The USC Trojans used to be the most hated college football opponent in the West. They won everything and rubbed your face in it. They had an abundance of talent, arrogance, O.J., and that aggravating song.
The men of Troy are such old news now. Total afterthought. So unimportant to the bigger scheme of all things in the Pac-12 Conference and the Pacific time zone.
Nothing beats a more angst-filled football afternoon than when Washington and Oregon get together, call out each other’s inadequacies, and do everything possible to gloat when someone gets the upper hand.
This has to be one of the most temperamental cross-state rivalries (rather than in-state, which is a whole different beast), ranking with Texas-Oklahoma, Ohio State-Michigan and Georgia-Florida.
Yet for pure dislike, this Northwest knucklehead-fest exceeds those others.
This yearly game has left newcomers to it such as Keith Bhonapha, who arrived in 2014 with Chris Petersen as the UW running-backs coach, tongue-tied when cautiously trying to describe what goes on.
“We actually got to the stadium and you couldn’t just . . . it was hard to . . . you couldn’t even . . . I guess, going into it . . . let me go back,” Bhonapha said, searching for the right words. “You couldn’t imagine how just violent and passionate the rivalry was between the fans, as you’re coming onto the field, getting ready for warmups, as you’re riding on the bus.
“Over the course of time, you just sort of learn.”
Here’s part of the lesson plan. Oregon fans have thrown dog biscuits at players and team followers. UW loyalists have stuffed little yellow plastic duck toys in every stadium game-day urinal. Both sides have printed up really obscene signs and T-shirts. That’s the tame stuff.
For the ultimate show of college football gamesmanship, or downright pettiness, in this annual neighborhood barbecue, sporting archeologists have to go back 47 and 48 years.
No place in college football does what these two did to each other back in the Animal House 1970s.
In 1973, Oregon hosted the Jim Owens-coached Huskies in Eugene and laid a messy 54-0 lipstick kiss on the visitors from Seattle. There was no air of football superiority surrounding this particular social engagement — both teams were 1-5 at kickoff. The Ducks just saw an opportune time to kick a Dawg while it was really down, leaving it unrecognizable.
Twelve months later, the UW repaid the favor in Seattle and plucked all the feathers off the Ducks, winning 66-0. Each team was 2-4 coming in. Good old-fashioned payback. The only apology served up for this 60 minutes of football mayhem came from Owens — to his starting quarterback, Chris Rowland.
Purposely trying to run up the score greater than 54-0, Owens kept playing the pass-minded Rowland, who was running the option with a fair amount of success, in the game late. Then he broke an ankle and ended his season.
“I remember Jim Owens coming into my hospital room and he apologized with tears in his eyes,” Rowland said.
None of those aforementioned cross-state rivalries have come within even several touchdowns of a 120-point swing over a year’s time, just to make a point.
Owens and the Oregon coaches then made this series more punishing on the field than in any previous time. Mind games were sure to follow.
Next up, the Don James-coached Huskies demoralized the Ducks in 15 of 18 games to create the first real air of superiority between the schools. People in Seattle began slamming the opposing city and the other educational opportunity as inferior.
The old tactic was renewed this week, when UW coach Jimmy Lake shockingly said Oregon was not a recruiting rival of Washington, claiming Washington competed against schools with similar “academic prowess” such as Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.
Oregon president Michael Schill responded drolly, praising Washington’s football and academic history, as well as respect for “former head coach Chris Petersen.” Lake drew no mention.
In an earlier era, Ducks coaches Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly took on the task of acting superior by regularly defeating UW and going to the Rose Bowl. Oregon won 12 consecutive games through 2015 before the Huskies pushed back with a 70-21 whipping in Eugene. By winning the past two outings and 14 of the previous 16, the Ducks have cut the series deficit to 60-47-5.
“Seeing Washington get whupped by Oregon every year wasn’t great, I guess,” freshman LB Carson Bruener said of growing up with the series. “Finally we snapped that streak. I think it was after that game, after we beat them 70-21 or something like that, I definitely knew that these two teams definitely hate each other.”
No group of sports fans was more disappointed than the followers of the Northwest’s most successful programs when the pandemic last year forced cancellation of the annual game. Another chance for either side to go for 54, 66 or 70 points was lost.
It’s a football rite of passion that can go so wrong at times. Still, once underway, it’s a game that can be as fun as it is rude. Just ask Bhonopha.
“I will say this,” he said. “As much as people try to make it about just hate and all that other stuff, I think one thing is, it’s so cool being part of this opportunity as a coach, and I think it’s a cool opportunity for the players.
“This is really what college football is all about.”
Mix in some black eyes, broken ankles, non-stop obscenities, chewed-up dog biscuits and peed-on duck toys, and it’s a wholesome time all around.
More of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Dan Raley’s work can be found here at si.com/maven