Reminicing about a special Oregon season
On New Year's Day, Oregon will face Wisconsin in the Ducks' fourth Rose Bowl appearance in 11 years.
There was a time, though, when the Ducks weren't making postseason visits to Pasadena with such frequency.
Oregon's 1994 team won the Pac-10 championship and became the first UO squad to play in the Rose Bowl in 37 years.
Those Rich Brooks-coached Ducks fell 38-20 to unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Penn State in the "Granddaddy" of all bowl games. After the game, Brooks left to become head coach of the NFL's St. Louis Rams.
That was almost 25 years ago. Players on that team are now in their mid to late 40s. Brooks is 78. Offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti is 68. Nick Aliotti, then in his second season as Oregon's defensive coordinator, is 65.
"Talking about our team today would be like talking then about a team from the late 1960's," said Danny O'Neil, 48, the quarterback of the 1994 Ducks. "It would have sounded like a long time ago. Today, 1994 sounds like a long time ago, and it was. We're getting old."
The '94 Ducks, led by O'Neil on offense and a sturdy defense nicknamed "Gang Green" by Aliotti, finished 9-4 overall (the program's first nine-win season since 1948) and 7-1 in Pac-12 play. The secondary featured three players who went on to play in the NFL — safety Chad Cota and cornerbacks Alex Molden and Kenny Wheaton.
The preseason favorites to win the Pac-10 included Southern Cal, Arizona, Washington State and Washington. The Ducks were coming off a 5-6 season in 1993, ending with a 15-12 loss to Oregon State, their second straight to their arch-rival at Autzen Stadium.
Brooks was in his 17th and final season at Oregon, finishing a career at the school that had more downs than ups. In 1989, he had gotten the Ducks to their first bowl game in 26 years, beating Tulsa 27-24 in the Independence Bowl. Oregon had reached bowl games in three of four years before faltering in 1993.
There was grumbling from some alumni and fans about Brooks. Then Oregon lost two of its first three games, beating Portland State but falling to Hawaii (36-16) and Utah (34-16). Now the coach was really on the hot seat.
Let Brooks, his coaches and his players take it from there:
RICH BROOKS (now retired and dividing time between Eugene and La Quinta, California): "In '89, we finally turned the thing and got to the Independence Bowl. We made it to two more bowls, but 1993 was a disaster, and the '94 season started off poorly. We got thumped by Hawaii, then lost to Utah. We're 1-2, Iowa's coming to town and everybody is writing my death sentence. It was, 'We're finally going to get him out of here.' "
JOSH WILCOX (sophomore tight end, now a consultant living in Bend): "We didn't want it to be like the year before, but the expectations weren't super high. We were picked last in the Pac-10 in the preseason poll. Oregon State was ninth and we were 10th. Then we lose those two early games, and the calls for Rich being fired grew stronger. We saw 'Ditch Rich' T-shirts around town."
DINO PHILYAW (senior running back, now running a catering company in Eugene): "All of the guys, especially the seniors, cared about our coaches. We knew if we didn't make something happen, they were going to lose their jobs."
MIKE BELLOTTI (offensive coordinator, now retired and dividing time between Bend and La Quinta, California): "After the poor start, there was talk about the coaching staff being fired. But when you're a young coach like I was, you're not afraid of that. We just all had to buckle down and work a little harder — including the coaches."
PHILYAW: "(Safety) Jeff Sherman and I were players of the game against Utah, so we went to the Oregon Club meeting with Coach Brooks before the next week's game against Iowa. We were sitting in the back seat, and he told us that his job was in jeopardy. He said, 'They want us (coaches) out of here. I don't think we're staying.' We told him we weren't going to let that happen."
DANNY O'NEIL (senior quarterback, now operating a family storage business in Newport Beach, California): "There was something unique about that team. We had some really strong senior leaders. Some of that strength in leadership came from our failures the previous season. The bottom line was, we had a group that got tired of losing close games and making mistakes at the wrong time. We just said, 'Forget this.' We had the right culture. We had the right mentality. We all wanted to put in the work and do whatever it took to win."
ALEX MOLDEN (junior cornerback, now involved in team-building, inspirational speaking and leadership coaching in West Linn): "The leadership didn't just come from one person. We had no superstars, but there were leaders littered throughout that whole team. We were not afraid to get into each other, to call each other out. We didn't make a bowl the previous year, but we knew what type of talent we had. Even starting off 1-2, we still believed in each other."
