Kenny Wheaton: What was Washington thinking, and assorted other Duck-Husky lore . . .
This is the week, of course, that “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score!” reverberates again throughout the Northwest, even though the color images of the mind are increasingly taking on half-tones. It’s been 28 years, after all, since Wheaton jumped an out route and took an interception 97 yards to save Oregon football from the usual fate against Washington, 31-20.
Jim Lambright was the second-year coach at Washington, and the Huskies were going to win that game with the Ducks in Eugene the way they had won a bunch of them under the legendary Don James. They would often reveal just enough vulnerability to give the Ducks a lifeline of hope, and then find a way to steal it bloodlessly.
The Huskies were at the Oregon 8-yard line with a minute and a few seconds left, down 24-20, and as befitted their old habits against Oregon, had converted third- and fourth-and-long predicaments to get there.
I’ll always wonder at Washington’s choice of play calls – a long throw to the left from the right hash to a 5-foot-9 possession receiver (irony in that term, isn’t there?), Dave Janoski. There were better choices. In the backfield was Napoleon Kaufman, who would be the 18th overall pick in the next NFL draft, and at tight end was Mark Bruener, who played 14 years in the League. Time was only marginally an issue; the Huskies had a timeout left.
I recall talking to Washington offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick to relive the play the Monday after, and although the finish at Autzen Stadium was still a lively local topic, neither of us had a clue about what a cataclysmic impact “The Pick” would have.
For their part, the Huskies were on Pac-10 probation and ineligible for a bowl game anyway. The Ducks, even with the Washington victory, were a mere 5-3. But they followed the win over the ninth-ranked Huskies with a 10-9 grinder against the 11th-rated Arizona desperadoes of Desert Swarm and soon found themselves carrying a six-game winning streak into the Rose Bowl. That swayed into the fold a fellow who had been a mere bystander, Phil Knight, and the rest – the new buildings, the paint-splattered jerseys, the keyless thumbprint entries into a gaudy football nerve center – is history.
All because Washington didn’t hand the ball to Kaufman or toss it to Bruener, perhaps.
How might it all be different today? Would Oregon still be the indigent it was back in the days when I covered the Ducks, would the tenor of a brusque rivalry have changed? It’s sometimes said that Washington fans feel less disdain for Washington State than they do for the Ducks, and having seen both sides of it up close, I think it’s fair to say Oregon fans would prefer that Huskies suffer a flat tire more than the neighboring Beavers.
The memories flood back. Back to the early ‘70s, when one year Oregon smoked the Huskies, 58-0, and the next year, Jim Owens’ last at Washington, the Huskies beat down the Ducks, 66-0, and UO coach Don Read emerged from the locker room and issued an apology to all Oregon fans.
Pretty soon, Rich Brooks got the Oregon job, and in the developing years of Don James at Washington, he got James’ attention, recruiting all-star players like Bryan Hinkle and Vince Goldsmith out of James’ backyard. But that augured a succession of Portland-area players, just one a year – like having a single chocolate after dinner – that streamed north to Washington to torment Brooks and the Ducks.
In 1979, societal change met fevered rivalry. In the days leading up to the game in Eugene, the UO administration would have to figure out a way to accommodate a female reporter for post-game interviews for the first time. Autzen’s auxiliary facilities were spartan and small, and a stifling Duck locker room suddenly played uncomfortable host not only to a benchmark event, but the devastation of Washington’s comeback from a 17-0 third-quarter deficit to a 21-17 victory.
Oregon avenged that a year later, and when a UO defensive back romped into the end zone at Husky Stadium with a pick-six, Bob McCray, a Duck assistant up in the coaches’ box, banged deliriously on the wall adjoining UW athletic director Mike Lude’s box – bam-bam-bam-bam-bam – and yelped, “Take that, you f****** Huskies!”
In 1985, I covered Washington’s 20-17 Freedom Bowl victory over Colorado. There was a key ruling on a fumble late in the game, and afterward, James by chance mentioned that the Pac-10 was exploring the feasibility of replay review, and that Brooks was somehow prominent in that discussion.
“Rich thinks he loses about three games a year because of officials’ calls,” James told me. I suddenly knew why I’d bothered to go to the game.
These anecdotes are decades old, but know that there are older. A few years ago, I was interviewing Mike Brundage, a mid-‘60s quarterback at Oregon and later a UO athletic-department operative, for my book, “Mad Hoops,” on Duck basketball in the 1970s.
Brundage was a sophomore on the 1964 Ducks, who won 7-0 at Washington when the Huskies threw four interceptions. He didn’t remember the score, but he recalled how UW players walking down the tunnel at Husky Stadium rapped their helmets on the door to the UO locker room – meant to be sort of an ominous, we’re-coming-for-you signal.
“Every single one of them bangs their helmet on the door,” Brundage said.
Fast-forward now to the post-game. The happy Ducks are on their bus and Len Casanova, the grandfatherly hall of fame coach, is making his way down the aisle to offer congratulations.
“He’s patting everybody on the head; ‘Great game,’ ‘’ Brundage recalled. “He looks down and says, ‘What the hell’s this?’ “
What it was, was that locker-room door.
“We took the pins out of the door,” Brundage said, “and took it back home.”
Memorable tale, that. But the mother of all Oregon-Washington stories is Kenny Wheaton, and yes, he was gonna score, and everything about Oregon, the Pac-10 and even college football was about to change.