To understand how Oregon found its edge, look no further than the two best-dressed men in the room with more than 50 years of experience between them.

Surrounded by intoxicating colors and a Jetsons-esque, $68 million football operations building, the most fashionable personalities in the nation’s most fashionable football program aren’t the ones you’d find on a billboard.

It’s not the Heisman-winning, box score-destroying, create-a-player at quarterback, although Marcus Mariota models neon well. It’s not one of the nation’s brightest head coaches, either; on the sideline, a Nike golf shirt and hat satisfy Mark Helfrich’s modest wardrobe demands.

No, the two most stylish men in Eugene were around long before Nike infused a stagnant football pushover with flash and cash. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum and running backs coach Gary Campbell were at their posts well before labels like “soft” were unfairly attached to the next great football power.

If only someone would have cared enough to call them soft back when they started.

Over the course of decades, Pellum and Campbell have perfected the three-piece suit and Windsor knots, all in Eugene. In that time, they’ve watched Oregon undergo a rapid evolution, playing a significant role in its growth.

“We’ve come from the bottom with a chance to be at the very top,” Campbell said. “I was here when five or six wins was good. Six wins in 1989 got us into a bowl game. Winning a conference championship was farfetched. Now we’re playing for a national championship. It’s night and day.”

Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum

“You don’t have enough time,” Pellum added when asked about the differences in the program, laughing at the prospect of finding an appropriate starting point.

The very notion that Oregon could have competed for a national championship would have been greeted with laughter not long ago. Now, after climbing past these barriers and into the national spotlight, the Ducks are combating a new batch of football stigmas with tangible results.

“Wins and losses,” Helfrich said. “I don’t care how many yards of offense we have. I don’t care how many yards we give up on defense.”

You don’t have to look hard to figure out how Oregon became a football brute. But you do have to go back more than just a few years to understand how it all came together.

Rebuilding a Running Game (Again): Meshing New Talent with a Proven Philosophy

Oregon running backs coach Gary Campbell

The notion that Oregon suddenly developed a tough attitude on offense is false. When asked about freshman running back Royce Freeman—a 229-pound physical rarity and one of the nation’s elite runners—63-year-old Campbell responded without hesitation.

“Jonathan Stewart,” Campbell said when comparing Freeman to the plethora of other backs he has coached. “He’s the only other guy, and they’re pretty close. When I saw Jonathan, I thought, ‘Wow, what a physical specimen.’ I thought the same thing when I first saw Royce.”

Stewart was one of 15 1,000-yard backs that Campbell has produced as running backs coach. In his 32 years with the program—the longest tenure of any coach nationwide—Campbell has watched 17 1,000-yard backs cycle through the program. He’s coached 15 of the 17.

Freeman, the latest of those 17, might be the most talented yet.

“I knew from the beginning that Royce was going to be an outstanding player,” Campbell said. “We started making plans in the spring knowing that we were not going to redshirt him. We knew he was going to play a big role in our offense.”

Oregon running back Royce Freeman has been a dominant force in his freshman campaign.

His arrival is precisely why the team moved Byron Marshall—a 1,000-yard rusher one year ago—to more of a wide receiver role this season. Marshall has caught 66 passes for 834 yards and five touchdowns this year. More importantly, he’s added a new dynamic to an offense constantly seeking out an edge.

Freeman did the same, and not just from a statistical standpoint. His 1,343 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns—including one passing touchdown—have complemented the work of Oregon’s Heisman quarterback. But it’s his style that has truly altered the perception of that side of the ball.

“Not being tackled,” Freeman told Bleacher Report in October. “That’s what I’m working on.”

As the season has progressed, Freeman’s role increased. “Not being tackled” became a theme. With more carries came more production.

Against Florida State in the Rose Bowl, however, it was Thomas Tyner—another big back at 215 pounds—doing the majority of the heavy lifting. Tyner led the charge with 13 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s always a joy to be surrounded by a lot of talent,” Campbell said. “We started the season with three quality running backs that could all be 1,000-yard rushers in any program. That’s a joy. You can push guys in there and you’re not going to downgrade the quality. There are not a lot of places that can say they can do that.”

Strangely enough, Oregon’s rushing output—at least from a production standpoint—is the lowest it’s been in six years. Total yards were down, as were the average yards per carry. The numbers, however, don’t paint an accurate picture.

While the running was slightly less explosive from a big-play standpoint, the Ducks gladly sacrificed those gains for a more powerful style. They got bigger, tougher and still managed to average 5.5 yards per carry.

In losing something, Oregon found precisely what it needed.

A New, Familiar Voice For the Defense

Pellum in his typically stylish wear.

When Nick Aliotti retired as defensive coordinator last season—giving up a position he held for 17 years—Don Pellum’s cell phone rang.

