When success comes to their beloved football team, fans begin to think that it is a birthright and a certain wave of the future. They will swill their beer with a new carelessness and puff out their chests, become prideful and swagger throughout the conference as if they own it. The caravans of motor homes grow large, loud and boastful on the freeway, decorated with inordinate pride as they hog the fast lane on the way to another beatdown of another hated rival. The succession of storied victories swell their head. Arrogance becomes a drug stronger than meth. It ravages the conscience and the memory. “We rule,” becomes the thinking. “We can do anything. We cannot be stopped.” The team becomes an extension of themselves. What was once one modest bumper sticker becomes a collection of hats, coffee mugs and cubicle pennants, until the identification and affection becomes the center of our identity. We wear Duck jackets and tote Duck golf bags. If it could, our blood would bleed a different color. We bookmark half a dozen websites and count the days until the opening of fall practice and opening game, fully immersed in the heady baptism of dominance and glory.
Ask the fans of Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame how quickly and miserably it can all go away. Ask Washington fans, or Gators, Longhorns, Volunteers or Bulldogs. Hire Lane Kiffin and see how fast a program can unravel. Ask the Awww-buuurrrnn Ti-gers in about a year. Better yet, ask the faithful of the Washington State Cougars, our near neighbors, our dopplegangers across the fertile high plains.
It wasn’t even ten years ago. In 2001, 2002, and 2003, the Washington State Cougars won ten games for three seasons in a row, finishing in the top ten each year. They beat Purdue in the Sun Bowl, lost to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Rien Long won an Outland Trophy. Just a few years before, Ryan Leaf was the second pick in the entire NFL draft. Their coach was so innovative and successful, he was hired away by Alabama, a job he lost in one stoopid weekend with a sleazy stripper and too much whiskey, but still. A tiny town in the middle of nowhere had become the center of college football, a hotbed, a trendsetter, the cradle of the most decorated and sought-after coaches and players in the entire country. Pullman had become a little Lincoln, a tiny Tuscaloosa, a miracle of belief and fervor.
A bad hire, some trouble on campus, promising recruits that washed out, a few key injuries, a couple of dismal recruiting classes and the spiral of woefulness had begun. A longtime, trusted assistant was hired to replace the departed Price. He was genial and earnest, but overmatched by the job. He drove the program into the ground, some said.
But more likely it was the whirligig of time, having its revenges. In 2002 they clubbed #15 Oregon 32-21 on ABC, before a capacity crowd of 37,600. 37,600. That wouldn’t even be a full-size cocktail party in Tallahassee or Knoxville. In 2003 they rolled into Autzen Stadium and destroyed #10 Oregon 55-16. The Ducks had just beaten storied Michigan 31-27, and Jason Fife was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, cruising around left end with the decisive touchdown. Against WSU a week later, Kellen Clemens and Fife threw seven interceptions. Virgil Williams took one of them to the house. Devard Darling and Sammie Williams broke free for long receptions. It was an ugly day to be a Duck, and the ride home to Pullman was sweet. The Cougs finished 10-3 that year, their last breath of glory. Matt Kegel was no Jason Gesser. Rueben Mayes and Mark Rypien were long gone. Without players, without the wily coach running the five wides and crazy formations, the Cougars became another big fat “W” everyone circled on their schedule. The crowds dwindled. Martin Stadium, never expanded in the glory years, became patchy with empty seats, like the hair of an old man with a wasting disease.
Washington State lacked a savior, a big money man to swoop in and build impressive buildings for the athletic department. Oh, Paul Allen did his best, but he had other passions. He was busy hiring Pete Carroll to run his pro football team, and had his hands full hiring new general managers for the Portland Trailblazers, who hadn’t made the second round of the playoffs since the Cougars’ Sun Bowl year. Recruits would come out for a weekend during basketball season, feel the bitter wind blowing in from Canada and watch a tumbleweed drifting across main street, gaze out the window on the long drive back to the airport in Spokane, thinking, “Man, this is the middle of nowhere. And there are no pretty girls.” Only a few of them decided to sign, the ones with not-quite 4.3 speed, or the ones eager to get a long way from trouble back home. The program didn’t grow. It deteriorated and fell. Ten years seem like a long time, but as the losses mounted, it seemed inevitable and irreversible.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the best football in the West was being played in the corner of the country. Oregon State, Washington, Washington State and Oregon all won shares of conference championships, played in BCS bowls, racked up yards of offense, sent players to the league. Gradually and then suddenly, three of the programs fell away to disrepair and neglect, driven down by scandal or bad decisions or bad luck. Bill Doba and Keith Gilbertson did their damage. Rick Neuheisel created another of his dung storms and darted out of town. A key player here and there was left writhing on the turf, clutching a knee or holding in his ribs. That’s all it took. One by one hopes were dashed, and 10-3 became 0-12 or 65-38. Football wasn’t as fun anymore. In three of the towns, the start of a new season was no longer the anxiously-awaited event. ABC and ESPN didn’t come often, unless the Ducks were coming to play.
Dynasties crumble, in football more quickly than anywhere else. The roads Rome built still stand, but only the diehards can recall when the Cougars were good. Just a short ten years ago, they were on the covers of preseason magazines. Three bowls, three top ten seasons in a row. Now, that isn’t even a memory. It’s a notion, something that happened, a seemingly impossible dream.
Oregon is riding high now and reaching higher. Despite the unsettling rumors of NCAA investigation, despite the troubling rustlings of misbehavior and suspension, despite small adversities and the loss of three offensive linemen and five stalwart leaders on defense, pride is strong among the Duck faithful, and there’s a certainty that 2011 and 2012 will be sweet rewards for long years of patience. The march of success isn’t ending; it’s barely begun, and if LMJ doesn’t win a Heisman or a National Championship, Anthony Wallace and Marcus Mariota or Jake Rodrigues are certain to bring one to the trophy case at the Moshofsky Center. In Chip We Trust. Until someone offers him six million dollars and a beautiful summer home on Hampton Beach.
Maybe he’ll never leave. Maybe the satisfaction of what he’s built in Eugene will keep him there a long time. Phil Knight’s legacy and generosity can endure another dozen years, perhaps, and the quick-twitch wunderkinds will continue to get off the plane, whisked to Autzen in the stretch Hummer, and continue to decide, “This is it. I want to be a Duck.” Maybe the NCAA’s attention will go elsewhere, busy putting out fires in Columbus and unraveling a trail of deceit at Auburn. Maybe their wrath will center on Will Lyles and not the programs he advised. Oregon’s run at the giddiest reaches of college football notoriety could stretch out 10, 15 years before a fateful misstep or another untimely moment when cleats catch in the turf, and a dream lies wasted. Dennis Dixon came so close to completing that perfect season, the Heisman, the NC, the 80-yard run and the fake Statue of Liberty play immortalized forever. He came a little short. This season, the Ducks could finish it. Maybe, if everything goes right. Or maybe the year after, when Darron Thomas is a senior, and the young defense and the offensive line have time to gel.
Do we have that much time before fate intervenes? Because fate always intervenes. Just ask the citizens of the crumbled British Empire, or the fans of the Washington State Cougars. Just don’t ask them for sympathy.