During the week before the Iowa game, the players called a players-only meeting.
MOLDEN: "We aired the dirty laundry and came out better afterward. We had to figure out what was holding us back, why weren't we winning. Several players stood up and voiced their opinion. I said we needed to increase the intensity in practice. There was too much of what I called 'brother-in-law' stuff going on. We were being too nice. If we could up the intensity to make it seem like a game, then when the game comes, man, it's easy."
O'NEIL: 'The seniors called that meeting. We talked about what our expectations were, that things had to change, that we had to work harder. They had juniors-only and sophomores-only meetings, too. Every class recognized they had a role to play."
With Ricky Whittle rushing for three first-half touchdowns, Oregon prevailed 40-18 over an Iowa team coming off a 61-21 loss to Penn State the week before.
BROOKS: "We crushed (the Hawkeyes). Our players just responded so well. We had some good seniors but some very good young talent on that team. In that game, we showed it for the first time."
CHAD COTA (senior safety, now working as a contractor in Medford): "Our defense clicked against Iowa. It was a moment where the team came together."
BROOKS: "The next day, though, Danny comes in with an infection on the ring finger of his passing hand. They had to put him on IVs and cut it open to drain the infection. He wouldn't be able to play in our next game against USC."
NICK ALIOTTI (defensive coordinator, now working in broadcasting and live in Eugene): "After the Iowa game, we met as a defense. I talked about how we beat Iowa and how comparable USC was to the Iowa. I said, 'We just beat that team. USC is the same team.' Every time we went to the Coliseum to play (the Trojans), we were out of the game before it even started. I told the guys that if we can weather the first quarter, I know we can win."
Oregon did, upsetting the 19th-ranked Trojans 22-7 behind sophomore quarterback Tony Graziani, Philyaw and a sturdy defensive effort.
O'NEIL: "That win triggered everything. That was a big turning point."
COTA: "That was Dino's coming-out party. He made some big plays and realized he was a pretty good player himself. Our defense really improved against Iowa, and beating USC confirmed we were pretty darn good. Going down to get that win in LA was a big deal for us."
WILCOX: "That got the momentum going and proved to everybody we could be as good as we thought we were. We were the team Rich Brooks molded us to be: Good on defense, opportunistic on offense."
RICH RUHL (senior linebacker, now an insurance agent in Eugene): "Maybe it was just a matter believing in ourselves. About that time, we changed some things on defense. We put some guys — Alex and Kenny — on an island (in man coverage), which helped us with the interior as far as shutting down the run."
Oregon took a step back in a 21-7 loss at Washington State to fall to 3-3. The Ducks then ran off six straight wins, finishing it off with an emotional, come-from-behind 17-13 victory at Oregon State.
COTA: "We controlled our destiny those last three or four weeks. We knew if we won out we'd be in the Rose Bowl. There was a lot of pressure. With Oregon's history in not having that kind of success for so long, there was some anxiety to try to deliver that to the Oregon fans."
Oregon went into the Oregon State game knowing a victory, or a UCLA win over Southern Cal, would clinch the Ducks' first Rose Bowl berth since 1958. With the Beavers leading 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, word reached the Oregon sideline that the Bruins had knocked off USC.
PHILYAW: "We went into the game with the mindset that that it didn't matter if UCLA beat USC. We felt we had to win no matter what. We were a hair away from playing in the biggest bowl game there ever was."
RUHL: "In the third quarter, I think, guys across the line for Oregon State were saying, 'UCLA is winning.' I didn't know until later that the Bruins had won for sure. Maybe (the Beavers) thought we wouldn't care about our game if we knew we were in (the Rose Bowl), but our thoughts weren't any different. We wanted to beat our arch-rival and put an exclamation point on the season. We weren't going to let up."
COTA: "We had to win that game. For us to lose to Oregon State and still go to the Rose Bowl would not have been the same."
O'NEIL: "I found out just before our winning (touchdown) drive. Maybe that took the pressure off, but it would have been horrible to lose and go to the Rose Bowl. That would have almost seemed tragic."
WILCOX: "It was sometime in the second half when I found out UCLA had won. I was sick, though, so I was probably hearing voices."
PHILYAW: "When somebody said that we were in, everybody went nuts for a minute. But we didn't want to back in."
BELLOTTI: "I never knew until the end of the game. I was on the field with a headset on, calling plays. I wouldn't have wanted to know, anyway. It wouldn't have changed my thought of what we needed to do. We would never have wanted to back into the Rose Bowl."