Having worked with every level of the defense for 23 years with Oregon, it made sense that the 52-year-old would get the call. That didn’t make the moment any less significant for the longtime assistant finally given his chance.

“I bet I sat in my chair for two hours,” Pellum said. “I didn’t call anybody; I just sat there. And then all of the sudden, the voice in my head told me it was time to go to work.”

There was work to be done, but not as much as perception would lead you to believe. Contrary to popular opinion, the Ducks defense wasn’t broken.

There were holes to fill and adjustments to be made, especially in a secondary rife with new faces. Perhaps more daunting was making the defense his own while also keeping Aliotti’s great foundation intact.

“We needed to be a bit more accountable, smarter and enjoy it more,” Pellum said. “We focused on those three things and we really challenged them. The kids were awesome; they responded.”

Much like the running game, this past season was not the best the Oregon defense has played, at least statistically. In fact, over the past four seasons—zeroing in on sheer numbers alone—you could argue that the best statistical year (2013) was actually Oregon’s worst year overall, since it was the only year that the Ducks failed to earn a bid to a BCS Bowl or College Football Playoff game.

Oregon Defense by the Numbers
Year Points Allowed Yards Allowed Turnovers Forced
2014 312 5,907 30
2013 266 4,811 29
2012 281 4,863 40
2011 345 5,461 29

CFBstats.com

The Ducks still forced turnovers in mass amount, a Eugene staple. They finished in the top two in turnover margin for the second time in three years, forcing 30 turnovers and coughing the ball up only 10 times.

Even with the uptick in points and yardage allowed, watching this unit operate week-to-week told a different story. It told you it had turned the corner. The defensive line has become a strength, rather than a liability. And the other places Pellum touched in his time at the school seemed to thrive as the season progressed.

Such progress was evident against Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Florida State in the Rose Bowl. In both instances, the defense ultimately sparked a blowout. It may never get confused with Stanford’s, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t want to be.

“I don’t think this is the most talented defense we’ve had,” Pellum said. “We’ve had a few teams that we’re really talented. But this unit is the most cohesive and probably the hardest working of all the teams we’ve ever had.”

And, as the head coach so aptly stated, wins and losses are what matter.

The Death of a Wearisome Stigma

Please, by all means, continue to call Oregon “soft.”

The Oregon coaches would prefer that you did. Don’t mind the fact that they conquered their Stanford demons in 2014 with a 45-16 victory and just throttled the defending national champions with everything on the line. Go ahead…by all means.

“Let ‘em talk,” Campbell said. “I like to hear them say that. It gets our players fired up and all we can do is go out and show them what we can do on game day.”

Somewhere along the way, Oregon—despite winning at a rate only few in the history of the sport have ever matched and beating quality opponents with great regularity—was deemed unworthy.

It was the style. It was the uniforms. It was the tempo. It was the occasional loss. It was the fact that an exclusive club rarely welcomes new faces with open arms.

“I’ve heard people say that, but I don’t know where that comes from,” Campbell said on being labeled soft. “I remember the first year with all the talk about Stanford. Then they came in here and we pushed them around pretty good. I think that talk slowed down for a while.”

When Oregon lost to Arizona back in early October, the talks resurfaced. Right on cue, it allowed those waiting and wanting to doubt the program an opening.

Over the next few months, these labels were shed once more. Oregon, behind its Heisman-winning quarterback, showcased a team deep in so many other places. The offensive line got healthy, the defensive line supercharged and the team around Mariota complemented his miraculous individual performances.

These developments culminated in a blowout Rose Bowl victory, a game that was won with five Florida State turnovers and a rushing average of nearly seven yards per carry for the Ducks.

“Until an individual or team does something to change it, perception is reality,” Pellum said. “For us or any other team that finds themselves in a situation where there’s a perception about them, it can take on its own life. You have to change the perception.

“Until you do something to change it, you just have to live with it.”

Oregon has done something about it.

The notion that the team doesn’t belong is long dead. So are the days when six wins would warrant a parade for a dormant football program. It’s why Campbell and Pellum—the team’s suited fixtures—will happily embrace all new stigmas that have come with the success.

Oregon didn’t suddenly acquire added toughness; that was a lazy way to evaluate a handful of missteps in the first place. This movement didn’t take one year or even five years, either. It has been decades in the making.

To reach this new threshold, Oregon had to take a step back. It had to sacrifice some of the monumental numbers that put it on the map. In a way, it had to go back to its roots—roots only a handful within Eugene walls can remember. 

To culminate this dramatic rise, Campbell and Pellum will don their finest formal wear in Dallas, just like always. There’s no need to dress up for a moment of this magnitude; not when you’ve been dressing up all along.

“It’ll be more business than flashy,” Pellum said when asked about what his championship outfit will entail. “This is a business trip.”

Adam Kramer is the lead national college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All stats via CFBstats.com.

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