The DEFEND Cleveland Show

How Oregon Football Keeps Winning

[Brief disclaimer: I love my ducks.]

Just in time for tonight’s Oregon vs. LSU game, Michael Kruse of Grantland has taken one of the most absurd arguments in sports, somehow made it more specious and then attempted to codify it with some sociological hooey. He integrated a common Grantland formula (true + obvious = uninteresting) with a bit of intellectual dishonesty and really did a thing: uninteresting + seemingly obvious (- true) = charlatan. That’s right, folks: Grantland has officially, finally, jumped the shark.

Kruse’s argument follows thusly:

1. Phil Knight approached Oregon after their 1996 Cotton Bowl loss both with enough pity for the perennially struggling team to offer his credit card yet with enough hope for their program that he knew it’d be worth it.
2. The shininess of Oregon’s uniforms (and its national marketing effort, which featured nothing but those uniforms) was enough to
single-handedly give Oregon an unprecedented cultural presence.
3. That cultural presence translated directly into improved recruiting for Oregon, putting better and more diverse talent into Autzen Stadium.
4. That better talent translated directly into better performances and better rankings.

Therefore, by the transitive property, Oregon wins football games because their uniforms are shiny. Q.E.D.

Kruse made this argument, as The Atlantic (Wire) later put it, by looking “through the lens of ‘the attention economy,’” a faux-intellectual flourish based in a paper by sociologist Michael Goldhaber.

The “attention economy” stuff is what distinguishes Kruse’s article from every other article on Oregon’s turnaround. To listen to sportswriters for the past few years, writers who have seen great teams stay great or great teams fall, but have rarely seen bad teams reach for greatness in the way Oregon has, one would be convinced that in the ‘90s Phil Knight bought Oregon a new football team. That’s an old story, and not a terribly interesting one (wait…there’s a lot of money in college athletics, and its influence may affect the purity of sport? Get me Bill Simmons on the phone.), and it also happens to be not…exactly…true. But Kruse puts this soft-science stamp on it, this “attention economy” epilogue, this little bit of academic credo, and suddenly a funny (if incorrect) sports story, an echochamber punchline, becomes an incisive cultural analysis. But, unfortunately for Mr. Kruse, the story isn’t true, and even if it were, it wouldn’t say anything valuable about sports or culture.

I’ll start by debunking the “Oregon wins football games because of their uniforms” fallacy.

As Mr. Kruse points out, it was only after Oregon’s 1995 Rose Bowl and 1996 Cotton Bowl appearances that Phil Knight approached “the Ducks’ coach” with an offer for facilities, uniforms, and marketing. As Mr. Kruse points out, the 1994 and 1995 seasons were a stark relief against the previous decades of Oregon football history, and were impressive enough to pique Nike’s interest. The reasons for Oregon’s sudden success were many, but the two big ones were Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti’s creation of the “Gang Green” defense and Offensive Coordinator (then Head Coach) Mike Bellotti’s nascent offense organization, which through the ‘90s and early 2000’s allowed Oregon’s notoriously inconsistent quarterbacks to find their step.

Let me be clear: in the 1994 and 1995 seasons, Oregon found its way to the post-season without underwater treadmills, without 500 uniform combinations, without $2,400-a-gallon helmet paint, but with original thinking, a disciplined coaching dictum, and a lot of those less-than-salacious attributes of a team on the rise, like tenacity and perseverance. Only at that point did Phil Knight get involved with Oregon football.

Mike Bellotti, the offensive coordinator in 1994 and newly-promoted head coach starting in 1995, went on to become the winningest coach in Oregon history. In Mr. Kruse’s entire creation myth for the modern Oregon program, Mr. Bellotti is not mentioned once. My suspicion is that if he were, readers all over Grantlandia would pause and say to themselves, “now why does that name sound so familiar…?” That name sounds familiar, dear readers, because for fifteen years they called Mr. Bellotti “the Dean of the Pac-10.”

After Mr. Bellotti and Mr. Aliotti’s leadership started to bear fruit, Mr. Knight approached them and offered his help in building facilities, marketing the team and, (hopefully) improving recruiting. And so he did–during the ‘90s, as Mike Bellotti continued to steer the Ducks program, and as Nick Aliotti returned as Defensive Coordinator in 1999 after a brief stint in the NFL (the Rams offered him a job immediately after the Ducks’ Rose Bowl), Oregon became a force in the Pac-10. They didn’t just become a force in recruiting and media presence, or in “on the lighter side” local news segments. They didn’t become a force only in replica jerseys, but they became a force in winning football games. The coaching staff remained disciplined but creative. Lots of formations, lots of playing styles, were tried out on the field. And as better players started filling the bench in Eugene, and as their uniforms got, well, flyer and flyer, the team got better and better.

Does this story sound familiar? Well, it should, because uniforms not withstanding, it’s the story of every team in every sport that has ever improved, ever. Good coaches + better players + better facilities and marketing = improved football-playing. That’s math–and math is the same everywhere.

As a quick aside, the fact that Mr. Kruse jumps from pointing out Oregon football’s foundation in 1894 to claiming that Oregon football lacks “tradition” is laughable. The Oregon Civil War, played between Oregon and Oregon State every year (save for five) for the past 117 years, is the seventh oldest football rivalry in the country. The first Civil War game was played in 1894. The University of Florida didn’t even have a football team until 1906. What I find most disturbing about Mr. Kruse’s article has nothing to do with Oregon and the glib falsehood surrounding its success. I’m sure I’ll find plenty of time later in the season to rant about the anti Pac-10(!) bigotry that runs rampant all over flyover country (yeah, I said it.)

What’s disturbing about Mr. Kruse’s article is that it takes a played-out story and claims to say something new about it by half-assedly attaching some mention of a study or paper from soft-science academia. It illustrates perfectly what I call the “Gladwellification” of contemporary sportswriting, Grantland in particular.

Malcom Gladwell (not coincidentally Grantland’s new big-name contributor) has sold millions of books by saying not-terribly-new-or-interesting things (“rare birds are rare,” “experience can be quantified,” “there’s such a thing as standard deviation”) with enough citations of obscure socio-, psycho-, and anthropological papers that his readers come to understand something they already knew to be true just got, well, truer. When the stories you’re supporting with soft science are true, as Mr. Gladwell’s are, it makes for pleasantly brainy airport reading and not much else. When the stories you’re attempting to support aren’t true, As Mr. Kruse’s Oregon football story isn’t true, you’re not only feeding an intellectual dishonesty but you’re degrading what sportswriting is supposed to be: vivid accounts of human greatness and technical wonder, unencumbered by the cloyingly broad rationalizations of sociology departments, Successories, and David Brooks.

And once again, let me be clear: I am not discounting the soft sciences wholesale, as so many people of classics pedigree tend to. The soft sciences have their place, and sociology is capable of yielding profound truths about human nature. But in the hands of writers like Mr. Kruse, who this week lazily stapled a 14 year-old paper to a 10 year-old wives’ tale and called it journalism, the soft sciences are just that: soft and fluffy, syrupy and without merit. If i were Mr. Goldhaber, I would be offended. If I were Mike Bellotti, I would be furious.


-Will Hollingsworth

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Posted by on Sep 3 2011. Filed under Featured, Meta World Peace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “How Oregon Football Keeps Winning”

  1. john collins

    well said will. the war on pseudo science is the continuation of rationality by other means.

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