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2000: The Lead Up To The Fiesta Bowl

Jan 21, 2021

By Kip Carlson
In the hour after No. 8 Oregon State beat No. 5 Oregon 23-13 on November 18, Beaver football players, coaches, staff members and fans drifted away from Reser Stadium to watch the Apple Cup being played in Pullman.
That week's Sports Illustrated magazine – whose cover featured Oregon State wide receiver Chad Johnson making his diving catch in the game – included a lengthy story on the Civil War, and reporter Austin Murphy described the postgame events:
"Once the 10-1 Beavers had stopped dancing in the locker room – even coach Dennis Erickson let his hair down and boogied briefly – they tuned in to the Apple Cup, Washington's season-ending Armageddon against Washington State," Murphy wrote. "An upset by the Cougars would have propelled Oregon State to the Rose Bowl. The Beavers didn't watch for long; the Huskies were in the process of routing Washington State 51-3. Though Oregon State, Oregon and Washington have identical 7-1 conference records and share the Pac-10 championship, the Huskies will play in Pasadena, thanks to a complicated tie-breaking formula."
That meant the Beavers had to wait two weeks to find out their holiday destination: there were two more Saturdays of games before bowl pairings would be announced. Sunday, Oregon State climbed to fifth in the Associated Press media poll and sixth in the ESPN/USA today coaches poll.
"It's a pretty remarkable season and now we get to wait," OSU athletic director Mitch Barnhart told reporters later that day. "It's like Christmas early. You know there's a package under the tree; you just have to figure out which one it is."
With the Rose Bowl no longer a possibility, the Beavers were still hoping the Pac-10's strength that season – with three teams ranked in the top 10 – could net them a spot in another Bowl Championship Series game. The Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and the Orange Bowl in Miami were longshots as those games tended to take teams located closer to those cities; that left the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., as the Beavers' best bet.

Missing out on the trip to Pasadena didn't diminish the excitement of the win over Oregon. Monday's OSU Daily Barometer included a column by Sam Schwartz focusing on bragging rights. Wrote Schwartz: "To the victor go the spoils … a better bowl game, recognition, money and most importantly … bragging rights …
"For a year, we are better. For a year, in this, the year of all years, when both teams were ranked in the top 10 with the Rose Bowl on the line and the nation peering into the state of Oregon, the Beavers are the better team, and there is no doubt about it."
There were also bets on the game being paid off – some more unusual than others. The Corvallis Gazette-Times on Tuesday morning published a photograph of KFLY morning disc jockey Bill London wincing as listener Kaye Gorden squirted cold cheese on his head at the corner of NW Ninth Street and Circle Boulevard. London, who was also singing karaoke at the time, had lost a wager with fellow radio station staffer Pete Young.
Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen told the G-T his staff was working to help the Beavers secure the best bowl possible.
"Our job will be to try and convince the BCS bowls of OSU's merit and how well it will travel," Hansen said. "That's the first thing they ask: how many people will they bring and how many hotel rooms will they buy. That's the game we have to work at and we'll turn it on as soon as we get home. (BCS) representatives were all here, so they saw how wonderfully Oregon State can play."
The week's BCS rankings were released Monday, with OSU in fifth place behind top-ranked Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami and Washington; Oregon slipped to 10th.
OSU's Fiesta Bowl chances would be helped if Oklahoma won its final two games, assuring itself a spot in the national championship game. That would leave both spots in the Fiesta Bowl open for at-large teams because the Big 12 champion was slotted into the game unless it qualified for the national championship game.
By Tuesday, Oregon State had already established a bowl game website and a telephone hotline for fans to receive the latest information on tickets, travel packages and souvenirs. Steve Smith, associate director of the OSU Alumni Association, told the Barometer that more than 3,000 fans had already registered to receive updates.
That day, hats and shirts commemorating OSU's Pac-10 championship arrived at the OSU Bookstore. Ron Thiessen, owner of the Campus Connection on Monroe Avenue across from campus, had an order en route and said when the Beavers learned their bowl fate, merchandise would be available within 48 hours; Steve Summers, OSU Bookstore general manager, said it would have products available on a similar timeline.
