When Joey Harrington stepped foot onto Eugene's campus he had a goal in mind:
To win a National Championship.
"Why can't we win a national championship?" Harrington told NBC Sports Northwest. "Let's go do this thing. So it was an interesting time to arrive on campus in '97 when things were just starting to turn."
In The Uniform Craze That Revolutionized College Football, an NBC Sports NW podumentary on the Sports Uncovered podcast feed, we break down how Nike utilized branding to help Oregon compete with the upper echelon of college football.
Joey Harring- I mean, Joey Heisman played an integral role in Oregon's rise.
When he enrolled in Eugene, the Ducks had played in a major college football bowl games two of the last three seasons, but blown out in both: 20-38 to #2 Penn State in the 1995 Rose Bowl and 6-36 to #7 Colorado in the 1996 Cotton Bowl.
The later loss was the catalyst for a meeting between Mike Belloti and Nike founder Phil Knight that would change college football forever.
"[Phil Knight's] goal was to win a national championship in every sport, but certainly football," recalls Belloti.
Knight was talking about changing the perception of the entire program’s character. A complete rebrand to attract 16-19-year-olds and make Oregon cool. To attract better talent. To win the big games.
Nike did just that by unveiling the new O logo and replacing the school's uniforms as Harrington enrolled. At the same time, those in Eugene could feel the program was building to something special.
"We had steadily gotten better," remembers Harrington. "In my first year there we won seven games and then the second year eight games and then my first year of playing the Sun Bowl we won nine and then 10 in the Holiday Bowl and you could feel this momentum building."
Oregon's popularity and reach was growing and they began recruiting heavily in the Bay Area and LA territories. They unveiled billboards near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and in the heart of Los Angeles and USC/UCLA country.
But, the Ducks' sights were bigger.
Ahead of his senior season and coming off a 10-2 season, Nike approached Harrington about making a big splash with its marketing division.
One that will garner national attention and proclaim that Oregon has arrived.
Nike came to me and said 'We're going to put you on a billboard this year' and I was like 'Ok, fine' and then they said 'Hey, I think we're going to put the billboard in New York City.' Um, okay. Why?
They said 'Well, we found the spot... It's going to be ten stories on the side of a building across from Madison Square Garden.' And I was like 'What in the world are you trying to do?' And there was a moment of hesitance where I thought is this the right thing? But I'm not going to push back and of course my complete and total belief in myself and complete and total belief in our team [so] any doubt was washed away so it's like 'Yeah. Of course. Okay. Go for it. Splash the world, right? Let's rub it in their face. They can't keep up with us.' - Joey Harrington
It was a risky move, but one with a high reward if it pays off.
The ad boldly proclaimed Joey Harrington as a contender for the Heisman Trophy: an award no Duck had ever won up until that point.
This was Nike and the University of Oregon declaring the Ducks had arrived.
"Had we gone 6-5 that year, it would have been the biggest flop. But, it isn't," said Harrington.
Instead, the Ducks had one of the best seasons in program history with an 11-1 record, winning the Pac-10 conference outright, Joey Harrington finishing fourth in Heisman voting, and finishing the regular season as the No. 2 team in the nation per the AP Poll and Coaches Poll.
However, the BCS algorithm decided that Nebraska, not Oregon, should compete in the National Championship game demoting Oregon to the 2002 Fiesta Bowl to play #3 Colorado.
Oregon throttled the Buffalo winning 38-16 showing the nation what they already knew. Oregon should have been in the National Championship that season.
"There was this support around the entire country for this team that they'd been paying attention to for a couple years now," recalls Harrington.
The new kids on the block who were trying to get the attention of the establishment and between the new eyeballs from the new uniforms and actually being left out of the championship game there in 2001, the 2002 BCS Championship, I think it might have been beneficial for the long term brand that was Oregon football because now you had an entire country that had been watching this program grow, that had seen me on the Billboard saying, 'I wonder how this is going to turn out?', that had become fans as the year went on when they saw us scrap and claw and come back and win after win after win and then to see us get left out of it at the end. I think that was actually helpful.
While it wasn't the big one, Oregon's blow out win over Colorado showed the program, its fans, Nike, and recruits that Oregon has arrived.
Oregon can compete with anyone now.