Column: The Suffering™: Could it happen again?

The Suffering™: Could it happen again? // @MrBenzduck

The recent downturn in fortune of Oregon football has caused some concern that the Ducks are, if I can mix my avian metaphors, on a swan dive towards mediocrity on the level of that experienced during The Suffering™
This is a serious concern, and deserves a serious response.

For the uninitiated, The Suffering™ is loosely defined as an extended period in the history of the University of Oregon football program. In 22 seasons, which began with Jerry Frei’s resignation in 1971 and ended after a loss to Wake Forest in the 1993 Independence Bowl, Oregon teams had six winning seasons, won just 40% of their games, averaged about 19 points a game, and went to 3 very minor bowl games — losing two of them.

(Note: “Suffering” in this context is tongue-in-cheek, in the sense of “putting up with,” or toleration, and does not mean to imply actual physical pain and torture. Just to clear this up.)

During The Suffering, especially the period from 1974-1986, it was not unusual for Autzen Stadium to be 2/3 empty, particularly for non-conference games. Contests were rarely televised, facilities were substandard — Dick Enright was fired in 1974 for, in part, complaining to the local media about his working conditions — and for a while there was even serious talk about relegating Oregon to the Big Sky Conference. Yes, it was that bad.
There was a 14 game losing streak, between 1974 and 1975. Routine paycheck games against Nebraska and Ohio State and Oklahoma were required to balance the athletic budget. Even the hometown NFL-quality quarterback, Chris Miller, in 1984-86 couldn’t help — he was under .500 as a starter.

And, of course, the infamous Toilet Bowl, a rain-soaked scoreless tie with Oregon State in 1983, that represented the entire era in one miserable game.

Things started looking up in 1987, but the team regressed after Bill Musgrave’s graduation; and halfway into the 1994 season it seemed eternal mediocrity had returned. Then, Kenny Wheaton guessed right on a Damon Huard pass, and everything “suddenly changed.” Since that game, Oregon has a 201-71 record, and has only had one losing season, in 2004.

Until this year.

Now, there’s consternation and dissent and anger, fueled by the phenomenon of social media. Dissension among players and fans. Tom Rinaldi hit pieces on ESPN GameDay with piano accompaniment. The Chip Kelly era is a distant memory, and, as a shrine has been built to Marcus Mariota in the Oregon football administration building, the obituaries for the current coaching staff and indeed the program itself are being written. A four game losing streak and seven-touchdown loss to your most despised rival will do that.

Will we be looking back at 2015 as another Year That Changed Everything, and the beginning of another extended period of mediocrity and meh? The Suffering, Part 2?

Here are the arguments on both sides.

Why this is a temporary downturn, and not The Suffering Part II:

1) Conditions in CFB are much, much different now than they were in the early 70s. Roster, recruiting, and scholarship rule changes make it impossible to stockpile players in big programs. The explosion of cable TV coverage after the Georgia decision in 1984 eventually led to the current situation, where every team is on TV for every game. Oregon doesn’t have to beg for coverage, or invest huge sums in tickets for a lousy bowl game 2000 miles away in mid-December.

2) In the last 20 years Oregon has significantly upgraded its facilities, and worked to develop a “brand” that is easily identifiable and accessible to the student-athletes the program needs to recruit to compete for Pac-12 titles and national recognition. In 1994, nobody spent much time thinking of Oregon as a relevant program in CFB. It’s different now.

3) The issue is primarily on the defensive side of the ball. Poor choices during recent recruiting cycles, combined with probationary restrictions on official visits imposed after the Willie Lyles affair, have resulted in an undersized and inexperienced defense. This is a cyclical issue and can be resolved with better recruiting.

4) Thanks to “The Oregon Way,” the administration isn’t going to panic. They understand that sometimes circumstances can lead to bad seasons. Experience counts, and frantically changing coaching staffs — four head coaches in six years — is what got them into The Suffering in the first place. Helfrich, who coached Oregon to within one game of a national title in 2014, didn’t all of a sudden become a Bad Coach, and will be able to fix this if given a chance. An aircraft carrier doesn’t turn on a dime. Oregon’s not going away.

And here’s why things could stay bad for a while:

1) Oregon’s inability to recruit quality players for depth kept the program a minor player in CFB for most of the 20th century. The Ducks would get very-good-to-great players, but never enough of the really good players to make for a solid two-deep roster; and injuries often took their toll on entire seasons. (This of course still happens when the injury is to a critical skill position player — Dixon 2007, Droughns 1998; but 11-man tackle football games are won on the lines, and Oregon didn’t start fighting its way out of The Suffering until Rich Brooks was finally able to upgrade the recruiting up front.) And recruiting has fallen off quite a bit since Chip left, with no sign of improvement.

2) The “Oregon Way” — promote from within, reward loyalty, circle the wagons when attacked — is what got them into this position. Mark Helfrich is an Oregon native, but he hadn’t been involved with the Oregon football program for long before he was given the keys to his first major college head coaching job in 2013. Nonetheless, it appears little consideration was given to looking for top coaching talent when Kelly bolted for the NFL. Those who think the team was, essentially, poisoned from within have plenty of evidence to back them up — the subsequent elevation of staff veteran Don Pellum to DC, the embodiment of The Peter Principle.

3) The hubris that resulted in Helfrich’s contract extension after 2014 will keep Oregon from justifying a change in the coaching staff until permanent damage is done. It’s going to cost too much to buy him out this season; and after multiple losing seasons, it will be more difficult to get a top coaching talent to consider coming to Oregon, and the situation becomes self-perpetuating.

4) Oregon’s advantages, exploited during the Kelly era — the bling, the facilities, the warp-speed — are not unique to Oregon, and can be replicated or neutralized. Indoor practice facilities and state-of-the-art locker rooms made Oregon one-of-a-kind. Now, it’s the rare program that hasn’t upped its game in these areas. And there aren’t other deficiencies for an up and coming program to exploit. When everyone else has caught on to what you’re up to, it’s hard to be different; and when your identity is based on being different, what do you do then? This leads to..

5) Oregon, in essence, is still what it was in 1972 — two hours from a major airport, with a small but loyal fan base, with actual Weather, and without the built-in advantages of those other national Programs they want so badly to emulate. It was never going to be easy to keep things going after Chip left. And Oregon’s not the only recent upstart team having problems — look at Stanford. The Titanic couldn’t turn on a dime, either.

Where do you come down? Is Oregon regressing to the mean? Or worse?

Go Ducks,

@MrBenzduck

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