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How Oregon went from cellar dweller to national title contender

Oregon wasn't always who they are now. In fact, there was a time when Oregon football was so bad that recruits wouldn't even return phone calls. Most don't remember, but the Ducks suffered a 25-year bowl drought from 1964-1989. The Ducks didn't even have a 10-win season until the year 2000. Not exactly the glorious past of other top-ranked programs. So how did they go from loser to national title contenders in 20 years?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't so long ago that the Oregon Ducks were terrible in football. They didn't go to a bowl game from 1964 to 1989. Can you even fathom that amount of time if you are a fan of a team? That's 25 years, enough time to be born, go through childhood, attend college, get married and have kids. Two and a half decades. Five presidents came and went while the Ducks suffered with bad teams.

Alright, you get the point. They were bad for a long time.

So what happened to start the change? It all started with good coaches, offensive innovations, and big-name donors giving big-time cash.

The Beginning

The turnaround started in 1977 with coach Rich Brooks. He suffered through several bad years, with a 52-77-4 record from 1977-1988. Oregon stuck with him mostly due to his teams dominating in-state rival Oregon State.

Then in 1989 Brooks hired a new offensive coordinator, a young guy known for his high-scoring offenses. His name was Mike Bellotti, and behind his offense the Ducks finished 8-4 and went to their first bowl game in 25 years. The duo would lead the Ducks to three more bowls, culminating with the Rose Bowl in 1994. The Ducks posted a record of 39-32 from 1989-1994, and the transformation was on.

Brooks would use the success to jump to the NFL, while Bellotti was promoted to head coach in 1995. This is when the next part of the story begins.

Show me the money

Bellotti would guide the Ducks to unprecedented success, but he had a lot of help. In 1995 Bill Moos became the new athletic director at Oregon. He came to the Ducks after serving as A.D. at Montana, where he gained a reputation for attracting donors and upgrading facilities.

Another face also entered the picture. Phil Knight, founder of Nike and an Oregon alum, decided he wanted to start "giving back" to his alma matter.

Under Moos, annual donations to Oregon athletics went from $4.1 million a year to over $15 million. He would use the money to rapidly build up the Oregon athletic facilities. During Moos' tenure as Oregon A.D. the school spent $160 million on athletic facilities improvements. The biggest chunk of that was $90 million to renovate Autzen stadium.

The combination of a winning football program, improved facilities and more money helped in other ways too. The Ducks became well-known for their promotions and marketing prowess. Stunts like new, flashy (and sometimes hideously ugly) uniforms every week were the norm. Their motto was "any publicity is good publicity." Oregon became a household name as their "brand" sky-rocketed in popularity.

Getting over the hump

In 2000 Oregon finally had their first 10-win season. They had discovered their recipe for winning: wide open offenses and big-time advertising to get (and keep) the public's attention. Money bought the facilities and the Oregon brand. Success brought in big-time recruits. Good coaching brought wins. All of it together equals a program on the fast track.

Bellotti ended up with 137 wins in his 14 years as Oregon's head coach. He led the Ducks to 12 bowl games and two conference titles, and the Ducks finished #2 in the nation in 2001.

But in 2007 Bellotti made his greatest contribution to Oregon's success. He hired Chip Kelly as his offensive coordinator. Kelly brought the true spread, hurry up offense to Oregon's arsenal, and it made an immediate impact. In his first year as offensive coordinator the Ducks had the most yards in school history and led the Pac-10 in scoring.

After two years Bellotti was promoted to athletic director and Kelly became the Ducks head coach. While the team had been good under Bellotti, they took the next step with Kelly as their head coach.

Since Kelly took over the Ducks have been consistently a top-ten team. They have been to BCS bowls every year since 2009 and played for the national championship in 2010, narrowly losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly left Oregon to coach in the NFL in 2013, and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was promoted to head coach. He has continued Kelly's success and the Ducks will play Ohio State for the national championship next week.

Not so long ago Oregon was the doormat of the Pac-12. It has taken them 20 years, lots of money and a unique attitude, but the Ducks are truly at the top of the college football ranks now.