1950 - 51 Ducks
(Authentic Reproduction)



For Oregon and the Northwestern schools that have made up the various constructs of the conference that has held USC, Cal, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, and Oregon State together in athletic competition, only Washington of the non-California schools has a tradition of sustained football success. Oregon State and Oregon had short periods of excellence but these were difficult to maintain in the absence of major population centers and an inability to build quality depth, at least until the early 1990’s. Oregon enjoyed success in the early part of the Twentieth Century but before Leo Harris and Jim Aiken arrived in 1947, they had last known a winning season in 1935. Harris was the school’s first full time athletic director with responsibilities limited to fostering the growth and direction of a viable independent department. From the football hotbed of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, Aiken was a graduate of Washington And Jefferson College and participated with their Rose Bowl team in 1922. He had coached for twenty-five years before taking the Oregon head coaching position, achieving a phenomenal high school record at some of the most storied Ohio programs, including Canton McKinley High School  At 118-16-2, he was called "the greatest teacher of football I've ever known" by Paul Brown. Moving to the collegiate level, Aiken won conference championships at Akron and Nevada. The Oregon program had been eliminated during the 1943 and '44 seasons due to the wartime effort and 1945 and '46 brought a total of seven wins and the latter season was marked by an inability to score in five of their nine games. To many, the rebuilding job seemed insurmountable. Aiken installed what was still the relatively new T-Formation and moved a little-used tailback by the name of Norman Van Brocklin to quarterback. When California JC player George Bell transferred to Oregon, he asked if he could bring his Acalanes High School friend and teammate from Lafayette, CA with him. U.S. Navy veteran Van Brocklin was that friend and he was Aiken's savior. The staff then taught what Aiken termed "The Iron Pocket" which allowed receivers to break downfield on longer patterns and he drilled the team on protecting Van Brocklin. In '47, his first season, Aiken's Ducks tied for second-place in the Pacific Coast Conference with a 7-3 record behind the 939 passing yards put up by "The Dutchman" who benefited from the protection of All Conference center Brad Ecklund. AD Harris gained some recognition by coming to a handshake agreement with the already famous Walt Disney, granting permission to the Oregon Duck squads to use Donald Duck and his likeness as the official logo of the school’s athletic teams. In '48, the team was much improved and Van Brocklin had a truly All American season, throwing for 1010 yards, a fantastic figure in that era. The supporting cast was excellent. Aiken talked basketball player Dick Wilkins into joining the team and while Dick was a determined target for Van Brocklin, the Wilkins name is famous at Oregon primarily because his son Mac became an Olympic champion and world record holder in the discus, and multiple-time national and world champion in a number of throwing events during the 1970's. The elder Wilkins played for LA of the AAFC and the NFL Texans and Giants. Dan Garza was an All Pacific Coast Conference end in '47 and played as well in 1948 and Brad Ecklund provided support from center. He was All Conference for two seasons and the Ducks' MVP in '48. After a four-year pro career Ecklund had a long and productive coaching career that included stints at his alma mater, the Dallas Cowboys, Falcons, Saints, Eagles, and with the Florida Blazers in the WFL. Johnny McKay, a halfback who transferred from Purdue was second-string yet led the team in scoring. HB Woodley Lewis was another California JC transfer and the powerful resurgent team surprised everyone by going 9-1, the only loss to number-one rated Michigan. As the country’s ninth ranked team the Ducks knew that number-four and undefeated conference mate Cal would get the Rose Bowl nod so they offered a post-season one-game challenge, the winner to get the Rose Bowl bid. That was predictably declined and the conference members voted to send Cal rather than co-champion Oregon to "The Grand Daddy Of All Bowl Games." That the University Of Washington in particular would vote against a “fellow Northwest team” insured that Oregon’s unending animosity would be directed at all of the Huskies’ athletic teams. Despite further public disagreement by Washington’s Sports Information Director who claimed that the proposed participation of Oregon in the Cotton Bowl contest would be “illegal” and violate conference regulations, the PCC granted special dispensation so that for the first time, a second conference member could play a bowl game within the same season, a rule that was not changed until 1970 and this allowed the Ducks to face off against SMU in the Cotton Bowl. Without the experience of posting winning teams or any type of bowl preparation, the trip to the Cotton Bowl was a disaster for Oregon. They arrived two weeks prior to the game and Aiken immediately changed the entire defense that had been successful all season. Paul Brown sent five of his Cleveland Browns players to the practice site to assist in the installation of the new scheme but the decision to alter what had been successful and what the players knew how to execute was questioned by the team. Players fought with players and coaches, coaches argued with coaches. The team believed they belonged in the more prestigious Rose Bowl and even Van Brocklin's legendary leadership abilities could not keep the team on track. After SMU's 21-13 win, the newspaper headline in Eugene, OR read "Too Much Party, Not Enough Football Blamed For Duck Defeat." Thus what should have been a great year for Aiken ended on a sour note, although FB Bob Sanders was quick to point out that Aiken had done a terrific job bringing together the talents and personalities of numerous military veterans who had returned from World War II and younger players. Aiken refused an offer from Nebraska and received a pay raise from the UO.   




