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Univ of Oregon: the slap of luxury


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September 24, 2005

The Slap of Luxury


EUGENE, Ore., Sept. 21 - The latest addition to college football's most luxurious locker room sits underneath the three 60-inch plasma television sets.

Behold the University of Oregon's secret feature: a stinking heap of dirty laundry that could probably fill half-a-dozen hampers.

In this five-star, two-story gridiron getaway, where the wood-paneled lockers have Internet ports, ventilation systems and plates engraved with every players' name, jersey number and hometown, grass stains can look as out of place as a rusty padlock.

But for the Oregon football program, which has tracked mud ever since it moved into such deluxe quarters, a mound of sweaty workout clothes serves as a fitting reminder. This place was originally built with perspiration, not plasma.

It took more than a decade for the Ducks to construct their college football wonderland - the complex includes an indoor practice field decorated with five murals and flanked by a souvenir shop - and it took less than a year for players to realize that few of their fancy accouterments make a lick of difference come kickoff.

Oregon, which will face top-ranked Southern California on Saturday at Autzen Stadium, has discovered what many other programs caught up in the facilities race are just now finding out. The team with the most toys does not necessarily win the most games.

"When we didn't have all the stuff we have now, we won," receiver James Finley said. "Then we got everything and we didn't win anymore. That's why people said we're spoiled."

Instead of dismissing the theory, Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti tries to incorporate it. Moments before the Ducks' first significant home game of the season, last Saturday against Fresno State, Bellotti said he gathered the players in the middle of the locker room and told them: "If you want people to think plasma-screen TV's make you soft, keep playing that way." The team then ran through its automated locker-room door, which opens and shuts vertically.

Oregon defeated Fresno State, improved to 3-0 and inspired several thousand students to wait in line for standing-room-only tickets to Saturday's game. If Oregon, ranked No. 24, can upset U.S.C., the university may have to take out space on one of the Times Square billboards it rented to advertise the program a few years ago.

The Ducks have not been able to show off much lately, given that their record last season was 5-6 and that they did not make a bowl for the first time in eight years. Once regarded as the coolest team on the West Coast, Oregon had to cede its title to the Trojans. Linebacker Anthony Trucks said he repeatedly walked off the field after losses with opposing players shouting in his ear hole: "Hey, your locker room didn't help you today, did it?"

Nowhere in sports is a locker room the subject of more debate. When the Ducks won the Fiesta Bowl after the 2001 season, their facilities were viewed as well-deserved trappings that would surely attract future recruits. But after Oregon stumbled to a loss in the Seattle Bowl the next season, the facilities were considered a cause of complacency and the locker room became a symbol of perceived excess.

Fans wondered why a team outfitted with all the best that its boosters could buy - Oregon's neon uniforms are designed with "stretch porthole mesh" for "better fit and ventilation" - was not atop the Pacific-10 Conference. Its rivals' coaches suggested that the Ducks had become too comfortable on their plush sofas. U.S.C., still bitter that Oregon had put one of its billboards in downtown Los Angeles, complained about the Ducks and then overtook them in the conference standings.

"A lot of fingers were pointed at us," quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "Guys would be asking me all the time: 'Did you hear that? Did you read that?' People were saying that Oregon has too many things."

The Ducks have tried streamlining themselves. Even though the athletic department still looks for creative promotional opportunities - Oregon has replays of some games broadcast on the Yes Network in New York and is one of six teams to enter a marketing agreement with ESPN regional television - this season seems more about regrouping than branding.

The football program has taken down its billboards across the country. The locker room is no longer protected by a security system that reads thumbprints. The team's trendiest summer acquisition was the spread offense. Oregon has even had to adjust to a N.C.A.A. rule prohibiting universities from flying recruits on private planes.

"No question, that was aimed right at us," said Oregon's athletic director, Bill Moos, pointing out that the university leased private planes for recruits because the campus is not near a major airport. "To a certain degree, there was a sense of satisfaction because they were saying that being a championship contender was not our rightful place."

Oregon has never had an elite football tradition or a big-city location, so Moos has felt compelled to operate in unorthodox ways.

And since many of the players on the roster are from Southern California, ignored by superpowers like U.S.C., they still think of themselves as hardscrabble underdogs, even if the Nike founder Philip H. Knight, an alumnus, has a cubby in their locker room.

Oregon remains among the teams best equipped to trip the Trojans, for reasons having nothing to do with equipment. In a conference filled with cavernous coliseums in major metropolitan areas, Autzen Stadium, with a seating capacity of 54,000, is the closest the Pac-10 can get to a Southeastern Conference atmosphere. U.S.C., which nearly lost at Oregon State last year and has not visited Eugene since 2002, is facing its earliest and loudest challenge of the season.

The Ducks should be prepared for almost anything, partly because of the surround sound in their locker room and the state-of-the-art lighting system that is supposed to imitate game-day conditions. When the vertical door goes up, the players' eyes and ears have, in theory, been trained for whatever they will meet.

"I get so tired sometimes of hearing about our locker room," Oregon cornerback Justin Phinisee said. "You know, we put on our gear just like U.S.C. does."

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