“You know what really makes your rocket ships go up? Funding. That’s what makes your ships go up. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
— “The Right Stuff” (1983)
DALLAS — Twenty years ago, Oregon made it back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 37 seasons.
It was more than just a trip to a prestigious bowl with a great parade (though they don’t throw beads).
For Oregon football, it was like a second coming.
That the Ducks lost to Penn State on New Year’s Day 1995 to finish 9-4 was almost secondary.
The point was, the Ducks were relevant again, for the first time in decades.
Rich Brooks, Oregon’s coach at the time (he later went on to Kentucky), was hailed as something of a hero, even though he ended his 18-year career in Eugene that season with just a .456 winning percentage.
It was the start of something big for Oregon, or rather, the sound of something big.
It sounded like a swoosh.
Phil Knight ran track for Oregon back in the late 1950s. What many track athletes — and many of the rest of us — now wear on our feet and on our backs are the products of Knight’s famous (some might say infamous) company, Nike.
It’s a company that has pushed Knight’s net worth to somewhere north of $22 billion. He has shared a sizable sliver of that fortune with his alma mater.
According to USA Today, Knight has given more than $300 million to Oregon athletics over the years. Not all of it goes into football, of course. Knight gave $100 million to help retire bonds for the $227 million Matthew Knight Arena — Oregon’s recently opened basketball palace named for his late son — but a lot of it is for football.
There’s the $10 million he gave nearly 20 years ago to build an indoor practice facility that shelters Oregon football players from the never-ending Oregon rain.
There’s the $35 million he gave to expand and improve Autzen Stadium. And there’s the $68 million he gave to build the 145,000-square foot Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, home to Oregon’s football program.
The facility is the over-the-top clincher when it comes to Knight’s boundless patronage. There’s Italian hair-cutting equipment in the on site barber shop (who else even has a barber shop on site?), rugs from Nepal, Ferrari leather on the seats in the team theater and a 35-foot-long table in the coaches’ meeting room from Germany.
There’s also a sports nutrition facility — like the one LSU is about to build on the site of the old Alex Box Stadium — where a neon sign encourages Oregon players to “Eat Your Enemies — And The Other Food Groups.”
“It’s a work of art,” former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told The Oregonian when the facility opened last year.
“The new building is crazy,” linebacker Tyson Coleman said. “The best football facility in the world.”
Forget Buck Rogers. Oregon football is awash in the kind of cash that even Han Solo (“I can imagine quite a bit”) could dream of.
You can argue whether this is all healthy for college athletics as a whole, contributing mightily to the arms race being waged across campuses everywhere.
But there is no arguing Oregon football has taken off, well, like a rocket, especially over the past decade.
Bellotti, who was Brooks’ offensive coordinator, retired in 2008 with a record of 116-55. The program only did better under his offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, who went 46-7 from 2009-12 with a loss to Auburn in the 2011 BCS Championship Game.
When Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles, Oregon promoted his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich. He’s 24-3 in his first two seasons on the job, with his Ducks installed as a solid favorite over Ohio State in Monday night’s inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
All from a school that used to be a football afterthought, in a state of just 3.9 million people (Louisiana’s population is 4.6 million) that hardly grows a bumper crop of FBS-level talent (only 24 Oregon players are from Oregon).
But Oregon has grown into a national brand. It’s the funding, it’s the 50 shades of uniform combinations (that’s probably a conservative number) and it’s even the Disney-designed duck mascot.
If Oregon wins Monday night, it will be the school’s first national title in football.
It doesn’t seem likely to be the last.
“The last decade, we’ve been one of the winningest teams,” said Oregon defensive coordinator and former player Don Pellum (106 wins to be exact). “The evidence says it. Things are good, and I think we’re just scratching the surface. We’re just getting there. It’s exciting for us and the fans.”
And a little ominous for Oregon’s enemies — the ones that could be on the menu next week in the football complex.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.