Oregon State's main competition for the Fiesta Bowl slot appeared to be Virginia Tech (9-1 and No. 6 in the BCS rankings) and Notre Dame (8-2 and No. 11 in the BCS rankings), both of which had games remaining. Barometer sports columnist Ryan Schwartz speculated that Notre  Dame's high profile and large following nationally made them a favorite for a berth, then added, "I won't insult your intelligence by telling you Oregon State would beat the pants off Notre Dame 10 times out of 10 whether they were playing in Corvallis, South Bend or on the moon. You and anybody else that's seen these two teams play already knows that."
The Beavers were taking the week after the Oregon game; they would head home for Thanksgiving, then return to campus to begin preparing for whatever bowl would be their destination.
Before they left, word came that Louisiana State had contacted Barnhart about perhaps becoming its athletic director. Barnhart confirmed he'd been contacted but said he hadn't made himself a candidate: "I'm concentrating fully on what we're doing here at Oregon State."
Fans wanting to see some football November 25, the Saturday after Oregon State beat Oregon, got a chance when the OSAA scheduled a playoff doubleheader for Reser Stadium. In one game, Scappoose – quarterbacked by Derek Anderson, who had committed to OSU – beat Henley 34-28; in the other, Burns – quarterbacked by Kellen Clemens, who had committed to UO – beat Marist 30-29.
That day OSU's Fiesta Bowl hopes weren't helped when Notre Dame beat Southern California 38-21 and Virginia Tech beat Virginia 42-21, keeping both those teams in contention for a spot in the game.
As OSU resumed workouts after Thanksgiving, the Pac-10 announced its all-conference selections. Erickson was Coach of the Year; he deflected praise for the honor, saying, "Any time you win a coach of the year honor it just tells you how good your assistants are, basically. The assistants and the players are the ones who deserve all the credit."
Five Beavers were named to the all-conference first team: running back Ken Simonton, center Chris Gibson, placekicker Ryan Cesca, defensive end DeLawrence Grant and cornerback Dennis Weathersby. Simonton was the only unanimous selection on offense.
Making the second team were wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, offensive tackle Mitch White, linebacker Darnell Robinson and safety Terrence Carroll. Earning honorable mention were cornerback Keith Heyward-Johnson, defensive end LaDairis Jackson, wide receiver Johnson, tight end Marty Maurer, wide receiver Robert Prescott and quarterback Jonathan Smith.
While Barnhart was on LSU's radar, Erickson seemed to be linked to every coaching vacancy in the country, most notably at Southern California. Barnhart, though, said no other schools had contacted him about talking to Erickson, who was in the second year of a five-year contract.
Barnhart and Erickson were negotiating a new contract, and Barnhart hoped to have the deal done by late in the week. Said Barnhart: "We want to show how much we appreciate what he's done. We will show that pretty dramatically."
Meanwhile, Hansen was staying true to his word about helping OSU into the best possible bowl. The Pac-10 commissioner told the Los Angeles Times that if Oregon State were passed up for a BCS berth in favor of a lower-ranked team, the conference might opt out of the BCS when the current agreement ended in 2006; losing one of the nation's premier conferences would dent the BCS's prestige.
"I think the BCS has been very good for college football, but it has to be good for all the participants," Hansen said. "The Pac-10 may be better off going back to the Rose Bowl and forgetting the rest. I wouldn't want to continually subject our teams to the anticipation of being selected and fairly considered when it just doesn't happen."
By Saturday night, December 3 – the night before the BCS pairings would be announced – there was plenty of good news for Beaver fans. That morning, Erickson had agreed to a new seven-year contract that could keep him at OSU through 2007. Later, Oklahoma beat Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, putting the Sooners in the national title game and heightening Oregon State's Fiesta Bowl chances.
"I feel real confident for our team," Barnhart told the Gazette-Times. "I've had wonderful conversations with the Fiesta Bowl. The one thing we've really concentrated on in our focus with the Fiesta Bowl people is that we have a team that deserves to be there. They're fifth or sixth in whatever poll you look at, we have a co-championship in the Pac-10 and we defeated a top-10 team and played well in our conference.
"We deserve to be there. Based on all the conversations I've had with them, I feel very, very good with where we are."
The selection show came on at 12:30 p.m. and the Beavers gathered in the dining area of the Valley Football Center. At 12:45 p.m., they learned their fate: a New Year's night date with Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.
"One second after the news became official, the third floor of the Valley Football Center erupted with boisterous roars, high-fives, hugs, handshakes, a few tears and enough smiles to dispel the inevitable Willamette Valley winter gloom for several months to come," wrote Gazette-Times reporter Brooks Hatch.