ALIOTTI: "When they threw incomplete on the last play of the game, it was the best feeling in the world. It was one of the top five feelings I had in 40 years of coaching, being in Corvallis and know we'd won our way into the Rose Bowl."
WILCOX: "For a kid who grew up with all my history with Oregon (his father, Dave Wilcox, is a former Duck great) and loving college football and wanting to one day play in the Rose Bowl, I don't know that there's a better moment than when that clock ticked to zero. We were going to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the Microwave was invented."
RUHL: "The scene on the field after the game was crazy. It was flooded with people who had brought roses. Guys in the locker room were holding roses. My folks were standing on the field with me. It was pretty emotional. A proud moment."
COTA: "For me, it was total relief. But I was so happy, so excited, too. Having those roses get handed out at the end of the game, it was like a dream."
BROOKS: "When I came to Oregon in 1977, getting to the Rose Bowl was my goal. We had chances in '87 and '88, but we got injuries and couldn't quite finish the deal. This time, we had more depth. When injuries happened, we were able to survive them."
O'NEIL: "I was happy for our fans. My sophomore year against Washington at Autzen, I remember seeing Husky fans walking to the game wearing Rose Bowl sweatshirts. That's what it's all about — Oregon fans able to walk around in Rose Bowl gear. That's what you're trying to accomplish."
Oregon's Rose Bowl opponent was formidable: No. 2-ranked Penn State, 11-0, coached by the legendary Joe Paterno, with an offense featuring quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Ki-Jana Carter and tight end Kyle Brady.
ALIOTTI: "Those guys all went in the first nine picks (in the 1995 NFL draft). Seven guys on that offense got drafted. They were really good."
BELLOTTI: "The media people asked before the game, 'How would you characterize your offense?' I said, 'Guerilla warfare. We'll hit and run. We're not going to take those guys on head to head and run it down their throat.' I told Danny, 'Strap your helmet on; we're going to throw the ball a bunch.' "
Penn State scored on the first play from scrimmage, an 83-yard run by Carter. Oregon tied it at 7-7 late in the first quarter on a one-yard pass from O'Neil to Wilcox.
WILCOX: "I had a concussion by then. I kind of remember scoring a touchdown. I was in a fog. In today's game, I would have been pulled out of there."
Penn State led 14-7, but Oregon had its chances. Freshman kicker Matt Belden missed a pair of field goal attempts, and O'Neil connected with Cristin McLemore on a pass to the 2-yard line as time expired to end the first half.
BROOKS: "We called a timeout and Danny came over. I told him to throw it into the end zone or the stands, but don't throw it short of the goal line because we were out of timeouts. He hit McLemore on an underneath route at the 2 and he gets tackled. End of half."
The Ducks tied it at 14-14 in the third quarter before disaster struck. Ambrose Fletcher took a kickoff back 72 yards to the UO 21 to set up a 17-yard Carter TD run. On Oregon's next series, O'Neil overthrew McLemore and Chuck Penzenik returned an interception 44 yards to the Oregon 13. Carter scored from 3 yards out and the Ducks were down 28-14, the Nittany Lions on their way to a 24-0 run.
Oregon finished with more total offense (501-430) and first downs (27-22), but the Ducks managed only 45 rushing yards. O'Neil completed 41 of 61 passes for 456 yards, the latter still a Rose Bowl record.
BELLOTTI: "The matchup was a good one for us to throw often. We ran a lot of screens. They worked very well. It was an amazing day for Danny and our receivers. Danny was the MVP of the game. He had a duplicate trophy made for me. I appreciated that."
O'NEIL: "The MVP was a team effort. I really felt it was a 'we' trophy, including the coaches. But what do I remember most about the game? Losing, and throwing two interceptions."
RUHL: "Were they better than us? Oh my gosh, yeah. There were a bunch of guys on that team who could really play. They had a lot more talent, but we played 'em pretty tough."
MOLDEN: "I remember how much bigger and faster that team was, and they didn't make a whole bunch of mistakes. From that first play from scrimmage, that was just a different team than what we'd seen."
PHILYAW: "Penn State had a lot of talent, but I'd be hard-pressed to say they were better than us. They beat us, but we hurt ourselves with some missed opportunities. It was a better game than a lot of people anticipated."
