As I reflect on Oregon’s victory at the Rose Bowl last week, there is one memory that keeps popping up again and again.
It’s funny, really, because this recollection isn’t from this season, or even the BCS National Championship Game run of 2010. Instead, what I keep coming back to is the first Oregon game I ever attended — in 2008 against UCLA.
It was a brisk, clear fall evening, and Autzen Stadium itself was beautiful. That much was a given.
But the game itself was a sloppy affair, and I recall being thoroughly underwhelmed by the whole experience. The crowd wasn’t nearly as loud as I had anticipated, my seat left much to be desired, and Jeremiah Masoli was doing that thing where he threw the ball at the ground instead of an open receiver.
31-24 was the final score, in Oregon’s favor — and yes, I had to look even that up for the purposes of this column. The only thing memorable about this game was how disappointing it turned out to be, especially for me as a brand new addition to the world of Oregon football.
I don’t know why this is what sticks out in my head, now that the Ducks are Rose Bowl champions for the first time since 1917. It’s admittedly strange, particularly after such a thrilling game that featured 91-yard touchdown runs, incredible interceptions and a photo finish.
I don’t know why, but here’s a guess: As journalists we tend to think of everything as its own little story, with a beginning, middle and end. The best stories, or at least the most compelling ones, usually involve some sort of struggle to the top. The humble origin of the journey is often the central component of the story, because it gives us perspective and allows us to understand just how far we’ve come.
And therein lies the trigger of this recurring memory of an entirely forgettable UCLA game. The old-timers, the fans who have been watching this team since the days of Toilet Bowls and two-win seasons, often tell us that we don’t know how lucky we are. And that’s certainly true — no one attending this school right now has ever sat through the torture of a 0-0 game.
But in a way, seniors like me were the last witnesses of a bygone era of mediocrity. Consider: Oregon’s defining moment in 2008 was knocking Oregon State out of the Rose Bowl. Mike Bellotti was still the head coach (seriously, doesn’t it feel weird to think of Chip Kelly ever not being head coach at this point?) and a Holiday Bowl victory was still considered a major step forward.
The new era that we’re basking in right now began with 2009’s trip to the Rose Bowl. The Ducks managed to one-up themselves the next season with that storied national championship berth, and though many were clamoring for a repeat appearance this year, a Rose Bowl win can still be viewed as both a step forward and a validation of sorts.
They finally won a big game. This wasn’t all some mirage of excellence — Oregon, at long last, can truly be referred to as an elite program.
So, to recap, seniors like me have been part of a journey that spanned two different eras — one that was nearing its forgettable end, and the other a program-altering stretch that has no end in sight (NCAA sanctions pending).
I hate to make this whole column sound like one of those melodramatic Tom Rinaldi reports on ESPN, but every time I look back at that UCLA game four years ago, it really does feel special to have been a part of Oregon’s ascent to the top tier.
Perspective is key in this, and for all the times that I remember LaMichael James’ tough running and Kiko Alonso’s acrobatic interception from last week, I’ll also flash back to standing in the student section that night against UCLA — just a confused freshman from Illinois who had no idea what all the hype was about.