Erickson watched calmly; he'd already seen a Fiesta Bowl representative in the building and figured he knew what was up.
"But the players didn't know, so I looked at them when the announcement came on the screen, to see how they reacted," Erickson said. "That was about as fun a thing as I've ever seen in my life; watching those kids was one of the biggest thrills I've ever had."
Offensive guard Jared Cornell was one of 11 fifth-year seniors whose OSU careers began with a 2-9 record in Jerry Pettibone's final season as head coach.
"We had high aspirations and high hopes this season, but this is pretty much like the ultimate dream, I guess," Cornell said. "Besides playing for the national championship, this is as good as it gets."
Barnhart compared a BCS game against Notre Dame's fabled program to a Final Four game against Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina.
"We're in the Elite Eight of college football and we're playing the most storied program in America," Barnhart said. "It definitely gets your players' attention and it's a great opportunity. To showcase our program on a national level like this is truly phenomenal.
"To watch our kids react like that, and for them to be fired up about playing Notre Dame, that's phenomenal. I'd like to have been in the living room of a lot of our alums who have been around for 40 years, just waiting for a moment like this. I bet there are some tears being shed in living rooms around the state right now. This is pretty neat."
John Junker, a Fiesta Bowl official, said Hansen's threats to pull the Pac-10 from the BCS weren't a factor in the selection and that OSU was actually selected first by the Fiesta Bowl committee and they then picked Notre Dame as the Beavers' opponent.
"We were strongly leaning to Oregon State because of the job that their players and coaches have done in turning around the program that had a record 28 consecutive losing seasons prior to last year," Junker said. "It's a 10-victory team that we think is one of the most compelling stories in college football."
In fact, Oregon State was designated as the home team for the game and would wear its all-black uniforms – and they were 11-1 under Erickson in those outfits.
While this would be the first football meeting between OSU and Notre Dame, it wasn't the first connection between the programs. Legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne had taught at the Oregon Agricultural College summer school for coaches from 1925-28; he was an acquaintance of OAC head coach Paul Schissler and track and field coach Michael "Dad" Butler from their time in the Midwest.
Once the destination was known, Oregon State fans began booking travel plans to the Phoenix area. Brad Teel, owner of Teel's Travel Planners, told the Gazette-Times, "We have been dealing with literally hundreds of orders from OSU fans. Our clients are coming from all over the state. We're getting calls from the East Coast and all over the place. It's another great day to be a Beaver."
Oregon State wouldn't practice the week of December 4-8 to concentrate on final exams, then resume practice Saturday morning, December 9.
It didn't take long for the reporters to begin playing up the angle of the long-downtrodden Beavers from a remote corner of the country going against the tradition-rich Fighting Irish and their national fan following – which was just fine with the Beavers.
"I don't like 'America's teams,'" Simonton said. "I don't like everybody's favorite. I was always an underdog kind of cat, myself."
The Gazette-Times and the South Bend Tribune agreed to share their articles with each other in the weeks leading up to the game. Tribune columnist David Haugh offered his view on the Fiesta Bowl choosing OSU, rather than a better-known program, to face Notre Dame: "This is like a car dealer giving the customer his choice of luxury vehicles in the lot and the customer choosing a Hyundai. Sure, it's a great choice for people who like Hyundais, but a little hard for the rest of the world to understand."
The Oregonian's Ken Goe saw that line, observed that Oregon State had the better record and higher ranking, and asked, "So, which school is the Hyundai, Oregon State or Notre Dame?"
As to whether the Beavers belonged in the game, at least one group figured they did: oddsmakers had OSU as an early three-point favorite in the contest.
The Fighting Irish had started the season 2-2 against a quartet of four nationally ranked teams, losing to then-No. 1 Nebraska 27-24 in overtime and at No. 23 Michigan State 27-21. They finished the regular season with seven straight wins over unranked teams, including two from the Pac-10: Stanford, a 20-14 win, and Southern California, a 38-21 victory.
Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie defended his team's selection to a BCS game over other teams higher in the rankings.
"I'm not going to apologize to anyone for us being in the BCS," Davie said. "They (Fiesta Bowl officials) got a pretty darn good football team out there that's on the rise right now and improving week by week. I would give them more credit (than choosing the Irish because of television ratings and fan support). There's a reason they were back here watching this football team all season long. It was to see how good of a football team we were."
