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UCLA hopes to follow Oregon's road map to top of college football

Oregon, a non-factor before coach Mike Bellotti changed its culture and image in 1990s, is now part of the elite, where Bruins aspire to go.

October 25, 2013|By Chris Foster
  • Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota scores on the Ducks' opening drive against Washington State on Oct. 19. Mariota has passed for 19 touchdowns while rushing for another nine this season.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota scores on the Ducks' opening drive… (Thomas Boyd / Associated…)

Oregon football teams had spent a total of five weeks in the Associated Press top 10 from the poll's inception in 1936 through the 1999 season.

Mike Bellotti, Oregon's coach from 1995-2008, decided to clear-cut the landscape. The Ducks set out to become the nouveau riche in college football.

More than a decade later, Oregon sits above those with greater pedigree, ranked second, right behind old-money Alabama.

UCLA players, coaches and fans can look across the field at Autzen Stadium on Saturday and see that promised land.

The Ducks play fast. They climbed fast.

Oregon has finished in the top 10 four times in the last five seasons and came oh-so-close to the national title in 2010. The Ducks lost to Auburn, 22-19, in the championship game.

It's the type of national prominence the Bruins seek.

"They are a good team," UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said. "UCLA needs to be on its own level. Shoot, we need to be on a level above Oregon."

Is there one? Alabama, maybe. No one else looks down on the Ducks, who are 7-0, 4-0 in Pac-12 Conference play.

The 12th-ranked Bruins (5-1, 2-1) are trying to work their way up the ladder. Oregon opened as a 23-point favorite over a young UCLA team that is beat up.

The Bruins are without three starters on offense, two on the line. They will start at least six freshmen, possibly as many as eight.

Oregon has already shown the quality of its depth. The Ducks lost star running back De'Anthony Thomas to an ankle injury and Byron Marshall stepped in and had four consecutive 100-yard games. Thomas is expected to play against UCLA.

"Oregon has been able to recruit the type of athlete they think fits their system for a number of years," UCLA Coach Jim Mora said. "There are quality starters and there is quality depth. Certainly, we want to be a national player every year. It's a process. We're a year and a half into that process."

UCLA has been a national contender before, but that level has been reached only sporadically. The Bruins, with Red Sanders as coach, won the United Press International national title in 1954, part of three consecutive top-10 seasons. Coach Tommy Prothro had back-to-back seasons, 1965 and '66, in the top five. Coach Terry Donahue had five top-10 finishes from 1982-88.

The Bruins have finished in the top 10 15 times since 1936.

Oregon came from much further down the college football food chain. And the Ducks did it their way.

Bellotti couldn't compete with the sport's longtime blue bloods, so he didn't try, reminding himself: "Tradition, to young people, is only about three or four years. That's their scope of history."

Oregon blazed a new trail. "We changed our uniforms. We changed our look," Bellotti said. "We changed the culture at the institution. They never believed they could win. We changed that belief system."

Uniforms went DayGlo. Autzen Stadium became hip. Bellotti opened up the offense. The spread was coming into vogue, and the Ducks were among the pioneers.

Bellotti left in 2008 as Oregon's winningest football coach, with 116 victories. Chip Kelly, his offensive coordinator, took over. When Kelly left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles after last season, Mark Helfrich, his offensive coordinator, took over.

"You need consistency in your staff," Mora said. "Even though they lost Chip Kelly, they kept their offensive coordinator. They kept their assistants and kept churning."

It helps that Oregon has a sugar daddy. Nike founder Phil Knight has poured money into the program. "We had the support of the administration and the boosters," Bellotti said. "So we could gamble."

Quarterback Joey Harrington's larger-than-life image on the side of a building in a New York's Times Square took Heisman Trophy campaigns to new heights in 2001. "Things like that put Oregon on the map," Bellotti said.

Harrington didn't win the Heisman, but the Ducks finished 11-1 and were ranked second.

"Oregon made a statement that they were here to compete forever," said former USC Coach John Robinson, who played at Oregon and was an assistant coach there. "They were not somebody who was passing through in the night."

Statements keep coming. The latest is Oregon's $68-million football facility, funded by Knight, which opened in July.

"I remember as a player there, we'd go into an equipment shed for halftime and I'd sit on a tractor and watch the coach talk," Robinson said. "You visit Oregon now, it's an environment of luxury."

It's what the penthouse in college football looks like.

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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