many people responsible for making it happen, and there were many milestones along the way to the BCS National Championship Game."
First, the university built the Casanova Athletic Center in 1991. Then, Oregon built the state-of-the-art Moshofsky Sports Center, which includes an indoor practice facility, in 1998.
Autzen Stadium received a $90 million face-lift before the 2002 season, and last month, the university unveiled plans to expand the Moshofsky facility entirely off donations from Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, who have been frequent and sizable donors to various projects at the university.
How much of that would have happened if Brooks and Bellotti had not taken the Ducks to bowl games in four of their first six years together? How much of it would have happened if Bellotti had not put the Ducks in the annual national title conversation after taking the head coaching reins in 1995?
"They had a dream," said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who was the coach at rival Oregon State from 1999-2002. "Mike and Rich did a good job getting things started, and then Mike got it where it is today with a lot of hard work and good, genuine ability."
Erickson remembers what it was like competing against Bellotti and the cash-rich Ducks.
"They were quite a bit ahead of us by the time I got to Corvallis," Erickson said. "We held our own for a while. We were probably even for a few years, but they started doing a lot of things facilities-wise.
"We tried to keep up with Reser Stadium, but Oregon went beyond all (of) us in the conference. Having Phil Knight helps a lot."
While the Ducks' facilities are second to none and a marketing magnet when luring recruits, Erickson cautioned against the perception that Oregon has it easy.
"You have to do a great job recruiting out of state," Erickson said. "It's similar to here in Arizona or in the state of Washington, where there are probably 10 players in the state of Oregon each year