About 9 p.m. New Year’s Night, I found myself caught in a crossfire of the Ohio State fight song and “Mighty Oregon.”
I’ve heard both of them more times than Buick commercials ran on ESPN during the just-completed bowl season. Monday night, Oregon meets Ohio State in the first FBS-level championship game arising from a playoff, and for me, the event pulls up a whole archive of personal experiences.
I was born in Columbus, son of Ohio State parents, and as such, heard a lot about Buckeye football. My dad attended the famous Ohio State-Michigan “Snow Bowl” of 1950, and when we moved just south of Toledo when I was in junior high, he acknowledged it pained him “because it was so close to Michigan.”
The first big-time football I ever saw was at two Ohio State games in 1960, against Wisconsin and Michigan. Ohio State victories, of course.
I told this one in print several years ago: A student at Washington State in the late ’60s, I came home for the 1969 Apple Cup, the dreaded affair that featured a winless Washington team going against the one-victory Cougars (they had won their opener, so it had been a fairly extended combined drought for both). I was going to the game with my dad.
Well, that happened to be the day Ohio State, with a renowned Rex Kern-Jim Otis team that some were calling the best in the history of the game, traveled to Ann Arbor for the traditional with Michigan. Of course, with the time difference, it began here in the morning, and it wasn’t going so well for the Buckeyes, who were losing 24-12 at half to an insanely inspired Michigan team.
We’d planned to leave for the UW-WSU game about then, but my father was furious at what he was seeing on television. “I can’t leave,” he said with conviction. The Buckeyes apparently needed him.
So he called an office co-worker, asked him if he wanted a ticket for the Husky-Cougar game, and drove me over to the UW — to attend a game with a guy I’d never met in my life.
Regrettably, it didn’t get any better for my dad, who returned home to see the beloved Buckeyes lose, 24-12, in one of the game’s major upsets ever. He wasn’t in a very good mood that night.
Hard to believe, but it was only months later I was working for the newspaper in Eugene. My initial years there were relatively good for Oregon football, with top-shelf players like Bobby Moore and Dan Fouts, but soon enough, the Ducks sank into oblivion through much of the ’70s, and it would be forever, seemingly, until they extricated themselves. I could tell you story upon story reflecting how destitute the program was.
There was the time in late October, 1975, when we were at Autzen Stadium, covering an awful game in the rain (a recurring theme) before 15,000, Oregon against Utah. The Ducks were ahead by the unlikely score of 8-7 in the third quarter, and were lining up for a field goal. Right then, a gruff voice behind us in the second row of the old north-side press box at Autzen weighed in — John Mooney, a grizzled writer from Salt Lake City.
“Oh God,” he said gravely. “They’re about to put it out of reach.”
There was 1979, when Rich Brooks had begun to breathe some life into the program, and as the season wound down, the Ducks found themselves with a 5-4 record and UCLA and Oregon State still on the schedule. This was back in the day not only of way fewer bowl games, but of free-lancing bowl deals, so the post-season possibilities could be all over the map for any candidates.
But if Oregon could beat UCLA — which was only 4-5 itself, no great shakes — and the Beavers, they’d finish 7-4, and surely that would be enough to put the Ducks in that long-awaited bowl game for the first time since 1963.
In Eugene, Oregon lost to UCLA, 35-0.
No bowl game, again.
Of course, there was the infamous Civil War scoreless tie of 1983 in a driving rain, and through the years, more examples of utter hopelessness than you can imagine. Believe it or not, there was a time in the ’80s when, because there was a belief Oregon’s financial and competitive problems were tied to the rainy fall conditions, a proposal was floated to erect a wooden dome onto Autzen Stadium.
They never did that.
I was floored a few years ago to come to realize that the period when Oregon wasn’t ranked in football began in 1970 and ended in 1987 — precisely the years I came to Eugene and left it.
You know the story from there. To go to Eugene and see the facilities is to be put into a time warp. On the same grounds where they’ve got the Ferrari leather in the football-ops building is where I saw coaches in position meetings, diagramming Xs and Os on the concrete walls of the tunnels leading into Autzen.
When I arrived in Eugene, you’d hear references, repeatedly, of Oregon’s unheralded 1957 Rose Bowl team, and how it lost valiantly, 10-7, to the once-beaten and No. 2-ranked Buckeyes, who had swept the Big Ten and were a 19-point favorite that day. There must have been something to that pride; in a highly unusual vote, the ’58 Rose Bowl MVP wasn’t a Buckeye, but quarterback Jack Crabtree of Oregon.
That was the first time the teams met, and all these years later — eight games — Oregon still has never beaten Ohio State. But it’s the Ducks who are a touchdown favorite Monday night, and Oregon with the Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota.
Ought to be a hell of a game. I can’t think of two more fitting adversaries.