If you bore witness to the NFC Championship between the 49ers and Seahawks, you saw the absolute best in football and in sports rivalry. If that game had been any more intense on the field and in the stands, it would have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum, and the planet would be swarming with Klingons, Ewoks and Orcs.
Never forget that game. That was the standard.
Which brings us to the Washington-Oregon rivalry. That is not the standard.
Not Saturday, not for the last several years since the Ducks converted Phil Knight’s $10-shoes-sold-for-$150 empire into college football’s Death Star. As every beleaguered Huskies fan knows, it’s been 10 years since Washington beat Oregon. Given the relative competitive balance of the Pac-10 and now the Pac-12, that is astonishing.
Then there’s the 10-game average score: 43-17. Yeesh. Fredo played Michael Corleone closer.
As John Canzano put it this week in the Oregonian: “It’s an incredibly difficult task to win 10 straight of anything against anyone. Moreso doing it in college football, where there’s an attrition of talent, and rain falls, and the ball sometimes bounces in a direction it shouldn’t.”
Until the Huskies beat the Ducks, as Canzano pointed out, there is no real rivalry. Sure, there’s always the geographic thing, abetted by Portland’s historic little-brother status in the Northwest, and the earlier hegemony by the Huskies of the James-Lambright era.
Still . . . 10 in a row? Fergawdsakes . . .
Consider a parallel: Huskies-Cougars. Washington fans have always dismissed Washington State as lessers, smug in their purple arrogance the UW will always own the restaurant where Cougars are hired after getting their diplomas from the “Want Fries With That?” degree program.
But Apple Cup history shows UW has never won more than eight in a row. The Huskies did it twice, from 1959 to 1967, and from 1974 to 1981. More recently, the last 10 Apple Cups have been split.
So it’s fair to say that the schools are competitive with each other. But even that designation has modest juice. As recently as 2008 the Huskies were 0-12 and the Cougars 2-10, one of the wins a grim 16-13 double-overtime affair over the Huskies in Pullman — the first match between 10-game losers in conference history — that set back the Apple Cup to the days of Lewis and Clark.
UW-WSU may be close, but the rivalry is nearly moot because both teams have rarely been good simultaneously. Same with Oregon-Washington.
What truly makes a rivalry is relevance. The Ducks have been relevant. The Huskies are not. Their recent meetings have had no substantive national significance, and beyond UW alumni club meetings, no local significance.
When the stakes are high, capable of drawing attention beyond Forks and Pullman, the game transcends its annual-ness and becomes special. That’s what worked with Seahawks-49ers. Even though the teams had no long, riveting history with one another, even as division rivals, the arrivals of coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, their mutual contempt and their successful tenures elevated the tension nationally to Defcon 2.
When Seahawks fans were throwing up on the Friday ahead of the game, the degree of anticipation was acute.
In college, where players are more or less four-year rentals, Huskies players can barely grasp the angst in the fan base. Then again, that is about the last thing Huskies coach Chris Petersen wants them to do.
A former Ducks assistant coach (1995-2000) who made a national reputation as a head coach partly via a 2-0 record at Boise State against Oregon, Petersen knows that winning Saturday is a one-play-at-a-time proposition, repeated through the evening. History does not matter, and in any event cannot be erased.
“If we’re not playing our best football we’ve played all year, have as much attention to detail as we’ve had all year, play as hard as we’ve played all year, we’re not going to have a chance,” he said. “So it comes back to us.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything in the past. It comes down to playing good football.”
As has been chronicled in many places, Oregon made a football-program investment whose degree was not matched by Washington or any other Pac-12 school — or nationally, for that matter. At the NCAA level, there are no player salaries to cap, and no restraint on coaching salaries or facilities, so Oregon reaped the rewards of horribly overpriced sweatsuits.
As result, the virtually unlimited upgrades to facilities and salaries have drawn top-flight athletes and coaches. But as with any endeavor, sudden wealth generates resentment. The flip side is hostility on the Willamette Valley campus toward the athletic department that some think hijacked the college. (Did UO become Faber College with a really good football team?)
“Oregon just decided we’re a second-rate university that’s struggling to compete with other top universities in the country, so it was easier to grow in athletics than academics,” Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor, told the Orange County Register. “The athletic enterprise here has become a monster, become the tail that wags the academic dog and no one here has the (guts) to stand up to them.”
The resentment has triggered a lack of transparency that surrounds the athletic administration relative to the rest of the school.
“A culture of secrecy,” Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor, told the Register. “This is deeply concerning. The athletic department is operating in a way somewhat removed and from a sense of openness.”
University president Michael Gottfredson made a habit out of sidestepping the faculty intercollegiate athletic committee, complaining the group was trying to involve itself in areas where it didn’t belong. Instead Gottfredson set up a separate committee. He resigned in August.
“The IAC was crippled,” Freyd said.
But those problems are for the consciences of Oregon taxpayers and higher-ed administrators. There is no arguing that the investment has created a colossus astride Autzen Stadium, That’s what Petersen must overcome.
“Half that staff were the same guys that were there when I was there,” he said. “They’re really good people, first and foremost. They’ve got really good support. They’ve never said, ‘Hey, we’re good. We have this building, we’re good. We have this stadium, we’re good.’ They’re always trying to figure out how to get better. It’s not any one thing. It’s this, on top of that. They stack things, and they get good players that are good kids. This is what happens.
“They’ve got all these really cool things, but at the end of the day, if you don’t win . . . kids like winning, and what goes with it. They’ve done a great job.”
Now that UW has done upgrades of its own, thanks largely to the Pac-12 Networks revenue, for Husky Stadium, the facilities gap has closed somewhat. As well, the Huskies have hired a nationally recognized coach at the the top of his game. And the Huskies are 5-1, as are the Ducks.
But Oregon, ranked ninth and coming off a smackdown of UCLA at the Rose Bowl, is 20-apoint favorite, owing far more to the 20 years of investment and history, however morally dubious, than a home field advantage.
Vegas and the college-football world believe 10 years will grow to 11. But that’s what they thought when Petersen’s Boise State played Faber Col . . . um, Oregon. If he goes 3-0, he won’t need to take the the bus home because he will be riding purple-covered shoulders for the 280 miles back to Seattle.