Every Duck, Beaver game has become exciting

I’ve been watching college football in Oregon since I moved here in 1977 with my wife, Joan, a Portland native. I’d played at Notre Dame and for four seasons in the National Football League, and so I knew very little about college football in the state.

The first Heisman Trophy winner I recognized as a kid was Terry Baker, the quarterback from Oregon State. His coach there was Tommy Prothro, my coach when I played with the San Diego Chargers. My quarterback with the Chargers was Dan Fouts, the former Oregon great.

But football at Notre Dame was of a different ilk than the Beavers and Ducks in those years. We were national champions my junior year and ranked No. 4 my senior year. Oregon and Oregon State were not on the radar when thinking of the nationally recognized programs.

When I first started going to games at Autzen and Parker stadiums, the stands weren’t full at all. The fans had low expectations for their teams. Most were attending out of loyalty or just for something to do. At the end of a game, you would see little disappointment if the home team lost. There were no aspirations for national or conference championships. The bar was set quite low.

One thing I do remember: Regardless of how the teams had done during the season, the Civil War was one of the most entertaining games imaginable. It didn’t matter who had the better record going in, it was going to be a battle, and often the underdog won. Maybe that provided a spark, that people believed the teams could be good down the road.

By the early 1990s, things had begun to change — first at Oregon, then later in the decade, at Oregon State. That feeling that you got from those Civil War games, well, you started getting that from every game. Suddenly, every game was meaningful and every game was winnable.

By the late ’90s, the coaches and players on both teams felt it — and that feeling was contagious with the fans.

With the recent success and run of bowl victories, expectations for both programs are through the roof. Oregon is a national contender every year. Oregon State expects to have a winning season, be among the Pac-12 elite and get to a bowl game every year.

Both teams kick off their 2013 seasons this Saturday at home — the Ducks host Nicholls State and the Beavers face Eastern Washington.

It’s a very healthy development that we’ve seen in the state’s sports community. The success of both programs has inspired high school athletes, and the media has picked up on it. There is a great deal of pride and interest in both the Ducks and Beavers. Both teams have the capability of being ranked among the nation’s top 10.

The national reputation of college football in our state has never been better. There’s no reason to think that can’t continue. For those of us who remember the bad ol’ days, that’s pretty cool.

Drew Mahalic of Portland, in his 18th year as CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority, was a three-year starting linebacker at Notre Dame who played for four seasons in the NFL for San Diego and Philadelphia during the late 1970s.

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