Today's Oregon Ducks are flashy and fast. They post high scores, high ratings and even higher rankings. Yes, the football team in Eugene is smack dab in the middle of its golden era, with legitimate talk of national championships and five-star recruiting classes happening year in and year out.
It wasn't always this way.
Long-lived Duck fans once endured a bowl drought of almost 30 years, including a near 100-year window between Rose Bowl wins. In 1983, they suffered through what is possibly the nadir of the football program, a 0-0 tie in their annual Civil War game against Oregon State. The game featured almost a dozen turnovers and is, not surprisingly, known infamously as the Toilet Bowl.
There are several seasons after the 1983 campaign that could be referred to as turning points for the program, years that made this current iteration of Ducks possible, but the strongest candidate is 1994, when they made an improbable run to the Rose Bowl, breaking a near 30-year absence from the big game.
"The 1994 team really started on the scout team in 1993," says Jaiya Figueras, the '94 Oregon Special Teams Player of the Year. "When we were on the scout team on defense, a lot of times guys would tell us not to go so hard, to stop being scout team All-Americans. Then we would sit in the stands during the year and see us lose and we'd think in our heads that we shouldn't be losing to these teams. Guys would fear the USCs, the UCLAs, the Washingtons. A lot of us didn't feel that way."
Danny O'Neil, quarterback of both the 1993 and 1994 teams, recognized a big difference between what he calls the "character of leadership" between the two.
"Prior to that year  we were tired of losing," O'Neil says. "One of the key components of 1994 was the character of leadership. There were people who weren't just talking about being better, but who were working harder and practicing harder to be better. They were focused on the goal of winning football games."
Despite the new positive outlook and a shift in attitude, the 1994 Oregon Ducks started 1-2, with one of those losses coming at the hands of Hawaii.
"I remember getting back on the plane after the Hawaii loss, and we had a bunch of guys injured," Figueras says. "We were just banged up. We came in riding on mopeds and it was fun and everyone was happy ... and we got our butts kicked, like we went through a war. We lost the next game and started hearing boos from our own fans. That was our lowest point."
O'Neil embraced those losses as a necessary evil for the team and as a way to build stronger character.
"Having those two losses is what established the fact that this team was committed to going out there and competing," he says. "The year before we had a very good football team. We got upset by Cal at Berkeley and after that the team went into the tank. We got disgusted and we tightened up. The difference between a good team and a great team is attitude and character. It's an intrinsic quality that a team has. Those losses confirmed to everyone that we were going to be different. We didn't want to graduate with another bad year. When we went down and beat USC -- that was a huge trip there. We were missing lots of our main starters and we won. When we then beat Washington and Arizona back-to-back, things got serious."
At the time of those wins, Washington was ranked No. 9 in the country and Arizona was ranked No. 11. You add to that the victory over then-No. 19 USC, and Oregon beat three top-25 teams in four weeks, propelling its own ranking up to No. 21. After blowout wins over Arizona State and Stanford, the Ducks found themselves entering their last game, the Civil War against Oregon State, on the road, with the Pac-10 Championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. At that point, the team didn't need to look elsewhere for inspiration.
"We knew that we were playing well," O'Neil says. "We just had to go out there and prove it. Nobody had to pump us up in some speech because we had everything in the world to play for."
And yet, the Ducks found themselves losing to the Beavers late in the game.
"It was rough being down," he says. "The weather wasn't great, and it was a tough situation to play football. We started passing the ball a lot that season, but it was really hard to do in that game."
The Ducks were down 13-10 in the fourth quarter.
"We got the ball back at the end and Oregon State had one of those offenses that could run out the clock," O'Neil says. "We kind of felt that when we had the ball it was our last opportunity. We made a lot of third-down conversions and we ran a lot of screens. On the last play, we threw a wide screen and got some great blocks."
When O'Neil showed the poise and leadership that he and his team had developed by putting together a 70-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Dino Philyaw to give them the lead.
Figueras points out that the win was extra sweet because of how far the team had come.
"We started from such a low place that we respected everybody," he says. "Because we came from a place of no respect."
"It would be a different feeling if it happened to the Ducks today," he says. "The Ducks show up with an expectation of going to a BCS bowl. We had no expectations. We were the Cinderalla story. At the time it's hard to process what's happening. Every single football player in college puts in the same amount of time. When I think back on it now, I remember the fellow players that I battled with every day. We accomplished something great for any team."
Oregon would end up losing to Penn State in the Rose Bowl, even though O'Neil threw for more than 450 yards. Still, the game gave Oregon a national audience and a chance to use that visibility to lure better recruits.
"We see ourselves as the foundation, as the team that started it all," Figueras says. "It's difficult to overcome that losing psychology. You have sixty-five 18-20-year-old kids who have to believe. Even if it's just a small percent that don't believe, they don't work hard in practice, they tell you to slow down, they just lack effort. The effort during practice was way different that Rose Bowl year versus the year before. We were a physical team, man. A physical team."
"No doubt the '94 team was the turning point for the program," O'Neil adds. "Every season after that was important as well, and there were turning point seasons before that, but that year was a critical point for us."
Next time you watch the high-flying Oregon Ducks of today, remember to take a moment to appreciate the grind-it-out Ducks of yesterday.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
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