Chip Kelly Traded Away Autzen’s 12th Man

Chip Kelly traded away the University of Oregon’s 12th man, the force that gave the Ducks an unfair advantage every time our players stormed out of the tunnel at Autzen Stadium. It took a while for that trade to have its effect, buoyed by good and great players who had already been recruited to compete here, knowing that 12th man had been backing them up for 100 straight games and counting.

The trade was a strategic one, based on the sort of failsafe logic that has made Kelly famous, if not always successful. He decided the fans were a necessary evil. As Oscar Wilde supposedly complained about his apartment on his deathbed, “This wallpaper will be the death of me — one of us will have to go.”

First, he closed all practice sessions, surrounding the field with Stonehenge-like basalt walls. Kelly then dispensed with all injury reports. Finally, Kelly and his coaches adopted a smug attitude toward anyone who might want to know anything about the team or its players.

When Head Coach Mark Helfrich was asked recently why one of his team’s top tacklers didn’t play against Washington State, Helfrich only added to the mystery: “It wasn’t about discipline. Draw your own conclusion.”

These “I know something you don’t know” taunts started as competitive cloaking, but over time they have worn down the media, the ticket buyers, and the community. The 12th man has stopped showing up for games.

And so, after 17 years and 110 consecutive home game sell-outs, the Ducks have filled Autzen Stadium only once this year, and that may have been because Washington Husky fans traveled to Eugene in droves.

If you think players can’t tell the difference between a crowd of 60,000 supporters and one of 50,000, think again. Greater mass into equal volume creates more pressure. That’s the physics of 12th-man assistance.

Ducks announcer Don Essig famously promises “it never rains in Autzen Stadium.” Gravity can be suspended within its confines. Rising expectations produce a notorious rainlessness. How now are expectations set when we’re left to “draw our own conclusions”? Aside from the occasional police report or unauthorized candor, we’re no better than an overmatched cornerback. We have plenty of energy but we don’t know which way to look.

Gone are the days when fans could stop and watch the team practice. Even reporters are barred from knowing anything except what the coaches decide they should know. Reporters once played an important role in setting game and team expectations, which was good for the team and good for the fans. We knew better what to watch for.

Nowadays, we might see players occasionally around town, but we don’t know that much about them. “How is that undisclosed injury that cannot be confirmed?” We aren’t given the opportunity to care about these young men. Intimate connections have been lost.

I understand that game planning is up to a dozen coaches and their assistants. But nurturing the team and its players used to be a job shared by the whole community. That model offers less control than Kelly notoriously required, but he’s gone and we’re still here, wanting to cheer.

Sports fans invented crowdsourcing. We huddle in living rooms or bars or bus stops and discuss the last or next game. What plays might work for a scrappy quarterback with a broken finger? Who will remind a rushing linebacker to raise his hands when a shorter quarterback cocks to throw? Our nose tackle needs more help when a gap opens to his left.

Coaches can’t be everywhere, but fans can — if there are enough of them. But fans have been taken out of the game. We’re that wallpaper that one coach couldn’t stand.

We make less noise now. Dancing to the third-quarter Animal House clip was more fun when our team was ahead. Other teams don’t dread competing in Autzen they way they used to. It has become less fearsome. Our own recruits leave less impressed. The 12th man is no longer showing up.

We have no one to blame but ourselves — unless we blame Chip Kelly.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs