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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

October 4, 2012 at 7:07 PM

Whatever happened to the Oregon-Washington rivalry?

A sentence in a piece this week on a local sports website discussing the Oregon-Washington rivalry stopped me: “The rivalry is unique in that, while UO has won eight in a row, their domination has not caused the rivalry to stagnate, but only grow stronger.”

Huh?

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me the Duck-Husky rivalry has flatlined, at least for the time being. The particular passion associated with this game feels as though it’s a level I can’t recall, and I’ve been around it for four decades.

That doesn’t mean the quality of play is suffering — far from it, given Oregon’s recent string of appearances in the Top 10 — just that the mutual distaste the two programs have traditionally reserved for each other seems to have diminished. Do with that what you will.

Let’s state the obvious: Oregon, traditionally the little brother in this series, has suddenly buffed up and won eight straight, none of them even close. That has a chilling effect on the rivalry.

So do the coaches. Under Chip Kelly, Oregon has this mantra of “faceless opponents.” Everybody’s the same, whether you’re playing Humboldt State or the Huskies.

That may do a lot for week-to-week equanimity, but it’s not exactly a cry that rallies the masses.

Then there’s Steve Sarkisian of Washington. He talked this week about shunning “external motivators,” which probably means no raging references to the rivalry — publicly, at least.

His quarterback, Keith Price, said in a Thursday Times story, “I’m not even sure what the recent record is against Oregon.” I find that hard to believe.

This isn’t what I’m used to. Working in Eugene for many years, I saw Oregon players living and dying to beat Washington. It was a huge deal to them. Obviously, I can’t vouch for how the Huskies felt about it, but it was mammoth to the Ducks, the game of the year.

There’s been an accompanying lack of game-week rhetoric, and that’s been the case for awhile now. I checked with Bob Condotta, the Times beat writer on the UW, and we can’t recall anything inflammatory in perhaps a decade. If I heard Keith Gilbertson correctly this week on his regular Tuesday show on KJR radio, the former UW coach said he kind of liked it when there was a little edge added by some verbal jabs.

Ah, those were the days, when the Huskies were claiming the Ducks spat upon their laminated bowl posters in the UW tunnel, when Rick Neuheisel’s Huskies went dancing on the midfield “O” at Autzen Stadium, when the two schools warred over the propriety of the videoboard at Autzen showing a clip of Neuheisel and immediately after, a woman vomiting. So sophomoric, yet so comically collegiate.

It’s almost as though the two schools, and the two coaches, don’t really have time for a heated rivalry. Oregon is too busy unspooling its blur offense on opponents, the Huskies are preoccupied with the long slog from the depths back to prominence. Maybe there are just better things out there than beating your old rival.

So I consulted a former Oregon player, linebacker Rich Ruhl, a member of the 1994 Oregon Rose Bowl team. If you’re a died-in-the-wool Husky fan, you may remember him. On the famous/infamous (depending upon your stripes, green or purple) Kenny Wheaton interception return for a touchdown in ’94, that was Ruhl, barking in Damon Huard’s face for throwing the pick — even before Wheaton crossed the goal-line.

Ruhl is an insuranceman now in Eugene. You see his name prominently on a sign next to a busy street there, and when I see it, I always think of that play.

First things first: Ruhl says Huard “is a good guy. It was in the heat of battle.” They even saw each other after that season at the Hula Bowl all-star game. He says he can’t remember what he was chirping at Huard on that play, but he says it was no doubt “bleep-bleep-bleep.”

I quizzed him about his perception of the intensity level of the rivalry. He notes that his dad, Dick, played linebacker on some good Oregon State teams back in the early 1960s, and “my dad used to say how much they hated the Huskies.”

He thinks, indeed, that the heights to which the Ducks have risen may have something to do with the rivalry’s intensity: “With the facilities, the caliber of athletes, the coaching staff and everybody’s salaries, and just the hype of Oregon in general, you have to produce bigger and better things than going 7-4 and 6-5. They put so much into this thing, you’re expected to have 10-1 teams year in and year out.”

I asked him about game-week trash talk.

“I do like to see the comments,” he conceded. But he added, “To be honest, if the players don’t feel it or not, I still feel it, and I think the fans do, too.

“I can’t wait.”

That’s probably still the majority voice. But my sense is, circumstances have shrunk that majority.

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