- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Track Town Pizza has been an institution in Eugene since 1978, when the city was the nerve center of the track and field world.

The sign out front depicts a determined-looking duck, the University of Oregon mascot, running along with a pizza box held aloft in one wing. About a year and a half ago, patrons noticed that the duck had acquired an out-of-place accessory: a brown football is nestled in its other wing.

"I was thinking, 'That's what the Ducks are going to be known for,'" said general manager Mike Ripley. "It's just nuts around here when there's a big track meet, but our busiest days of the year are football games."

Back in 1939, Eugene welcomed home the triumphant "Tall Firs," who won the first NCAA men's basketball national title. In the 1970s and '80s, All-American runners Steve Prefontaine and Joaquim Cruz made Hayward Field an almost sacred place for track fans. It was to the sport what Boston Garden, Lambeau Field and Yankee Stadium were to theirs.

During the past 12 years, however, football has become the first love in Eugene. And after this season, track and basketball might forever fight for second place in fans' hearts.

Oregon's 38-16 rout of Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday solidified the Ducks' rise to national prominence, but Eugene started becoming a hardcore football town in 1994, when a trip to the Rose Bowl began a stretch of seven postseason games in eight years.

"The track team is well-respected, but people are passionate about football," said Mark Brennan, a 39-year-old journalism student who was bellied up to the bar at the Wild Duck Brewery, waiting for last night's Rose Bowl to start.

Under fabled track coach Bill Bowerman, who founded Nike with one of his former athletes, Phil Knight, the Ducks won four national men's track titles between 1962 and 1970. Before he died in a car crash in 1975, Prefontaine was one of the sport's best-known U.S. athletes, and his all-out races brought out huge crowds to Hayward.

The cross-country team won four national titles, and finished second seven other times, between 1963 and 1989, and world-class athletes came here to train under Bowerman and his successor, Bill Dellinger.

"Back in those days, we were expected to be at a very high level," said Jim Hill, a 5,000-meter runner who was on the 1984 NCAA track championship team, the school's last national title of any kind.

The program had dropped off considerably by the mid-1990s, and a strong showing at the NCAAs this year ended an eight-year run of mediocrity.

In stark contrast, the football team was woeful before 1989, when coach Rich Brooks guided the team to an 8-4 record and an Independence Bowl victory. Before that, Oregon hadn't won more than six games since 1964.

"We were Duck fans when it wasn't fashionable," said Howard Ruland, a 66-year-old retiree who walked out of the gift shop next to Autzen Stadium with his wife. They had a bag of gifts for their daughter-in-law, a Colorado fan who bragged that the Buffs would turn Oregon into "Duck soup."

More bowl appearances created enough revenue to build a $13million structure for offices and locker rooms, the first indoor practice facility on the West Coast and, this year, a 13,000-seat expansion of Autzen Stadium.

Alberto Salazar, three-time winner of the New York Marathon who helped Oregon win the 1977 national cross-country title, doesn't mind that football is eclipsing track as Eugene's dominant sport, because the money the football program brings in will benefit other sports at the school.


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