This is more than a story about a state, two universities and a town divided.
It’s also about a coffee shop divided.
The Chat-N-Chew restaurant in Monroe, population 480, is situated off Highway 99W, smack-dab between Eugene and Corvallis.
Think of Mayberry with a lumber industry.
From her hub at the Chat-N-Chew, owner Von Buss can peek through window blinds and keep tabs on town affairs.
“The bank gets robbed about once a year,” Buss says as she motions across the street to Klamath First Federal. “We all watched it last year. When we see a guy with a mask come through Monroe, we know something is going on.
“The last robber was from Springfield.”
“Probably a Duck fan.”
The remark cannot go unchallenged.
Jim Kohl peers up from his cup of coffee. The retired Monroe High principal is honest-to-gawd seated on the side of the restaurant closer to Eugene.
“Biggest news about Oregon State so far is, they have nobody in jail,” Kohl deadpans.
It isn’t even noon yet, and already plenty of breeze has been shot.
“It’s more chat than chew,” Buss confesses of her establishment.
For roughly 100 years, Oregon versus Oregon State was a local story, a timber tale, but no longer.
Monroe has become the battleground town in a “Civil War” that has gone national. Three million Oregonians have chosen sides, some of them sides of coffee shops, and for the first time in memory, people outside the state are eavesdropping on the conversation.
How far has it come?
In 1983, the schools played to a 0-0 tie in an odorous affair many consider to be the worst college football game ever contested.
In 2001, Oregon and Oregon State may be playing Dec. 1 for a spot in the national championship game at the Rose Bowl.
Both schools boast legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates--Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington and Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton.
Oregon has been picked to win the Pacific 10 Conference title for the first time . . . ever. Oregon State is tabbed to finish second.
The state is so football full-of-itself that Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti and Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson both rejected offers to coach USC, one of college football’s most storied programs.
Oregon has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a promotional campaign, no move more audacious than paying $250,000 to plaster a 100-foot poster of Harrington on the side of a Manhattan building, not far from Heisman Trophy headquarters.
Harrington and his father, John, recently visited New York to witness in person Joey’s likeness on a skyscraper.
“I was speechless,” Joey says. “I said, ‘Well, it’s big.’ What can you say to that? You just smile and realize it doesn’t happen to many people.”
But wait, there’s more.
In a move perhaps bolder than putting Dennis Miller in the broadcast booth, ABC has paid Oregon and Oregon State $600,000 each to move the annual “Civil War” game this year to Dec. 1, when it will be the centerpiece between Virginia Tech-Miami in the morning and the Big 12 Conference title game.
You talk about getting pushed out to center stage on talent night.
“We better know our lines,” Oregon Athletic Director Bill Moos says.
The Oregons grabbed ABC’s attention in January, when Oregon State walloped Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and Oregon defeated Texas in the Holiday.
It is for these reasons and more that we are pushing Oregon and Oregon State to the top of the college football heap.
Get ready for a log ride. Snap a picture and send it to your aunt in Eugene.
2. Oregon State.
Only because we are conditioned to think so.
Facts are facts, though. The Oregons finished a combined 21-3 last season--the best Division I-A winning percentage for any state.
Oregon State ended up 11-1 and No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll. Oregon was 10-2 and ranked seventh in the AP.
Oregon State’s only fender bender was a three-point defeat at Washington, which won the Rose Bowl and beat Miami.
Let’s make this clear. No team at season’s end last year was playing better than Oregon State.
Had there been a college playoff, the Beavers might have won the national title.
“We would have took it,” Simonton says flat out, although not grammatically. “If you’d put us versus Oklahoma, we’d have slapped them.”
More of our tap dance.
If two Florida schools had finished fourth and seventh in the polls, and had their starting quarterbacks and tailbacks returning, would anyone blink if pundits ranked the schools 1-2 the following year?
Florida, in fact, finished 10th in last year’s final AP poll, yet begins this season as the AP’s preseason No. 1.
Why Oregon and Oregon State?
Oregon returns with the most potent offense north of Eureka--that includes you, Seattle Seahawks--and opens the season Saturday with a BCS-points booster against Wisconsin at Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks have won 20 consecutive games.
Oregon also misses Washington on the schedule and gets Oregon State at home.
Catching our drift?
Oregon State has huge holes to fill at wide receiver and defensive end, but Erickson red-shirted his entire 2000 class and has restocked the roster with junior college players and a freshman class he calls athletically “pretty skillful.”
The Beavers’ nonconference schedule, made when the school was in the throes of a 28-year losing streak, is user friendly: Fresno State, New Mexico State, Montana State.
Again, what’s not to like?
Bound for Glory
Truth be known, the schools don’t like sharing the spotlight, yet both understand that Oregon as a package is a better sell.
“They bring attention to us, and we bring it for them,” Simonton says.
Oregon sees itself as a blue-chip stock, Oregon State as a high-yield junk bond.
Oregon worked for years to build its program to national stature.
Rich Brooks led Oregon to the 1995 Rose Bowl before bequeathing the program to his able assistant, Bellotti, who has become the Pac-10’s winningest coach since taking over.
Sour Pinot Noir grapes?
“We may be better prepared than our friends in Corvallis because we’re growing this thing on solid footing,” Moos says.
Admittedly, Oregon State’s rise was shocking, the Beavers posting an 11-1 mark only two years after suffering their 28th straight losing season.
