Nike, once a counter culture brand, and Oregon, once a counterculture school, need to go back to their roots in radicalism to be relevant again.
Over the past two decades I’ve marveled at how the culture of Oregon football has morphed to become the opposite of Eugene and the namesake state. The University of Oregon, in the early ‘90s when I attended, was pleasantly fashion-forward when it came to its lack of pretense or adherence to social or societal norms—a reflection of the state that is still the patchouli oil/serial killer/dark brew/hippie sticks capital of the world.
…When it came to keeping up with whatever the rest of the country, or even the West Coast, was doing, Oregon and Oregonians proudly have remained twirling in a field while everyone else is crawling on the freeways.
At the time of my arrival in Eugene, my native Bay Area was just beginning to replace its shipping, banking, sex-death cult and textile industries with technology, a transition that would take more than two decades to foment into bro-coders, asshole VC guys and Salesforce sycophants taking over the club level at San Francisco Giants games, but there you have it.
Meantime, up in Seattle/Redmond, Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s Microsoft empire was then merely on the cusp of annoying users into frozen screen oblivion, ushering in the era of productivity replication—an everlasting challenge of how long it would take for you to recreate the Excel spreadsheet/Word doc you’d spent the entire previous evening working on and somehow didn’t save, at all, when you crashed about three seconds before you were about to save it.
Boxed in the middle, Oregon, it seemed, was happy to eschew becoming the next blank-screen-and-pixel kingmaker, opting instead to be identifiable by a “swoosh” created by Eugene designer Carolyn Davidson in 1971. Nike, in its early years at least, was a bit of a renegade company. Oregon native founder and CEO Phil Knight was something of a stateside Richard Branson. Not as flamboyant, mind you, but his rebel spirit spilled out into every product. Something about Mars Blackmon looking down from the other side of the barrel of a basketball hoop while Michael Jordan, dancing in the air as a newly freed marionette, impossibly kicked his legs like a prima ballerina participating in the long jump and made a leather ball go through an orange ring poetry for a generation. Indeed, it was the shoes—and so much more.
The company was originally founded to help suit up Bowerman’s Men of Oregon, including the Christ child of all sinewy, floppy-haired and mustachioed runners. Flagship Nike Cortez, the Model Ts of kicks, sparked a jogging pandemic in Eugene and beyond that Bowerman himself had picked up when he spent a summer in New Zealand with a few Kiwi coaching contemporaries. He observed entire villages, butchers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, law enforcement and librarians had turned out in the morning dew to shake legs and stretch hamstrings and put in a couple miles by hillside or seaside as a prereq to breakfast.
As unpleasant as the images to come were of, say, a Bill Clinton rolling out in gray sweats with the red shorts with white piping rolling out and stretching on the White House lawn, Nike started a movement…of movement.
And for that, many of their transgressions to come starting with child labor abuses and ending with a product for that for decades has moved away from its core of distance running in favor of Jumpman and Bo Knows and Black Mambas and Air Yeezy 1 Blinks. In congress with the growth of the brand, one that could still entice the Sneakerheads with special editions as well as outfit the depreciating self-worth of the American middle with a signature white on white Nike Revolution EU Round Toe Synthetics ($21.99 at Walmart!), Knight and Nike decided on a great experiment near the turn of this century: To see whether they could turn the U of O into Nike’s flagship.
All sports were rewarded, but Oregon football’s rise was the most prominent as they got the biggest piece of the winning lottery ticket. Up sprang new facilities, top-tier coaches and system-ready five-star skill set recruits. Those players hailed not just from greater Eugene/Springfield but from California, Texas, New York and Hawaii, four corners of the country featuring stars destined to make impacts on more traditional powerhouse programs closer to their homes, but drawn by the Nike brand and glad to be a part of it in exchange for a few years of indentured servitude on the synthetic grass.
Stuff of the program that became legend and oft-emulated we now take for granted, even chuckle at today: the weekly alt unis, the locker rooms the size of studio apartments, the movie theater-sized luxury boxes and Roboduck…
…were a revelation as the next-gen of amateur athletics descended upon Eugene. New facilities, a stadium that bears the same name but is nothing like the uncomfortable benches and limited sight lines of yesterday and giant Time Square-sized billboards all cast maniacal shadows over the campus and greater Eugene. No longer was it about fun or friends or fantasy. It was about chasing titles like slick and frothy greyhounds.
Only now the Ducks have two wins and five losses and fans raised in the era of disposable unis, players, facilities, coaches are freaking the fuck out. Well, some fans are anyway. Perusing the Oregonian’s message boards after the team’s latest heart-wrenching disaster forged from giving up 50 or more points (something Oregon has done this year more than any other team in college, and its own history) the message is clear that head coach Mark Helfrich is more of a short-timer than a shift manager at a Spirit Halloween Superstores pop-up and his right hand on defense, Brady Hoke, is likely looking to open an Etsy shop selling quilts made of the cleat-marked fabric of his players’ jerseys.
Like lottery winners somehow down to their last dime, the newer class of season ticket holders to Autzen are trying to offload their seats as if they were to a Nickelback show at the Concord Pavilion on a school night. Panic, has indeed, set in.
So how does this Tower of Babel program rebuild the second time?
The answer, it doesn’t.
Knight and his wife, Penny this week took the focus off football with the commitment of $500 million to the university to finance the sciences. It is the largest donation in history to a public university—anywhere and ever. By comparison, the previous $130 million the family invested in Eugene paid for a library, a law school renovation, part of a basketball court and the player-friendly facilities around Autzen.
This donation means the Knight legacy overall will be more about academics than sports—by a lot. And isn’t that a strange full-circlensess? I’ve suggested that the world’s most famous 78-year-old cobbler can make a permanent impression on the landscape of amateur athletics by creating an endowment for players to be put in a trust till they’re 26 or 30 or even 65 to offset, among other things, medical costs for injuries manifested long after the jerseys and cleats have found their way into attic boxes that aren’t opened again till the estate sale.
And I also think about what drew me to Eugene in the first place twenty-something years ago. I look at my “Dead-icated Duck” bootleg T-shirt I bought my sophomore year near the footbridge en route to the game (Donald Duck as a Steal Your Face logo in green and yellow) and reminisce about Oregon’s quirky, nutty, sometimes surprising football program and how competing was great, but just being there man, that was the greatest.
And if they can rebuild using Oregon’s can-do-but-don’t-really-give-a-fuck-about-it attitude…maybe then it will return to what it once was.
Something weird. Something original.