Steady progress since mid-90s created No. 1 Oregon

Steady progress since mid-90s created No. 1 Oregon
Oregon's running back LaMichael James celebrates after scoring against Stanford in the second quarter of their NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — From coaches Rich Brooks to Chip Kelly, to quarterbacks Joey Harrington to Darron Thomas, Oregon's image has evolved from a track-centric school with a mascot borrowed from Walt Disney into a legitimate national football presence.

"To see the transformation of what's taken place, with all the development and all the marketing, and certainly the rise in stature and prominence — and the performance on the field — it's a great story. It really is," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, whose Bruins will be the first to face Oregon since the Ducks became No. 1 for the first time ever this week.

The Ducks, coming off an open date, jumped a spot to No. 1 in the AP poll when previously top-ranked Ohio State lost at Wisconsin. Oregon (6-0, 3-0 Pac-10) was ranked No. 2 behind Oklahoma in the first BCS rankings that came out on Sunday night.

Oregon's path here has been long and circuitous.

In 1939, the men's basketball team won the first NCAA championship, but for much of the century Oregon stayed well off the national radar up in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

Steve Prefontaine changed all that. Pre, as he was known, was an explosive runner with rock-and-roll good looks and a James Dean devil-may-care attitude.

He ran track for Oregon under storied coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman from 1970-73. After running in the Munich Olympics, he died in a car accident at the peak of his professional career at age 24.

Eugene was nicknamed Track Town USA, a moniker that still sticks today. But other than track, Oregon's most notable distinction in those days was that the campus was the backdrop for the movie "Animal House." That's historic Hayward Field in the background when Flounder is berated over wearing his pledge pin on his ROTC uniform.

Oregon's fortunes in football began to rise under coach Brooks, who took over the Ducks in 1977 and led them to the Independence Bowl in 1989, their first bowl game in 26 years. Oregon would go on to play in the Rose Bowl to cap the 1994 season, after which Mike Bellotti took over as head coach.

It was about that time that former Oregon runner and Nike co-founder Phil Knight began pumping money into the program. Today, the Ducks owe much of their visibility to the flashy uniforms and state-of-the-art facilities that Knight has helped provide. The shoe maker is so entwined with the school that it is sometimes referred to as Nike U.

Oregon's big breakthrough on the field came in 2001, when Harrington's Ducks finished the season 11-1 and ranked No. 2. The Ducks probably should have been given the opportunity to play for the national championship but they were squeezed out by a BCS formula that was later changed. Oregon wound up stomping Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl 38-16.

Oregon's profile skyrocketed thanks to the national championship controversy and Harrington's Heisman run, which included a towering "Joey Heisman" billboard in New York's Times Square, paid for by boosters.

"Getting to that level, I think it showed that it was possible for Oregon," Harrington said Tuesday. "I can't tell you how many people, when I mentioned the possibility of winning a national championship, saying, 'Oh, it will never happen at Oregon.' Well why not? Our class was the one that said, 'Why can't it be Oregon?' we shifted the mindset of the program."

The Ducks retreated a bit in the next few years, mostly due to Southern California's sheer dominance, but returned in 2007 when another high-profile quarterback and Heisman hopeful — Dennis Dixon — helped push Oregon up in the polls.

The Ducks upset the Trojans that season and were ranked as high as No. 2, but it all came crashing down in mid-November when Dixon's knee gave way in Arizona and Oregon lost three of its final four games.

Since then, Oregon has hopped in and out of the AP Top 25, cracking the Top 10 a couple of times last season when the Ducks rolled to a 10-3 record, the Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth under first-year coach Kelly.

Previously Bellotti's offensive coordinator, Kelly is credited as the mastermind of Oregon's speedy spread option offense.

The Ducks were widely expected to be among the nation's elite again this season. But there were questions surrounding the program when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli got into offseason trouble and was booted from the team.

Masoli was replaced by Thomas, who narrowly edged fifth-year senior Nate Costa for the starter's job in fall camp, and Oregon hasn't lost.

Thomas has thrown for 1,231 yards and 14 touchdowns, capably guiding Oregon's spread-option offense. Running back LaMichael James, suspended for the opener after he had offseason trouble of his own, has run for 848 yards and nine touchdowns. He's first among his peers with an average of 169.6 yards a game.

The Ducks have bought into coach Kelly's "Win The Day" mentality of taking each day as it comes and not looking ahead. Kelly said he has never once mentioned the rankings with his team, and that they really don't matter anyway until the national championship berths are announced.

Still, the No. 1 ranking is another step to prominence. Oregon is the 43rd team to hold the top spot in the AP poll, which dates to 1936. The last time a team was No. 1 for the first time was in 1990, when Virginia rose to the top on Oct. 14.

Offensive lineman Mark Asper, deviating briefly from his coach's philosophy, celebrated being a No. 1 first-timer this week.

"I went 'Wooo!' and I said 'Hey honey, we're No. 1!' and she went 'Wooo!'... It was exciting for the school to be ranked No. 1 for the first time ever," he said. "After that it was 'OK, I've got practice tomorrow and I gotta start watching UCLA film and getting ready to go.' You can celebrate and revel in things for a minute but you gotta get back to business and get back to what got you there, otherwise you'll slip off and be another upset."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.