I remember New Year’s Day in 1996, because it was a miserable day from start to finish. I was at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas as the sports columnist for The Oregonian, writing about Oregon squaring off against Colorado.
And it was one of those days when, personally and professionally, if something could go wrong, it did. The personal part was that it was horrendous weather in Dallas. I had a commitment to jump on a plane that night and go to Phoenix, where the Fiesta Bowl national championship game between Nebraska and Florida was being played the next day.
The frigid rain that marred the Cotton Bowl game turned to snow that night and my plane sat on the runway in DFW for four or five hours, awaiting de-icing. No food on the plane, either.
It was very difficult to sit through, but probably not as tough as that day’s bowl game.
Oregon’s Ducks were taken to the cleaners by first-year coach Rick Neuheisel’s Buffaloes. Oregon, which went into the game as just three-point underdogs, got clobbered 38-6.
It was a day of total frustration for the hearty Oregon fans, 14,000 strong. The Ducks trailed just 7-6 and were driving for the go-ahead score in the second quarter when Colorado’s Marcus Washington picked off a pass and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown.
The rout was on after that. And it got even worse when, with about five minutes to go in the game and the Buffs holding a 32-6 lead, Neuheisel called for a fake punt with his team facing a fourth-and-14 situation at its own 43-yard line. The play netted 28 yards and Colorado would go on to score its final touchdown.
THAT move got Neuheisel booed every time he was seen in Eugene for years to come.
Is it any wonder that Phil Knight would be angry, frustrated or concerned enough to speak to Coach Mike Bellotti about what he could do to help the program climb to the next level?
After all, this was just one year after Penn State had blown the Ducks out of the Rose Bowl.
And it just so happened that Knight had the resources and influence to pull off massive changes.
The whole story of Knight’s interest and how it eventually manifested itself is told in the latest installment of the podumentary series, “Sports Uncovered,” available now wherever you get your podcasts.
Knight, and his company, Nike, made all sorts of contributions to Oregon’s athletic department over the next several years and the results speak for themselves. But the uniforms -- those eye-catching, splashy Oregon football uniforms -- were a big part of the school’s march to the big time.
I was also present for the very first introduction of those uniforms, at a news conference a day or two prior to the 1998 Aloha Bowl in Honolulu -- obviously a more comfortable day than that wretched afternoon in Dallas.
I almost didn’t go to that news conference. I remember thinking, “Uniforms? Who cares? What difference does that make?”
But I went -- and wasn’t exactly overwhelmed. For the first time, Oregon revealed its new “O” logo and uniforms that looked tighter and more streamlined.
Those weren’t worn until the following season, though, and the impressive technology soon took a backseat to the colors. The Ducks had no qualms about leaving the school colors off their duds. They tried all sorts of combinations, once even including a style that made them look like actual Ducks, with orange facemasks and socks.
A lot of alumni were not pleased. And I didn’t particularly care for a team playing in a bowl game without school colors in the uniform.
But I wasn’t the target audience. The smart guys at Nike and U of O thought the look would appeal to recruits and they were right.
And the rest is history -- which you can hear all about in “Sports Uncovered.”
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