What’s Eugene Known For? Quick.

How does Eugene look to New Yorkers? It’s changing, and not slowly.

Over a weekend breakfast at Brail’s last month, two UO professors told me a story about realtor Sue Prichard showing them a profile of Eugene printed in The New Yorker decades ago. The town’s laid-back lifestyle and bashful fear of an invasion of Californians appealed to these immigrants from the Bronx.

This week’s issue of The New Yorker profiles Alberto Salazar and his unconventional aspirations to save long-distance running from the “crash-and-burn” fate that befell his own athletic career. The article makes only passing mention of Eugene and Salazar’s investment in the Oregon Electric Station, but the connection is still there.

Eugene will be known for speed. Track Town USA will question conventions, combining quirk with quick.
The New York Times last Sunday acknowledged “what many have been reluctant to acknowledge: that Oregon is a step ahead of everyone else.” That was of course a reference to Eugene’s hometown football team. The Oregon Ducks, sitting atop the football world for the first time in their history, have caught the fancy of the nation.

There are lessons for all of us in the Ducks’ success.

Head Coach Chip Kelly has emphasized that his team practices against a “faceless opponent.” He doesn’t motivate his players by talking about the other team. He emphasizes the system and each athlete’s assignment for each play. Kelly has 70 young men convinced that if each does his job correctly, it won’t matter what the other team does — victory relies on completing each assignment.

Teaching ambition differs from encouraging competitiveness. The latter emphasizes making somebody else lose. The former focuses on the details within our control that will bring victory. “Win The Day.”

Kelly has literally trademarked that phrase, but only because Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true” was already taken.

We know who we are in Eugene, but Kelly’s philosophy can shake us out of our complacency. We can be sure of ourselves, and also push ourselves.

We struggle with ambition here in Eugene, because we don’t want anyone to lose. But that’s not understanding the concept deeply enough, confusing it with competition.

Consider again our reputation. A beautiful, laid-back place. A great town to raise a family. A wonderland for retirees. A step back in time. Five ZIP codes that smoked too much pot.

Do you see a theme? Each suggests slowness. Is it any wonder so many of us fear we won’t keep up?

Kelly won’t say so out loud, but his system uses speed to heighten his team’s focus. Kelly runs each football practice at such a pace that a player has time to think only about what he has to do, not why or what if. If he doesn’t execute perfectly, the good news is his next chance is coming quickly. Can you hear Nike’s “just do it” slogan inside this training method? Taking that tempo into the game, fans love the speed, but it’s the players’ resolve that opposing coaches can’t solve.

We can challenge ourselves to raise our game. Each of us can strive to become the fullest expression of ourselves yet revealed. UO President and Sanskrit scholar Richard Lariviere would call it “dharma.” Kelly calls it winning.

We needn’t mimic the manic that is the Ducks, but can we show some of the same fearless ambition?

Excellence can be its own reward, and exertion in its pursuit will be enjoyable. That’s certainly what the Ducks are learning this year. As Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris told the New York Times, after last week’s victory over USC, “They thought their talent and five-star recruits was going to beat our hard work. Talent doesn’t beat hard work.”

As the USC Trojans learned last week, complacency reverses the arrow of inevitability. Dharma’s demands keep each soul in motion. Only its direction is affected by our actions.

Did I mention that these two professors from New York teach the classics to UO honor students? They’ve never regretted their exodus from the Bronx, but they kept their ambition for their profession and their students. They’ve both been decorated for their academic achievements. “… and it shall follow as the day the night ….”

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