By then, Oregon State announced it had sold out its allotment of 17,500 tickets, priced at $75 each. First priority for the seats had been given to donors, students, season ticket holders and the OSU Alumni Association's official tour.
Also in the news that December 12: shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers – the richest contract in sports history. And, a day later, an even bigger story: The United States Supreme Court ruled that Florida's vote recounts should end, effectively making George W. Bush the president-elect – over a month after the election had taken place. The next day, Al Gore conceded, saying, "There is a higher duty than the one we owe to a political party. This is America and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president."
Oregon State's bowl preparations would include flying to Phoenix on December 21; the Beavers would stay at the Scottsdale Plaza resort and practice at Scottsdale Community College. OSU's time at the bowl site would be longer than most teams would stay, but without an indoor facility Erickson wanted as many practices in quality conditions as possible; he had another reason, as well.
"When you're situated for a long period of time, I really think it helps you adjust to the game you're going to play," Erickson said. "If you're down there for one week, everything kind of hits you at one time: boom! You're trying to get ready and you've got all this attention and so forth. We'll be down there five days earlier than normal and when all this stuff hits you, as far as the press is concerned, we're adjusted to it a little bit. Hopefully it will help us."
Having been to a bowl game the previous season – and losing to Hawaii 23-17 in the Oahu Bowl – might also make a difference.
"All the guys back from last year definitely learned a lot about how to go into a bowl game and take it seriously, not to just go out and have fun all the time," safety Jake Cookus said.
For Oregon State equipment manager Steve McCoy, trainer Barney Graff and their staffs, the extended stay meant setting up complete facilities about a 1,200-mile drive from home. McCoy said they packed about 9,000 pounds of gear into two tractor-trailer rigs for the trip.
"The bottom line is, when you're ready to leave and you're going to turn the lights out, look behind you," McCoy said of getting ready. "If there's anything left, take it with you."
When Oregon State's chartered plane touched down in Phoenix on Thursday evening, December 21, it was greeted by Fiesta Bowl officials in bright yellow blazers, men in cowboy hats and vests, and a three-piece mariachi band. One of the officials was Shawn Schoeffler, a 1991 OSU graduate who was now the game's vice president of media relations.
"I don't think I ever had the Beavers playing here as a dream," Schoeffler told the Gazette-Times. "I don't think I could imagine it, because back when I was in school the Beavers were 1-10 and 2-9. Heck, when Oregon State broke into the top 25 this year that seemed like a miracle, really. I might be exaggerating but I think a lot of people would agree with that."
Speaking to the reporters on hand, Erickson offered one piece of news: "Our practices will be open to the public. So if people want to come watch us practice, we don't have anything to hide."
A day later, Barnhart had his own news: he would be staying at Oregon State, ending speculation he might be hired at Louisiana State.
Notre Dame would arrive in the Valley of the Sun on Christmas Day. By then, Davie figured his team would have a good idea what it was up against in the Beavers.
"Our players are pretty intelligent guys, and I promise you that when we put those tapes on, they'll see we have our hands full in preparing for this game," Davie said. "I've watched them and I can see they're good. They're athletic. It's easy to see why they're Pac-10 co-champions."
OSU's football reputation was helping the school in a number of ways, including perhaps being partly responsible for a 22-percent enrollment increase since 1996.
"There's a night-and-day difference as to what we heard four years ago," OSU admissions director Bob Bontrager said of visits to high schools. "The overall positive impression students now have of Oregon State and the excitement generated is amazing."
OSU President Dr. Paul Risser was credited by many for giving athletics the institutional support necessary to be competitive. In a lengthy question-and-answer session with the Gazette-Times, Risser said when he arrived at OSU in 1996, it became a higher priority.
"The issue was, I want us to be proud of every part of Oregon State," Risser said. "It became clear, after I'd been here for a few months, that having a losing athletic program kind of permeated every conversation. I would begin every conversation by explaining why we weren't successful in athletics. The connotation to me was, that's too big a factor to ignore … it became important for me to make sure that, like everything else about Oregon State, that we had a winning attitude in athletics."
Oregon State held its first practice in Arizona on Friday, December 22 and a few dozen local OSU fans attended under sunny skies on a 70-degree day.
"You can get going a lot faster, you're not having to try to work up a sweat; it's nice," Smith said of the shift in climate from Oregon's winter rain. "Since we've got all the time for meetings and we've got good weather, this is really quality (practice) time."
