CORVALLIS — In the broadest, most stereotypical sense, one of the oldest rivalries in college football pits Ducks against Beavers, hippies against farmers, liberals against conservatives. It is defined by proximity and mediocrity, by civility and acrimony, by close games and foul weather and the last 0-0 tie in Division I.
The Civil War, they call it.
The series started in 1894, when Oregon State University, then known as the Oregon Agricultural College, defeated the University of Oregon, 16-0. It will continue Saturday when two top-20 teams meet here for far more than local bragging rights.
For years, the programs seemed to lack a central ingredient to any rivalry: something to win. There was no Golden Egg (Mississippi and Mississippi State), no Keg of Nails (Louisville and Cincinnati) and no Apple Cup (Washington and Washington State).
This brings us to a mystery, to the story of the Platypus Trophy, once missing, stolen and lost — “I’ve heard rumors,” Oregon offensive lineman Nick Cody said — now found.
“I haven’t seen this since 2007,” Warren Spady said as he surveyed his handiwork this week.
Spady drew the platypus assignment in 1959, as an undergraduate at Oregon. He bought two blocks of wood and began to carve, using a stuffed platypus for inspiration.
He worked day and night for a month, with four mallets and six chisels, until his forearms ached, until the beak resembled a Duck and the tail looked like that of a Beaver.
While he sanded the trophy smooth, the game approached. He never did finish the feet.
In the early 1960s, the trophy went missing for months, then years, then decades. In 1986, while on sabbatical at Oregon, Spady bumped into the platypus, his platypus, in a water polo trophy case on Oregon’s campus. Then it disappeared again.
In 2004, the sports columnist John Canzano wrote a column in The Oregonian about how the Civil War needed its own trophy. Spady called Canzano and told him there was one. An administrator at Oregon who read the column searched for and found the trophy in a storage closet.
This week, the trophy rested in Oregon’s student alumni association office, a piece of football’s Civil War history, indicative of the odd nature of the rivalry itself. It served as a reminder that this was not your normal rivalry, with two teams consumed by hatred, although there is some of that.
This is a rivalry bound with a certain degree of Oregonian friendliness, an annual encounter that for the longest time, in some quarters, put the “civil” in Civil War.
Two factors contributed to that: The two biggest universities in the state were separated by some 40 miles, and for decades both won infrequently, if at all. Paul Swangard, managing director at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, lived through much of that futility. He was born 200 yards from his current office. His sister went to Oregon State.
“That game was the only thing to really look forward to in most seasons,” he said. “It was for the right to live in the state of Oregon. It was the way in which we defined the rest of the year.”
Such division is natural and frequent. Roughly halfway between the universities, the Nill family runs Guaranty Discount Chevrolet in Junction City.
Each year, Herb Nill, an Oregon graduate, bets against his son, Shannon, who graduated from Oregon State. They do these bets in local commercials, which Shannon said increased business by 20 percent during rivalry weeks. Last year, Shannon lost, and a local barber shaved an Oregon “O” into the back of his hair. This year, the loser will receive a Gatorade bath, orange or green.
“Around here, we probably have about 50-50 Ducks and Beavers,” Shannon said.
One Beaver is Steve
Preece, who played at Oregon State in the 1960s and became a color commentator for Beavers football broadcasts. When Preece starred at Oregon State, he said, “it felt like we were fighting for our way of life.” Then his daughter, Whitney, decided to attend his rival university. Each check he wrote to Oregon “killed me,” Preece said.
“I always say I’m the smart one in the family,” his daughter countered.
Pete Peterson owns the Red Rooster Barber Shop near the Oregon campus, the walls lined with pictures of Gary Zimmerman and Dan Fouts. Peterson came down from Corvallis years ago — “way too redneck for me,” he said — expecting to find “a bunch of long-haired hippies.”
To that end, the generalities of each college remain, even if Mike Riley, the Oregon State coach, said Eugene and Corvallis “are more mixed than they used to be.” Oregon State is a land-grant university known for engineering and agriculture. Oregon is a liberal arts university. Corvallis is more conservative, Eugene more cosmopolitan.
These are far from absolutes, but they do influence how each university views itself and the other. Hal Cowan, the sports information director at both universities but for far longer at Oregon State, called the majority of current Oregon fans “Johnny-come-lately bandwagoners.” Shannon Nill voiced a popular sentiment when he said, “We don’t have Phil Knight to shower us with millions.” Others noted that Oregon had “the best ownership in college football,” referring to Knight, the Nike chairman whose company has a close relationship with the Ducks.
Oregon fans counter that the Civil War means far more to the Beavers because Oregon has achieved more success, because Oregon State is jealous. They note that Beavers fans wore Auburn jerseys when the Ducks played the Tigers in the national championship game in early 2011. Oregon fans seem to hate Washington more than Oregon State.
Of course, one fan did hold up a sign on ESPN’s College GameDay at Oregon that read simply, “Sacramento State 29, Oregon State 28.”
Over the years, the teams staged some epic contests and some not-so epic ones. The scoreless tie in 1983, subsequently dubbed “The Toilet Bowl,” ranked among the worst college football games ever played, with 11 fumbles, five interceptions and four missed field goals. Rich Brooks, the longtime Oregon coach and Oregon State graduate, said water ran down the stadium aisles “like cascading waterfalls,” which meant the coaches stood in 6 inches of muck. Brooks somehow managed to win more than 20 Civil War games, an anomaly in the series.
“The tie sort of epitomized 40 years of the Civil War,” Swangard said.
Other highlights and lowlights:
1963: With the game postponed a week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Oregon’s star halfback, Mel Renfro, cut his hand. The Ducks managed to win without him.
1991: Despite winless Oregon State’s status as a 20-point underdog, coach Jerry Pettibone practiced having the underclassmen carry the seniors off the field on their shoulders. The motivational ploy worked. The Beavers won, 14-3. The seniors left the field in style.
1998: Ahead in overtime, Oregon State forced a turnover on downs, and its students stormed the field, except a penalty had been called. The game went into a second overtime, when the Beavers won (again) and fans stormed the field (again).
“In the second overtime, there were more students on the field than in the stands,” Riley said. “It was like being in a crackerjack box. When we won it marked a real turning point.”
The tenor changed in recent years, as Oregon State climbed toward respectability and Oregon became a football force. In 2000, in what Swangard said felt like “a space-time continuum,” the once-mediocre teams both ranked in the top 10. Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington threw five interceptions. “We called him Joey five-picks,” Cowan said.
On Saturday, Oregon fans will drive on Highway 99, past the Guaranty dealership, into farmland, past the Hard Times Distillery in Monroe.
Whitney Preece-Crofut will sit in the stands at Reser Stadium in front of an older woman with hair dyed orange.
At Squirrel’s Tavern in Corvallis, the owner, Greg Little, will celebrate Riley’s and the Beavers’ surprising 8-2 season. At Clodfelter’s, they will pack 1,500 fans into the parking lot, while one owner, Steve Hessel, cheers his Ducks in enemy territory. “It’s a huge game,” said Chip Kelly, the Ducks’ coach. “The state of Oregon is on the line.”
The Platypus Trophy will reportedly be in attendance, as Spady, its creator, continues to unravel the history of the wooden animal he created, to find out who stole it and why. He plans to write a book about the trophy, give the profits to the student associations and ideally make it required reading for incoming freshmen.
“People may think the Platypus Trophy is crazy,” Spady said. “I don’t. I think it’s perfect. An ax? A cannon? That doesn’t really fit. This is a silly trophy for silly mascots.”