BROOKS: "They had broken all of the offensive records in college football that year. It was a hell of a collection of talent. But we had a lot of great young men who worked their butts off. I wish we could have some things over in that game, but we had a shot at winning the Rose Bowl. We didn't quite do it, but it was fun getting there."
Indeed, getting there was a big part of it for the Ducks.
MOLDEN: "I remember how perfect that field at the Rose Bowl looked in January. It was so cool."
WILCOX: "Before the game, I remember being calm and taking it all in, knowing it was special that I get to walk out and play in the game for the U of O against the No. 2-ranked in the country, coached by Joe Paterno. To be part of that, knowing it's a chance to do something big — it caught my attention."
RUHL: "What I remember most was not necessarily the warm-up stuff, but boy, coming out of the tunnel before the start of the game. Fans were yelling, and there were so many of them. The game itself that will stick with me the rest of my life. It's one of the highlights of my life, right up there with getting married and having kids."
COTA: "It was unbelievable to play in front of 100,000 people. I'll always remember that big first play. Wish that wouldn't have happened. But I had a lot of fun playing in front of that many people, including a huge turnout of Oregon fans. I'll never forget the great support the Duck fans gave us."
ALIOTTI: "As a kid, I remember sitting on my grandmother's floor on New Year's Day, watching Joe Paterno coach Penn State in the Orange Bowl. To have the opportunity to coach against a legend like Paterno was a tremendous feeling. I won't forget that whole week down there. It was chilling to walk onto the field before the game, with half the stadium decked in blue and white and half in green and yellow.
PHILYAW: "Growing up, I loved hearing Keith Jackson commentate a game and talk about where guys were from (in pregame-introductions. To have Keith say, 'Dino Philyaw from Dudley, North Carolina,' that was the biggest kick I ever got. Somebody recorded it for me, and when I got home and watched it, it was beyond exciting. It was great to watch the game, too. When you're playing, you don't realize the magnitude of it all."
BELLOTTI: "One night before the game, they had all the assistant coaches and their wives from both Oregon and Penn State at a dinner. The head coaches were not there. It was a nice, quiet dinner away from the media in the Rose Bowl suites as the stadium. That was one of the neatest things. As far as all the hoopla surrounding the game — that was stuff a coach doesn't want to be involved with."
MOLDEN: "It was the first time I ever wore a suit. I had to have one to go to Lawry's (for the annual 'Beef Bowl'). Herman O'Berry and Ricky Whittle helped me pick out a suit, and showed me how to match the tie.
COTA: "Danny, Herman O'Berry and I went to Disneyland one day. We saw a group of (Nittany Lions), including K'Jana Carter and Kerry Collins. They looked like NFL first-rounders. I'm not sure we did. What a physical specimen Carter was. We kind of laughed about it, but we weren't intimidated. We were determined to go out there and fight with all we could."
O'NEIL: "Everything that you would expect someone to say about the privilege and how great it was to play in the Rose Bowl is true. At the same time, I gotta tell you, it's just the next game. There's a lot of hoopla to deal with through the week in Pasadena. You have all the things going on as distractions, and most of them are fun. But then you have have to strap on and play the game. My focus was on doing what I always do."
BELLOTTI: "I'm glad I was able to coach in the Rose Bowl. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After (the 2019 Ducks) beat Utah (for the Pac-12 title), I talked to Marcus Arroyo (the offensive coordinator, who has accepted the head coaching job at UNLV). I told him, 'Make sure to tell Coach Mario (Cristobal) you want to work in the Rose Bowl. It's a great experience and one you should enjoy.' "
PHILYAW: "The highlight of my career was achieving something nobody would have expected to do in a million years at a school like Oregon. We set the program up for huge success in the coming years. We had a lot of hard-nosed, blue-collar guys. We didn't have the Nike contract and all the nice extra stuff they have now. It seemed like the fans were really fans. They watched us go from almost getting our coach fired to getting a job in the NFL. When we made the Rose Bowl, that was a defining moment, when it was time for the program to go to the next level."
O'NEIL: "That season is a great snapshot of what can happen to a football team. We weren't very good the first few games, but we had the intangibles, that fighting, never-give-up spirit. It finally paid off."
Most of the people quoted in this article plan to be at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 to watch Oregon face Wisconsin.
MOLDEN: "I'm so happy that they were able to come together and exorcise demons. To do it while hanging their hat on the defense — I took great pride in that. I call them 'Gang Green 2.0.' They made what we did relevant again."
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