Christmas Eve meant a holiday dinner at the team hotel for the OSU players, coaches and staff; Santa Claus went from table to table presenting the players with their Fiesta Bowl watches.  Christmas Day, players were on their own to spend time with family who might have already made the trip to the Phoenix area; many players spent the day with each other.
"They made up for my family not being there because they're like my second family," Johnson said. "So it wasn't bad, it was like spending Christmas with your family."
When OSU resumed practice on Tuesday, December 26, there were several hundred fans attending; Beaver Nation had begun arriving for a nearly week-long pregame party of its own. The onlookers edged close enough to some drills to risk being bulldozed by an errant player, and Oregon State announced the rest of its practices would be closed to everyone but credentialed media members.
As game day neared, Oregon State was involved in another competition: one between the state's universities to open a branch in Central Oregon. At a meeting of the Central Oregon Regional Advisory Board, no formal poll was taken but three of the six voting members favored OSU, one favored Oregon, and two were undecided.
In Arizona, the Oregon State vs. Notre Dame comparisons continued. Roy Gault of the Statesman-Journal observed, "They're getting aggravated, a microphone in their face and a Notre Dame beat reporter asking yet another Oregon State player how privileged he feels to share a football field with a team as legendary as the Irish … for the most part the Beavers' answers are tactful and respectful."
But, Oregon State linebacker Richard Seigler said, "I'm getting tired of all that. I went back home before Christmas and my grandmother was telling me about all the Notre Dame tradition … they can have all the ghosts they want. Ghosts or spirits or little Irish men, the leprechaun, or whatever he is. We're going to come out and smash through all that."
When word of Oregon State's confidence in its abilities reached the Notre Dame camp, it didn't go over too well.
"A lot of their guys are talking, and we're trying to keep our mouths shut," Irish wide receiver Joey Getherall said. "I think they're living it up too much. They probably don't get too much camera time in Corvallis, and now they have an audience and they're saying things … They have a lot to say. A lot of negativity. It sounds like they have the attitude that we're horrible. Once that negativity sets in, I think it affects your game."
December 29 was a busy day. The Beavers visited Sun Devil Stadium for the biggest press conference of the week, then attended the Fiesta Bowl Kickoff Luncheon – a 4,000-person event hosted by ESPN's Steve Levy.
"It's fun – it's extremely fun," Carroll said of the week's events. "It's going to be great. You look around and see all the banners – Tostitos, Fiesta Bowl – it's a major event. It's going to be watched nationally. I'm looking to have a great game along with the team."
That night, many of the Beavers and their coaches spent the evening watching the Holiday Bowl, where Oregon beat Texas 35-30. Their own game was three days away.
While fans couldn't attend practice, there were still those who showed up at Scottsdale Community College to provide encouragement and seek autographs as the Beavers arrived or departed. One was an elderly gentleman carrying a football; he asked Erickson if he had anything to do with the team. Erickson responded in the affirmative and signed the ball.
"He thought I was just another gray-haired guy out there trying to get an autograph," Erickson said.

December 31, the Beavers appeared at the Fiesta Bowl Youth Football Clinic and held a brief walkthrough at Sun Devil Stadium, site of the next day's game.
By then, the Valley of the Sun seemed filled with orange and black and Notre Dame's blue and gold. Oregon State had sold 19,100 tickets for the game after getting an additional allotment from the Fiesta Bowl, and it was apparent thousands more Beaver fans had managed tickets through other channels.
That afternoon, Oregon State held a pep rally in Arizona State's Wells Fargo Arena; a crowd estimated at 11,000 nearly filled the building.
"I tell you what," Erickson told the crowd. "You're very special … thank you for your support this year, and thank you to the people who supported OSU football through all the tough years. As well as this team, these fans deserve this week."
The throng in the arena included the Oregon State rally squad and the Beavers marching band, which had been in Phoenix since December 27. Among the 11 events at which they were performing were pep rallies, luncheons and a band competition; they'd cap the trip marching in the Fiesta Bowl parade and performing at the game on New Year's Day.
After the rally, the Beavers returned to the Scottsdale Plaza for a quiet New Year's Eve.
"There is no New Year's Eve when you play on New Year's Day," Erickson said. "It's just another day. We'll have our New Year's Eve when we get back to Corvallis."
NEXT: The grand finale.