EUGENE — When Joey Harrington and his class of recruits arrived at Oregon in 1997, they whispered among themselves about the grandest of goals: one day playing for a national championship. Four years later, the Ducks were in position to do so, ending up at the Fiesta Bowl, where they dominated Colorado.
The 2010 class also had the highest of aspirations, when the likes of Josh Huff and Ricky Heimuli hit campus. Sure enough, that season the Ducks played for the Bowl Championship series title. The difference was that, the 2001 team's BCS appearance was the first ever for Oregon, while the one two years ago was the second of what is now four straight BCS games for the Ducks, including this coming Jan. 3 against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The class that redshirted in 2008, along with those who signed in 2009 and played right away, have helped change the paradigm. For Oregon, BCS appearances are the new normal.
"You really don't think about that as a freshman," said senior linebacker Michael Clay, who played as a true freshman in 2009, when the Ducks began their current run by reaching the Rose Bowl. "You just want to survive freshman year. You don't know you're going to be the foundation for a run like that."
Clay didn't have the luxury of redshirting and staying behind in Eugene when the team played on the road. It was during such weekends in 1997, while watching their teammates on television, that Harrington and company began to talk of playing for a national championship.
Kenjon Barner did redshirt, after signing in 2008. But even on those idle weekends when the Ducks played on the road, and their dreams had room to soar to lofty heights, his class didn't envision the sort of sustained success the Ducks are enjoying
"Obviously we wanted to help get the program to where we knew it could be, where the coaches thought it could be," Barner said. "But to say we'd be where we are today? No."
The establishment of a "new normal" at Oregon coincided with the ascension of Chip Kelly to head coach in 2009.
"Chip raised the bar for us, and set new standards," said defensive lineman Taylor Hart, who redshirted Kelly's first fall as coach, and is now a junior.
Kelly's promotion preceded a shift in Oregon's recruiting standards. The 2011 class was the highest rated in UO history. Along with more talent, the Ducks are recruiting a different caliber of character, guys less likely to run into trouble off the field and more inclined to put in work on it.
A couple of tweaks to the coaching staff proved successful, too, particularly the effect line coach Jerry Azzinaro has had on the defense.
But primarily, the change under Kelly was cultural — his "win the day" philosophy became the standard in practice — so that wins became the standard each Saturday, to the tune of a 45-7 record and three conference titles in four years.
"Each day you come in to work, and it's that simple," Hart said. "You wake up and try to get better. Obviously we've proven that works, so guys buy into it."
The Ducks are just the fourth program to make four straight BCS games since that format was instituted 15 years ago. The last time they made two traditional New Year's Day bowls was after the 1994 and 1995 seasons, when they reached the Rose and Cotton bowls, respectively. That run bridged the coaching change from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti, and the Ducks couldn't sustain it, failing to reach a bowl in 1996.
The current group of seniors, on the other hand, was able to sustain their success, playing by what Barner calls "the Oregon way."
"Staying focused, mentally tough and doing things the right way," Barner said. "Not doing anything outside of yourself or outside of the scheme the coaches set for us."
For all of Kelly's skills, that one might be the most impressive — the discipline of his focus, not allowing the Ducks to get too high after any win, or too low after a rare defeat. Every day they go back to work, intently focused on getting better.
And by now, if Kelly has any trouble instilling that focus, the veterans impart it upon newcomers.
"We're really thankful we're able to set this foundation for everyone," Clay said. "People want to come to Oregon because they see the success we have, and they want to sustain it."
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was asked this week whether regular BCS appearances result in more pressure to continue the run.
"Extra pressure? Never extra; it's always the same," Aliotti said. "I've never played a game any other way, whether I played in it or coached it.
"When I was 4 years old playing Little League baseball, I'd cry if we lost. I want to win all the time. If my mom was coming around third base in baseball with the winning run, I'd trip her."
Another obvious potential hurdle is complacency. Hart said that's not a problem, as far as the team in concerned.
"When you're winning like this, it never gets old," Hart said.
For some fans, it's a different story. By purely subjective measures, there simply seems to be less buzz among the Oregon faithful about this BCS appearance, as opposed to the previous three.
That's reflected in ticket sales. As of late last week, the Ducks still had a couple thousand tickets available from their Fiesta Bowl allotment, which numbered 17,500. A year ago, Rose Bowl tickets sold out shortly after going on sale to the general public, and BCS title game tickets two years ago were snapped up entirely by season-ticket holders.
Of course, the flip side is that Oregon has already sold nearly 15,000 bowl seats this year, in an economic environment that has seen most bowl participants struggling to sell their tickets.
"I think there's a lot of schools that would be very happy with moving that amount of tickets," senior associate athletic director Craig Pintens said. "Obviously we want to move all of them, and hopefully we can still do that."
While the UO football team has learned over the years how to sustain BCS success, it's been an educational experience for fans, too. Pintens said fans "have gotten very savvy to the BCS process," learning that they can sometimes find seats on the secondary markets that are less expensive, or closer to the field, than those in Oregon's allotment.
"We might not have sold as many out of our allotment as Kansas State," Pintens said. "But I think there will be a lot of Duck fans in the crowd."
The positives of the football team's "new normal" have been numerous, Pintens said. A high school student, athlete or not, might get his or her first exposure to Oregon from watching the football team in a major bowl, and consider enrolling at the university.
The massive exposure — Oregon's title game appearance two years ago remains the highest-rated program in cable television history — helps recruiting for other sports, many of which use weekends of home football games to host visits by prospects.
And merchandising has been strong. The online provider of official merchandise sales through Oregon's website hosts many other major athletic departments around the country, and Oregon's sales are third behind only Alabama and Notre Dame, ahead of such other prominent programs as Florida, LSU and Ohio State. The Ducks are well above industry averages for percent of sales to out-of-state fans, and internationally.
Yes, four straight BCS appearances have reaped ample rewards for Oregon. Questions about Kelly's NFL aspirations, an ongoing NCAA investigation and the always fickle nature of recruiting might threaten it in years to come, but for now, it's the Ducks' new normal.