In terms of setting college football trends, Oregon wins the day – USA TODAY
EUGENE, Ore. — The first thing Oregon players and administrators noticed when they arrived in Seattle for a 2012 game against Washington State was that they had been ripped off.
On billboards all over the city, on buses whizzing by and pretty much everywhere else they looked, “Win The Day” was featured prominently in Washington State’s advertisements for the game, which immediately caught the Ducks’ attention. Though that phrase is part of Washington State’s fight song, it had become Chip Kelly’s chosen mantra for the Oregon program and a major part of its identity.
Oregon officials might have been somewhat amused at seeing a major part of their branding pilfered by Washington State, but they were not exactly surprised. As the Ducks have risen to prominence, no program in the country has been copycatted more egregiously or more often.
“You see a lot of teams simulating our tempo offense, trying to do the flashy uniforms,” senior cornerback Troy Hill said. “I guess you could say we’re trendsetters out here.”
Even before Oregon became the favorite to win its first national title in football, which it will be on Jan. 12 against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game, the Ducks’ influence on the sport was far-reaching.
From Oregon’s boldness in eschewing traditional uniforms (Maryland has become Under Armour’s East Coast imitation, while even traditionalists like Notre Dame are now more experimental) to its cutting-edge football operations building complete with a barber shop (Texas A&M liked the idea so much it put one in their new facility), dozens of other programs have tried to co-opt at least one element of the Ducks’ style if not replicate it completely.
“You see people (copy) the fast tempo, the way we practice,” linebacker Derrick Malone said. “I heard other programs started practicing in the morning after they found out what we do.”
Even “Win the Day,” which Oregon has trademarked and serves as the official Twitter handle for Duck Football, is used liberally by other college programs and coaches including material sent out by Indiana football. In November, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze sent four Tweets including the hashtag #WinTheDay or #WTD.
“We saw pictures of it in the Ole Miss locker room,” Craig Pintens, Oregon’s senior associate athletics director for marketing and public relations, said. “A lot of their fans have reached out to us and said we stole ‘Win the Day’ from Hugh Freeze, which we find comical. Occasionally we’ll just respond back with a link to the federal trademark. It’s kind of flattering to tell you the truth.”
While Oregon now owns exclusive rights to put “Win the Day” on apparel — the trademark was officially filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on March 20, 2012 — it’s a little more difficult to gain proprietary control over other elements of the operation.
When Kelly came to Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2007, his warp-speed offense was largely viewed as an outlier. Though now-prominent coaches such as Gus Malzahn and Art Briles were already dabbling with it at lower levels, it took Oregon winning big before it caught on in major college football.
Now, the concept of up-tempo offense is practically the new standard, with one of the biggest proponents being Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
“We steal stuff, too. We’re equal opportunity (thieves),” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “It’s been funny, especially growing up around this area and recruiting against people, they use your style against you in recruiting and then do it on the field, which is kind of weird. That’s one of those back-and-forth things that always happens, the evolution of whatever offense, defense, special teams, scheme. People that have one foot in the water of our style or our way, a couple years from now they’ll do something else.”
Meyer, who was working for ESPN at the time during a sabbatical from coaching, was one of only a few people who have gotten an inside look at Oregon’s notoriously clandestine operation. Though Helfrich said Monday his staff was “very friendly” when other coaching staffs call asking to share strategy and philosophy, he acknowledged the Ducks’ coaches prefer to “gather information more than we send it out.”
Oregon’s reputation for innovation in all aspects of its operation, from nutrition to training techniques to the actual football plays, contributes to the program’s penchant for secrecy. They believe the minute somebody finds out the Ducks are trying something new, other programs around the country will immediately try to copy them.
“There are a lot of things we’re doing right now that are a little ahead of what other people are doing,” Pintens said. “Some things from a technology standpoint won’t be revealed for a couple years. Because of our reputation, we get approached all the time by companies who want to work with us or beta test something, and I think the difference between us and other places is we’re willing to try something if we think it’s going to make us better.”
It’s no mystery why other programs are intrigued by how Oregon operates. Over the past six seasons, the Ducks are 70-10 and have never finished lower than 11th in the final poll. This success has happened at a school without a strong local recruiting base or a long history of contending for championships.
And though Oregon’s players notice when other schools try to mimic them, the real secret sauce, they say, is an environment they’re ingrained into from Day 1 of their freshman year. That remains hard to duplicate.
“Football is a copycat game, even in the NFL,” left tackle Jake Fisher said. “When (current Southern Cal coach) Steve Sarkisian was at Washington, they basically copied everything we did offensively and defensively. You can try to duplicate it, but it’s the culture and the guys you have on your team that make it what it is. When you don’t hone in on the little things like we do and have the mindset we have, it doesn’t work out.”
It also explains why Oregon handed the keys from Kelly to Helfrich, his little-known, then 39-year old offensive coordinator and didn’t change much. Kelly is gone, but “Win The Day” is still plastered all over the Ducks’ facilities.
“We really don’t give away our secrets but it’s not really a secret,” Malone said. “It’s who we are, it’s the players, the coaches, how dedicated we are. It’s definitely a complement, but when they’re catching up, we’re still trying to push the envelope and be innovative and stay ahead.”