GLENDALE, Ariz. — From his seats in the third row of the stands Friday afternoon, Lenny Napier had a prime view of his Oregon Ducks shooting baskets in a football stadium — and a vivid reminder of another moment in the same venue.
Napier and his wife, Ashley, are Oregon fans who live in Tucson. They’d driven up for the Final Four, filled with hope — kind of like they did a little more than six years ago. As they neared University of Phoenix Stadium, which resembles a giant spaceship dropped into the middle of the desert, Ashley told her husband:
“It still hurts.”
She was referring to that loss in the BCS national championship to Auburn. And once they’d settled into their seats, Lenny pointed vaguely toward the spot where that game turned, finally, when Auburn running back Michael Dyer seemed to have been tackled, but wasn’t, and got up and kept running to set up the winning field goal.
“Not a fond memory,” he said, adding: “It was heart-breaking.”
But it also made Friday — and more to the point, the potential that lies ahead Saturday and perhaps Monday — more tantalizing, if also odd. What if Oregon, which elevated its national profile over the last couple of decades with success in football, won a national championship in hoops first?
“It’s weird,” Lenny Napier said. “We’re considered a football school.”
Here’s a fun parlor game: Is your school a football school or a basketball school? Oregon is undoubtedly the former, which is funny only in this: Not so long ago, at least on the national landscape, it was neither. But over the last two decades, the football program developed into a powerhouse.
Twice in the last six years, the Ducks have played for a national title in football. But here their basketball counterparts are, in the Final Four — and it’s a reflection of the rise of the entire athletic department.
Swoosh of success: Nike helps Oregon on trip to Final Four
Oregon football’s rise was fueled by the cash of Nike founder Phil Knight and the abundant resources from his company. But along the way, Oregon’s other sports have ridden much the same path. Football isn’t the only program with fancy facilities, and every sport now features those ever-changing uniform combinations.
And it’s more than flash. Since that near-miss against Auburn, Oregon’s softball team has played in the Women’s College World Series three times. The women’s volleyball team played for a national title. Men’s golf won a national championship last year. The men’s and women’s track teams have won multiple indoor and outdoor national championships. And most recent, there’s the women’s basketball team’s Cinderella run last month to the Elite Eight.
But nationally, Oregon’s brand is undoubtedly football.
“Outside of our core fan base, I think when you say, ‘Oregon Ducks,’ people think Nike, uniforms and football, no question,” athletic director Rob Mullens said.
This team, this weekend, has a chance to change that perception.
“It’s feeding off the success of football,” said Michael Wallace, a Eugene native who now lives in Ada, Mich., but remembers sneaking into Oregon’s old gymnasium to shoot hoops as a kid. “But this is an outstanding opportunity for Oregon on a lot of levels.”
Napier, by the way, was wearing an apple green Oregon football jersey, No. 21. But he also owns an Oregon basketball jersey.
“I’m gonna wear it to the game,” he said. “You can win as many titles in everything else. But until you win a football or a basketball title — it’s like everybody says, ‘How many national titles do you have in football?’ That’s always the knock. So I’m really hoping — football has been so close a couple of times. To see the basketball team get this close and not (win the title) would be heartbreaking as well.
“But they have a chance.”
Ducks coach Dana Altman just laughed when someone asked him Friday when Oregon became a basketball school.
“We’re still probably a track school, right?” he said.
Turning serious, Altman called football “a big plus,” and pointed back to that 2011 BCS title game as important moment for every other sport — “It brought a lot of exposure to the school, and it definitely helped us,” he said — while Mullens called the appearance in the 2011 BCS title game “a launching point” for the rest of the athletic department.
“From there, the whole innovation got parlayed to the whole department,” Mullens said, “not just in uniforms but in coaches’ approach. Everybody embraced it, and it’s produced incredible results.”
But considering football drove the train, it’s still strange to think basketball might finally arrive at the ultimate destination.
“When you get to two national championship games in football, especially as close as that first one was,” said Jerry Allen, the school’s longtime broadcaster, “it seems odd basketball has a chance to win one first.”
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