The survivor who turned the Oregon-UW rivalry
You probably won’t understand. In fact, I know you won’t.
Washington travels to Oregon Saturday for another renewal of their acerbic rivalry, and as we all know by now, it’s different these days. It’s not Washington’s game to lose as it was for so many years. It’s Oregon that has ridden herd on the Huskies, to the tune of 15 victories in the past 17 games.
It’s generally conceded that all this turned around with Oregon’s raucous 31-20 upset in 1994; and that the rebirth in Eugene was a gradual, brick-by-brick thing. Rich Brooks, the coach in ’94, gave way to a good offensive mind in Mike Bellotti, who begat the wunderkind Chip Kelly, and all the while, Phil Knight was weighing in with his checkbook.
What’s mind-bending in the context of today’s impatient, get-it-yesterday thinking is that the coach whose team authored that program-altering game in 1994 had been there 18 years. Eighteen years of gains and setbacks, of probation and progress, of promise and shortfall, of exasperation and finally, deliverance.
Already in 2022, nine Division I college coaches have lost their jobs since the season began, five of them in the first month. That never happened in Eugene. It was a different time.
And Rich Brooks was a different coach. How the hell did he keep his job? How did he hang around Oregon long enough to assemble a Rose Bowl team, and ultimately, to get out of dodge to become head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 1995?
Thumb through the Pac-12 media guide to the page of “winningest coaches” by conference victories, and you’ll find the top 30 in league history, topped by UCLA’s Terry Donahue, whose 98 Pac-8/10 wins came over 20 seasons (1976-95).
Donahue is the only guy on that list longer-tenured than Brooks, whose 18 years ties him with both Jim Owens and Don James of Washington for second-longest. But Brooks’ win percentage of .416 (56-79-2) is the lowest on that list. (For victories, he’s 13th, just behind Mike Riley of Oregon State and just ahead of Bruce Snyder of Cal and ASU.)
In the broad sweep, you’d have to say Oregon was either incredibly naïve or marvelously prescient.
For certain, it was patient.
Here’s how it unfolded: In 1977, Brooks succeeded two failed regimes at Oregon and faced a considerable rebuild. Behind a flitting option quarterback, Reggie Ogburn, the Ducks generated a pair of winning seasons in 1980-81.
It was right then that he could have been cashiered. Oregon became part of an infamous bogus-credits scandal that ensnared half the Pac-10, and it had a couple of other NCAA violations. But the administration saw a turnaround, and it believed he was a good football coach.
Not that you knew it by the next couple of years. Without adequate quarterbacking, the Ducks went 4-17-1 in 1981-82. That left Brooks 20-43-3 at Oregon.
It’s not a reach to suggest that what saved Brooks was his alma mater – Oregon State. Oregon could see up close how the other half lived, and it wasn’t pretty. As bad as the Ducks might have been, the Beavers were awful, and Brooks made it an annual practice to inflict a reminder that OSU had passed him over when it hired a replacement for Dee Andros after the 1975 season. The first five times Brooks’ Ducks faced the Beavers, they won by double digits. He would go 14-3-1 against the school up north in his time at Oregon.
By 1983, the Ducks got a little lucky. They recruited a local kid, Chris Miller, to play quarterback, and he was good enough to be a longtime player in the NFL. In Miller’s four years, the Ducks had only one winning season and went 20-23-1. It wasn’t great, but it was at least a step.
On Miller’s heels came another good quarterback, Bill Musgrave. The Ducks had the same sort of .500-ish seasons they’d had under Miller until 1989, when finally, they made it to a bowl game for the first time in 26 years and went 8-4.
Still, there was some backsliding – two losing seasons in the early ‘90s – and it’s not a reach to think the ’94 season not only propelled Oregon on a meteoric arc, but the reversal that year likely saved Brooks’ job. The Ducks began 1-2 with blowout losses to Hawaii and Utah. A few games later came Kenny Wheaton’s monumental pick-six against Washington to ignite the march to the Rose Bowl.
Brooks was adept at mastering the art of limiting damage. He kept his players engaged. More than one 2-6 season that seemed about to spiral out of control would evolve into 5-6, and Oregon would leave people feeling OK about things. Especially with those closing victories over the Beavers.
Good coach? No doubt. After a failed two-year stint with the Rams, he went to SEC also-ran Kentucky, and after three years of losing – and no small amount of grousing – he guided the Wildcats to four straight winning seasons for the first time since the 1950s.
The final tally of his 18 years at Oregon? Brooks won 91 games, lost 109 and tied four.
Then they named the field after him.