Nike key to Oregon's national surge

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
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Dion Jordan Harry How/Getty ImagesOregon's snazzy and constantly changing uniforms, along with its ultra-quick style of play and success, has created a national buzz around the program and made Eugene, Ore., a must-visit city for many recruits.
It is no secret that the Oregon Ducks lack the history of other top college football programs. Before 1994, any national attention that Oregon received was due to its track and field program.

Then, 1994 is a significant year in the eyes of Oregon fans. Not only did the Ducks return to their first Rose Bowl since 1958, but this year signaled the birth of Oregon football as a national powerhouse. As long-time coach Rich Brooks rode the wave of success to the NFL, Mike Bellotti took over the Ducks program with the vision of sustained success. Little did he, or anyone else, know about the journey upon which a formerly doormat program was about to embark.

The 1995 season brought the Ducks to the brink of another Pac-10 title before they settled for the Cotton Bowl. While they lost for the second New Year’s Day in a row -- this time to Colorado -- the seeds had been planted with fans and one very important graduate.

Nike founder Phil Knight had a vision to help the Ducks program continue the upward mobility from cellar dweller to Pac-10 heavyweight, but no one could have envisioned that the partnership between Oregon and Nike would lead to where things stand now. In what has been one of the greatest rises in college sports history, the little school in the middle of nowhere went from being known for long-distance running to becoming arguably the trendiest program in college football.

Even as the Ducks were emerging on the scene, steadily rising to the top of the Pac-10, the coaching staff had a tall task of trying to convince the top prospects on the West Coast to even consider a recruiting visit to Eugene. The Ducks were able to grab the occasional elite prospect, but the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s was largely built on the likes of junior college stars such as Akili Smith, Reuben Droughns and Maurice Morris.

[+] EnlargePhil Knight
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight, through his company's uniform designs and donations to the school's athletic department, has created a culture of "cool" at Oregon.
After three straight bowl wins in the early 2000s, the Oregon program began to be recognized as a legitimate player on the West Coast. Through the next few years there were some great moments, including wins over powerhouse programs like Michigan and Oklahoma, but the Ducks could never put a full season together. While some elite players were slowly making their way to Oregon, things seemed to have plateaued in Eugene.

It wasn't until the 2005 season, when the Ducks introduced a new high-performance uniform, when things really kicked into gear. In the annual 'Civil War' with in-state rival Oregon State, the Ducks wore a uniform that made many cringe. As they tried to make out what exactly the Ducks were wearing, fans started asking questions and eventually got their answer. The platinum markings on the shoulders and knees of the Ducks jerseys were the talk of college football as the 9-1 Ducks blew their rivals out of the water.

Before the 2005 season, Oregon hauled in one of its best recruiting classes to that point, highlighted by five signees from the powerhouse Concord (Calif.) De La Salle program. Of that highly touted group, the headliner was five-star wide receiver Cameron Colvin, who chose the Ducks over traditional powers Michigan and USC on national television. It was a significant moment for Oregon football as it proved it could beat other top programs for blue-chip recruits. And Oregon’s gear had a lot to do with Colvin’s choice.

"Nike is the elite in sports apparel and having the ability to work with them and give feedback, while also helping with uniform design is a big deal to a teenage kid,” Colvin said. “Michigan and USC both had a lot to offer and had more tradition, but Oregon was the up-and-comer with something no one else had. I knew I couldn't go wrong with choosing to commit to Oregon.”

While many initially mocked the new threads, the Ducks athletic department found a niche that would help propel it to the next level. With Nike spearheading the research and testing, even including Oregon players in the design process, the Ducks found what they were looking for.

It didn't matter what old school fans of traditional powerhouses thought. Oregon is the younger generation. The Ducks knew what was hot and they knew that was how they could grab the attention of teenage prospects nationwide.

That change accelerated in 2007. Chip Kelly came in as offensive coordinator and installed a fast-paced, spread-option offense that took college football by storm. Led by Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart, the Ducks were well on their way to a berth in the BCS Championship game before a devastating rash of season ending injuries ravaged the team.

While the Ducks stumbled late and finished 9-4, their mark had been made. The funky uniforms didn't slow them down or impede their growth as a football program. Instead, they made the Ducks look fast, different and hip. In what was a program-defining win, the Ducks went traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., and dealt Michigan the worst home loss in its program’s history.

[+] EnlargeGerald Willis
Miller Safrit/ESPN.com2014 defensive lineman Gerald Willis, a New Orleans native, cites the allure of the Ducks' uniforms as a big reason for his interest in Oregon.
After the 39-7 blowout, there were several reports of recruits at the game commenting to reporters how they wanted to go to the Oregon sideline, locker room and make the long trek across the country to Eugene. The Ducks’ speed, swagger and style of play had officially caught the eye of top players nationwide.

From that point on, top recruits began mentioning Oregon as a school of interest. While it was mostly infatuation, some players that gave Oregon a serious look, with some using one of their official visits to a school their parents had never heard of.

Once Kelly took over as head coach, the uniforms changed again. This time, there were literally hundreds of color combinations, including colors never before seen in an Oregon uniform that had nothing to do with the Ducks’ tradition green-and-yellow ensemble.

Looking sharp and different from everyone else while running through the competition took things to a whole new level. The best of the best in the country were no longer just mentioning Oregon. They were making the trek to Eugene to see if the growing buzz was reality.

As the Ducks have risen to a new level of success with three straight BCS appearances, their recruiting success has risen to match the on-field accomplishments.

Two elite prospects from the Southeast in the Class of 2014 both have Oregon on their mind. 2014 defensive end propsect Gerald Willis (New Orleans, La./Edna Carr) tells his mother regularly that he's going to commit to Oregon. Willis, the younger brother of Alabama freshman safety Landon Collins, hopes to visit Oregon next year. While he might be messing with his mother about the commitment, Oregon is clearly on his mind.

"He tells me every day that he's going to commit to Oregon," said Willis’ mother, April Justin.

Former Alabama running back Bobby Humphrey, whose son is an elite cornerback in the class of 2014 recently told TideNation's Alex Scarborough that his son, Marlon Humphrey, is already taking a serious look at Oregon.

There are many factors in the Ducks success both on the field and in recruiting, but the Nike connection and the trendsetting have played a major factor in the Ducks rise to the top of the college football world. While it is impossible to measure, it is clearly one of the main factors that has prospects out of football hotbeds like Texas, Georgia and Florida taking a serious look at the Ducks.

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