After high school graduation, Norman Van Brocklin served in the United States Navy from 1943 to ’45. Following his high school friend George Bell from junior college to Oregon,  "The Dutchman" as he was called, and his vast ability was neither an obvious nor immediately utilized resource. When Jim Aiken became the head coach in 1947, he brought in the T-Formation and built the entire attack around Van Brocklin's ability to run or throw. He had tremendous field generalship and was highly respected by his teammates and coaches, being allowed to run the offense while on the field. An instinctive play-caller, he elevated the entire squad to two fine seasons in 1947 and '48, finishing his career in the Cotton Bowl against SMU and their stars Doak Walker and Kyle Rote. He was one of the first quarterbacks to call "audibles" and take charge of the offense on the field. His 1948 All American season finished with a two-year career total of 1949 passing yards and eighteen TD's, huge numbers for his era which earned him election to The College Football Hall Of Fame. A fourth-round draft choice of the LA Rams, he began his twelve-season, Pro Football Hall of Fame career by establishing himself as one of the league's best passers and it was often overlooked that he was an extremely effective punter. Against the NY Yankees, he threw for 554 yards in one 1951 contest! Tough as nails, outspoken, fiery and a fearless leader by any standard, he would lead his team by sheer force of will. His seventy-three yard touchdown strike to fellow Pro Football Hall Of Fame receiver Tom Fears secured the 1951 NFL Championship, a play that remains one of the league’s most famous. Spending his last three seasons with the Eagles, he took a middle-of-the-road squad to Pro Football's Championship in 1960, and was named the NFL MVP. Extremely bright, caustic, and quotable, one of Van Brocklin’s more oft-repeated quips was “If I ever needed a brain transplant, I’d choose a sportswriter’s because I’d want a brain that had never been used.” After a career that saw him participate in nine Pro Bowls, The Dutchman retired to lead the expansion Minnesota Vikings and later the Atlanta Falcons as their head coach, using the same challenging and competitive style he demonstrated as a player. Accumulating 23,611 passing yards and throwing for 173 touchdowns, Van Brocklin was one of the greats who literally changed the entire nature of the game.   


Aiken stressed fundamentals and for the combat vets that made up most of the '47 and '48 teams, the approach was sufficient. Unfortunately, Van Brocklin, who had completed four years of study in three, passed on his final year of eligibility to turn professional with the Los Angeles Rams and by the start of the 1949 season most of the combat vets were gone. HB Johnny McKay hurt his knee and spent the season on the sideline as a student-assistant coach, the beginning of one of the greatest of coaching careers which culminated with multiple championships at Southern Cal and the building of the NFL expansion Buccaneers. It is however, often overlooked that McKay was a fine player who had a school record 6.0 yards-per-carry average for his career. Despite producing the highest scoring team to date in the UO history, Aiken's approach did not work as well with the new, younger players and the record fell to 4-6. RB's Woodley Lewis, George Bell, and FB Bob Sanders who led the PCC in rushing carried most of the load. Lewis remains one of the Ducks' all-time great return men, with a 102-yard kickoff return to his credit and he did as well as a pro, joining Van Brocklin on the Rams from '50-'55 and completing another five seasons in the NFL with the Cardinals and expansion Cowboys.


In 1950 Oregon changed to the Riddell RT model plastic suspension helmets as the Ducks entered the field of play wearing head gear that was all kelly green. Noting his lack of material, an increasingly unpopular Aiken overworked his under-talented players and finished '50 with a terrible 1-9 mark and the victory was against bottom-of-the-barrel Montana. The Earl Stelle to Monte Brethauer pass-catch team was the only offensive highlight and Stelle was given All PCC honors. Under fire, Aiken completed the 1950 season feeling the pressure to recruit better players. Unfortunately, he was overzealous in his attempts and broke conference rules. He was forced to resign by the PCC in June of 1951 and left Oregon in disgrace. He became a successful lumber broker in Roseburg, OR and in 1959, returned to athletics as the AD at Roseburg High School. Unfortunately Aiken suffered a fatal heart attack on Oct 31, 1961. With little time to pick up the pieces and field a decent team for '51, the administration turned to Len Casanova who had played halfback at Santa Clara and was known on the West Coast for having made a ninety-eight yard punt against St. Mary's. He was an assistant to Buck Shaw during Santa Clara's hey-day and during World War II served as a Naval Commander. He returned to Santa Clara in 1946 as their head coach, staying through '49 and culminating his tenure with an upset win over Kentucky in the Orange Bowl. He decided to rebuild the program at Pitt but after one season at the Eastern school that had de-emphasized football, he jumped at the Oregon head job despite the short time he had to prepare his squad for the upcoming season. Casanova had some misgivings about taking the Oregon job, especially after viewing the film of the spring intra-squad game. He said, “They showed me the film of the spring football game. There wasn’t much there.” AD Haris stressed that they “had a tremendous group of freshmen coming in, so I took the job.” He had the good sense to keep John McKay on the staff and lucked-out in finding a frosh group that fit the description he had been given including QB and safety George Shaw who had led his Grant (OR) H.S. team to two state championships. Starting in his first college season due to wartime rules, Shaw set an NCAA record by intercepting thirteen passes in 1951. Other incoming freshmen included guard Jack Patera and Ron Phiester and with many of the upper classmen called into military service because of the Korean War, the Ducks placed eleven starting freshmen on the field against Stanford in the season’s first game. The offense was sparked by Shaw and HB Tom Novikoff. Monte Brethauer was a dependable receiver and Casanova survived his first season despite a humiliating “they went out of their way to run up the score” 63-6 loss to Washington and a 2-8 record. The Washington defeat would serve as a motivator for Casanova’s teams throughout his sixteen season stint at Oregon.

If interested in any of these Oregon helmets please click on the photos below.