Master of war

Brooks was winner on both sides of War

EUGENE — To help an outsider understand the Civil War, Rich Brooks starts by explaining why some people weren't happy when Oregon hired him as its football coach in 1977.

Oregon's first choice was Bill Walsh, then the offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers. Walsh picked Stanford instead and went on to Super Bowl glory with the San Francisco 49ers.

The second choice was Jim Mora, who was the defensive coordinator for Don James at Washington. Mora accepted the job for a day or so, as Brooks remembers it, but changed his mind and stayed in Seattle.

That left Brooks, a 35-year-old assistant coach at UCLA.

"The reason I got it was that they couldn't get who they really wanted," Brooks said.

Some in Eugene were skeptical of the new coach, for one very important reason: He'd played and coached at Oregon State. It took a few years, Brooks said, to convince everyone that his hiring hadn't been some elaborate act of espionage.

"I had to beat Oregon State three years in a row before anybody trusted me in this town," Brooks said, "before the Oregon alumni said, 'I guess this guy's OK.' A lot of them didn't want me here because I was an Oregon State alum."

The irony is that beating Oregon State would become a calling card for Brooks, the thing that helped him survive the lean times during an 18-year climb to the Rose Bowl. As longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti recalls, there were years when the Civil War was the only game worth bragging about for fans of either program.

"Before, it was a game that we had to win so we could feel good about being 2-9," Aliotti said, "and so did they."

Since Brooks arrived, bragging rights have belonged primarily to the Ducks. Brooks was 14-3-1 against the Beavers at Oregon, and his record in the series as a player, head coach or assistant stands at 22-3-2.

Who better, then, to speak to the significance Oregonians place on the Civil War?

"If you lose that game, you're going to hear about it for the next 10 months," Brooks said. "Regardless of what you've done the rest of the year, you're going to hear about it from your neighbors.

"Even the ones that haven't gone to (either) school, most people choose sides in this state on that game. Being 40 miles apart, it can be painful when you're losing."

Brooks spends winters in California but still has a home in Springfield, and he plans to be in the crowd when the Ducks and Beavers meet today at Autzen Stadium. He rarely misses a game, so it's impossible to ignore how much the program has changed since the days when Brooks was raising money himself so the players could have their own meeting room.

"Did I actually work here?" Brooks wondered, walking through Oregon's opulent Hatfield-Dowlin Complex this fall.

"People who see it now have really no concept," he said. "There's no comparison. The stadium was half-empty. No facilities. No offices. No practice field. None. No money. The program was broke. The athletic department was broke. It was just different."

A tough job required a tough coach, and coaches don't come much tougher than Brooks. He grew up in Forest, Calif., a dying mining town in the Sierras. His father worked in the hard-rock gold mines and later served as a deputy sheriff.

At Oregon State, Brooks was a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker and a campus boxing champ. He doesn't brag about his fighting career, but he wasn't someone you wanted to cross in the ring.

"Won the all-school championship," Brooks said softly. "Didn't lose."

Brooks returned to Oregon State as an assistant in 1965, and he credits coach Dee Andros for instilling his appreciation for the Civil War. "This game is for the right to live in the state of Oregon," Andros would say, and Brooks remembered those words when he arrived at Oregon 12 years later.

UO offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, who played for Brooks before joining his staff, recalls another factor that motivated Brooks to beat the Beavers.

"Rich always had somewhat of a chip on his shoulder with him being an Oregon State grad and not getting hired for that job," Greatwood said. "I know he applied for it the year prior to him getting the job here.

"Throughout his tenure here, he wanted to make sure he proved a point to those people up the road that he was probably the guy they should have taken."

Brooks proved his point with emphasis, winning his first six games against Oregon State before the infamous 0-0 tie in 1983. The Ducks were 20-43-3 in that span, but when Civil War week rolled around, Brooks had a way of communicating the game's importance.

Greatwood recalls taking the field at OSU's Parker Stadium as a sophomore and walking behind Brooks, who was prone to experience some queasiness before big games.

"Following him down that 150 yards, he was upchucking about every other step," Greatwood said. "We were all dodging.

"There wasn't much in there, but it was enough."

The biggest Civil War of Brooks' career was undoubtedly the last one. In 1994, Oregon beat the Beavers to clinch the outright Pac-10 title and earn the school's first Rose Bowl trip since 1957, winning 17-13 on a late touchdown pass from Danny O'Neil and a defensive stand in the final minute.

"The ball fell incomplete on that left sideline, their sideline, down the field, and we knew we were going to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a long time," Aliotti said. "You know what? That was a great feeling."

Brooks left Oregon the next year to coach the St. Louis Rams, who fired him after three seasons. He doesn't regret leaving but realizes now his heart was in college football.

"I think it was time," Brooks said. "It was an experience. I wish I'd have been given a little longer leash in St. Louis.

"We thought we'd done a pretty good job compared to what they'd done the two or three years previous, but they didn't have a lot of patience, I guess."

These days, Brooks hardly recognizes the place where he once coached. Expanses of bare dirt have given way to gleaming glass and granite, transforming Oregon from the school that had nothing to the school that has everything.

"Nobody has what they have," Brooks said. "It's remarkable."

The sea change has brought new expectations, and Brooks notices those, too. When he heard about the flap that had Oregon fans talking last week — two players suggesting the Rose Bowl wasn't a big deal — he was glad to be a thousand miles away, hitting golf balls in the California desert.

"It drives me nuts, as a former coach," Brooks said. "It's a good thing I'm retired, because I would have had some words for those players."

Brooks also heard the disappointment of fans after Oregon's loss to Arizona, which all but ensured the Ducks won't earn a fifth straight BCS bowl bid. That loss, coupled with Oregon State's 69-27 loss to Washington, might cause recent converts to look at this year's Civil War and perceive a lack of drama.

Brooks knows better. He wanted to win every game, but this was the one he couldn't stand to lose.

"This is really important, this game," Brooks said. "Really important."


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