PASADENA, Calif. — It was never a guarantee that the Oregon Ducks would win the 2020 Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. The last time the Ducks made it to the Rose Bowl was in 2015, when Oregon beat Florida State. Before that was against Wisconsin in 2012, which Oregon also won. This year's win signifies a change in pace for a football program that, for the past three years, has experienced a carousel of head coaches and staff members.
As the clock hit triple zeroes, green confetti fell, fireworks illuminated the California night sky and members of Oregon stormed the field.
Tight end Ryan Bay scanned the locker room and hunched over his seat with his hands covering his eyes as they began to well up. Lineman Shane Lemieux walked around the field shaking his head in disbelief as confetti fell and his teammates celebrated. Quarterback Justin Herbert embraced every fan that asked for a picture or a high-five. And linebacker Troy Dye wept as he shared a long embrace with former teammate Justin Hollins.
“That’s that process, man,” Hollins said, as he saw his former team celebrate its Rose Bowl victory. “Them boys didn’t cheat the grind, and look, those boys are champions now. This is basically what you’ve been waiting for, for your whole career here.”
Bay, Lemieux, Herbert and Dye are four of the eight seniors who stayed at Oregon heading into the 2019 season. When the seniors joined the program, they were among a class of 26 and an entirely different staff than who they finished with. After a turbulent four seasons, they are the only eight who remain.
With the help of the eight seniors, along with a head coach who has brought stability and recruiting prowess to Eugene, the Ducks will look to build on a successful 2019 season and launch themselves back into national contention for years to come. However, Oregon hasn't always seen the green confetti coming down. Only three short years ago, it looked as if the program itself was coming down.
After a 4-8 season, Oregon fired head coach Mark Helfrich, who was less than two years removed from taking the Ducks to the National Championship game. The program experienced a mass exodus of coaches and staff members from the Helfrich era.
Oregon went on to hire Willie Taggart — but his tenure was short lived. After the Ducks finished the regular season going 7-5, Taggart bolted for his dream job at Florida State. Taggart’s departure for the East Coast left the Ducks without a head coach heading into their game against Boise State in the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl.
Instead of making an outside hire for the head coaching position, the Ducks made an in-house promotion. Players in the program began the hashtag “#cristobALLIN” and were able to help convince athletic director Rob Mullens that Mario Cristobal, who was the offensive line coach and run game coordinator at the time, was the right choice. And it was his offensive linemen who helped secure his position as head coach.
“We [the offensive line] were all aware of how good Cristobal was,” Lemieux said, “but a little bit of the team had the knowledge that Cristobal was a good guy. So we had to spread that through the locker room and everyone rallied behind us.”
The decision to trust the players and hire Cristobal has been a crucial decision in the trajectory of the program.
In his first year at the helm, Cristobal went 9-4 in a season highlighted with a big regular season win against No. 7 Washington and postseason win against Michigan State in the RedBox Bowl.
Heading into his second year as head coach, many asked if Herbert would make an early exit to the NFL. The Eugene native, along with other key seniors, decided to share one last season in an Oregon uniform together.
Heading into the 2019 season, Cristobal, along with keeping key returning players, welcomed the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation according to 247Sports. The class was headlined by five-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was the No. 1 player in the state of California and the second-best overall recruit in the nation, according to 247Sports.
The Ducks entered the season as the favorites to win the Pac-12, and they did just that. Cristobal put his stamp on the Pac-12 by playing a physical brand of football on both sides of the ball, as opposed to being the fast and flashy team that Oregon was in the past.
Oregon stumbled early against Auburn in a gut-wrenching loss, but the Ducks recovered and rattled off nine straight wins. Oregon launched itself into College Football Playoff talk, but a late-season upset to Arizona State dashed any hope of a Playoff bid. Oregon went on to beat Oregon State and dominate Utah in the Pac-12 Championship to earn a Rose Bowl berth.
“For us to come back from 4-8 and be where we are now, I wouldn’t believe it,” Herbert said.
Herbert and the seniors capped off their four years with a Hollywood ending. Many of them dreamed of being in the Rose Bowl, but those dreams looked bleak in their first two seasons. After a historic rushing performance by Herbert and stout play from the defense, dreams were accomplished and Oregon beat Wisconsin 28-27 in the 106th Rose Bowl.
“It’s an amazing story. Make a movie about us or something, man,” senior outside linebacker Bryson Young said. “A lot more to come from this group. The legacy we left from this group is going to stay.”
The legacy that was left behind helped bring stability to an Oregon program that seemed to be spiraling. Despite tough times, they didn’t waver, but instead stuck together and built a strong bond and foundation for the future. They helped Cristobal reach his 21st win at Oregon in just two seasons after Oregon had only won 20 games over the three seasons before he was named coach.
It was not only the seniors, but also Cristobal helping to get the program back to the national spotlight by creating a sense of togetherness.
“I think the best way to talk about it and describe it is, I’m a member of the family,” Cristobal said. “And everyone back in that locker room, everyone that was here the previous couple [years], they were all involved in changing it.
“This is no way, shape or form a one-man operation. Never has been. Never will be. We do things as a family. We stick together, and we got it.”
The Ducks will now be tasked with having to replace Herbert, four senior starters on the offensive line and key defensive leaders.
With the legacy that was left behind by the seniors, Oregon has a foundation to build on. The future Ducks are determined to keep this team in national contention and get them back to the College Football Playoff. Cristobal, also, has not slowed his recruiting consistency, as he currently holds the 13th-best recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports, that is headlined by two five-star linebackers.
Oregon football does not seem like it will go off the rails as it did only three seasons ago. With key players leaving behind a strong foundation and a head coach determined to bring the program back to a national powerhouse, Oregon looks far from done.
“Only up from here. This is a huge stepping stone for the program,” sophomore lineman Penei Sewell said. “Every single game is going to be a championship game [next season]. We are going to trust in the coaches. The coaches create the blueprint and the path for us to succeed … The players are going to fall right behind and attack. For everyone in the country, it’s on.”