“I pinch myself sometimes about what’s happened in two years,” Erickson says. “It’s unheard of, ridiculous, what’s happened.”
Yet, Erickson says comparisons between Oregon State and those dressed-to-kill Miami squads he led to two national titles are ludicrous.
“It’s hard to speak of them and us in the same breath,” he says.
He sees Sports Illustrated ranking Oregon State No. 1 as pure P.R. gimmickry.
“That was a great ploy for them, but not for us,” he says.
Yet, Oregon State is not conceding an inch of sawdust.
“I want it to be a long-run thing,” Erickson, starting his third season in Corvallis, says. “I don’t want it to be here one day and gone the next.”
The Beavers took immeasurable pride in wrecking Oregon’s plans by winning last year’s “Civil War” in Corvallis.
Oregon State not only knocked Oregon out of the Rose Bowl, the Beavers’ victory knocked Washington into the Granddaddy.
Oregon fans despise Washington (erudite, big-city northerners) even more than they do Oregon State.
Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith understands how Oregon might be resentful.
“It had to be disappointing for them,” he says. “They had their best season, and then to be outdone . . . “
Simonton has two words for Oregon: tough luck.
“We earned our spot here,” he says. “Some of us can get to the finish line a little quicker.”
How in Sam Salem did this happen? How did the Oregons, and you can add Washington to the list, seize the high ground in the Pac-10 and leave UCLA and USC to play catch-up?
You can start with coaching.
Bellotti, Erickson and Washington’s Rick Neuheisel are the three best coaches in the Pac-10.
The 85-man scholarship limit has also turned the Pac-10 power map upside down.
Oregon and Oregon State rosters are dominated by players from Southern California.
“It’s allowed 20 or 30 kids who might have stayed in L.A. to look at schools elsewhere,” Bellotti says.
What’s more, Oregon and Oregon State are in an all-out facilities war that has made both schools more attractive to out-of-state players.
Once, all a coach had to do to sway a recruit was mention the weather, but now both Oregon schools boast indoor practice facilities.
Oregon has spent $50 million on upgrades since 1995. Autzen Stadium is being expanded.
Not to be outdone, Oregon State is building a new athletic complex and Erickson has brought in architects with plans of enlarging 35,000-seat Reser Stadium.
The competitive tension in Corvallis and Eugene is making both programs better. Both schools have set up offices in Portland, considered neutral ground, to vie for all-important sponsorship dollars.
Incredibly, Oregon is filling coffers without the pocket-book help of Nike founder Phil Knight, a longtime Oregon fan, who has been withholding donations because of an ongoing spat with the university.
Would Oregon like to see Oregon State slip on a banana peel so the Ducks can hog the glory?
“Yeah, most definitely,” Bellotti says.
But Erickson is not about to let it happen.
In fact, he says he’s trying to mold his program after one he greatly admires.
“That’s exactly right,” Erickson says. “Our guys got upset when I said it. But before our first game, I said we’ve got to get where Oregon’s at.”
Oregon State is where it’s at.
Polls and Pines
OK, let’s get real. Neither Oregon nor Oregon State is going to win the national title, right?
Not likely. Rarely do preseason predictions come to pass.
Last year, one national writer--this one--picked Texas to win it all.
But, where once winning seasons were the goal, the Oregon mind-set has changed.
When Harrington was a freshman, he went to Bellotti and asked why the coach never mentioned winning the national championship.
Bellotti said Harrington was right.
“I started five years ago about how we’re going to win the national championship,” Bellotti says. “I didn’t get the sneers I thought I’d get. People said OK. Our kids have to believe that is our ultimate goal.”
Both schools will have to keep their egos in check and their priorities in order.
“I’m flattered,” Harrington says. “But sometimes I’d just like to go take a nap.”
One Oregon State player who will not have trouble with perspective is Smith.
He started at quarterback during Oregon State’s 28th straight losing season.
When he got to Corvallis, the walk-on from Glendora said, you could get a free ticket to an Oregon State game with the purchase of $25 worth of groceries at the local supermarket.
“Now,” Smith says, “You can’t get a ticket.”
Smith reminds the incoming recruits about territory that was hard fought and won.
“I tell them it hasn’t always been this way,” he says.
Back at the Chat-N-Chew, the countdown is on toward Dec. 1, when the Ducks and Beavers square off in Eugene with, ABC hopes, a national-title shot on the line.
When Oregon is victorious at Oregon State, returning fans make a point to stop off in Monroe to celebrate at the Long Branch, a local watering hole.
“You ought to see it. It’s disgusting, all those yellow and green flags coming through,” Eilene Becker, a Monroe resident for 37 years and ardent Beaver fan, says of Duck invasions.
Jim Kohl lies in the weeds for his comeback.
It isn’t long before a Beaver fan serves him his chance on a platter, bursting in to announce, “We got season tickets for the first time to see the Beavers.”
Kohl doesn’t miss a beat.
“My condolences,” he says.
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Civil War at a Glance
* Series: Oregon leads 52-42, with 10 ties.
* It’s a fact: Between 1975 and 1987, the Ducks won 12 of the 13 games, with the teams tying, 0-0, in 1983. The Beavers won in 1988, but lost seven of the next nine before winning, 44-41, in two overtimes in 1998.
* Last year: Oregon State won at home, 23-13.