Beavers, Ducks, Rams, Falcons are memories; now it's golfing, fishing
EUGENE Ñ It has taken a little getting used to the 'R' word.
But Rich Brooks is warming to the idea.
At 61, retirement finally isn't such a bad thing.
'I'm doing a little business, a little fishing, a little golf Ñ just enjoying life,' says Brooks, who coached University of Oregon football from 1977-94 and brought the Ducks out of the dark ages to the 1995 Rose Bowl.
Since leaving his position as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach with the Atlanta Falcons after the 2000 season, Brooks and his wife, Karen, have been living on a 62-acre plot of land along the McKenzie River, a 15-minute drive from downtown Eugene.
Brooks fished in Alaska twice last summer and has been a regular on the McKenzie and the Willamette River, fishing for steelhead. His membership at Eugene Country Club has helped trim his handicap to single digits. And he has a satellite dish and DirecTV package to tune in to NFL games on Sundays.
'I enjoy watching them, but I might just go fishing or golfing instead,' says Brooks, chatting in an office he keeps in a caboose behind the Oregon Electric Station restaurant.
After four years on Dan Reeves' staff in Atlanta, following two years as head coach of the St. Louis Rams, Brooks resigned. There was an arthritic problem with his joints that medication took care of. There was burnout from the rigors of coaching in the NFL. But there also was hope that another head coaching opportunity would surface.
Since then, Brooks has had one interview Ñ for the San Diego State job last year Ñ and removed his name because he thought it wasn't a good opportunity.
'I was thinking if something good came along, I would get back into it,' Brooks says. 'Nothing materialized, so I'm a retired guy.'
He guesses that not too many NFL owners or college athletic directors are looking for 'older coaches.'
But Brooks isn't complaining. He has financial security from his time in the NFL. And he has been able to spend more time with his daughter Kasey, who lives in Lake Oswego, and sons Denny and Brady, who live in Sacramento, Calif.
'In Atlanta, I was a long way from my friends and family, except my daughter Kerri,' who works for CBS there, Brooks says.
'I started to say, 'What am I doing here? The heck with it.' I could retire, so I might as well.'
Brooks acknowledges missing coaching and particularly his relationship with the players. Recently, he was in Corvallis for a reunion of Oregon State's 1967 'Giant Killers' Ñ he was an assistant coach on that team Ñ and remembered another side of the profession.
Dennis Erickson 'was being interviewed after a tough loss to UCLA,' Brooks says of the current OSU coach, 'and I thought, 'You know, I don't miss that part of it.' '
The reunion was the first that Brooks had been able to attend since 1973, his last year at Oregon State. Players on the '67 Beavers who attended the reunion noted with amusement that Brooks wore an orange jacket to the game. Brooks, who also played for OSU from 1960-62, says it was merely an attempt to get into the spirit of the occasion ÑÊnot a shift in allegiances.
'I spent 11 years of my life there as a player and coach,' Brooks says of Corvallis. 'I have warm memories of the players and coaches on that team and my time there. It was a great part of my life.'
But when he went to Oregon, the Beavers became a rival. 'My livelihood depended on beating Oregon State,' he says. 'At least I was winning the Civil War (he was 14-3-1) and was able to survive the difficult years to get this thing turned around.
'Oregon gave me the opportunity to be the head coach; Oregon State didn't. We built a good program that I am proud of. I am not going to turn my back on that to go back to root for my alma mater.'
Left a legacy
Brooks' record during his 18 years at Oregon was 91-109-4. He had only seven winning seasons. Before he arrived, though, the Ducks had had one winning season in 12 years.
'When I got there, we had probably the worst facilities in the Pac-10,' Brooks says. 'I was promised by the administrators then that we would address those things, which we didn't do until about the third president and athletic director. But once we did, things started to take off.'
Brooks credits a decision by Bill Byrne, athletic director at the time, to buy the Ducks' way into the 1989 Independence Bowl as 'a major step. We showed we could to go to the postseason and our fans would follow.'
The 1995 Rose Bowl appearance was Brooks' last as Oregon's coach, but his legacy is the Moshofsky and Casanova centers and the expansion of Autzen Stadium.
When he attends a game at Autzen, he looks down upon Rich Brooks Field. Twenty-two of his players at Oregon made the NFL, and six of his assistants Ñ head coach Mike Bellotti, Neal Zomboukos, Nick Aliotti, Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood and Don Pellum Ñ are on the current Duck staff.
'The school with the worst facilities in the league 20 years ago now has the best, and some of the best in the country,' Brooks says. 'The coaching is outstanding. The continuity was extremely important in the success, and they have done a great job elevating the talent.'
Hard without a QB
Brooks had been an NFL assistant for four seasons with San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams in the late '60s and early '70s. A return to the NFL was in his blood when he left Oregon for St. Louis in 1995.
'If I had known what they were going to pay Oregon and Oregon State coaches, maybe I wouldn't have left,' he says, chuckling. 'But I don't second-guess the move. I always kind of wanted that opportunity. And financially, it made sense. I knew if it didn't work out, I could do what I'm doing now, and that is retire.'
The Rams were 7-9 and 6-10 in Brooks' two seasons, losing two games in overtime the second season. It still burns him that he was fired. The first year, the Rams started 4-0 before losing quarterback Chris Miller to a series of concussions. The second year, he had rookie Tony Banks.
'You almost can't win in the NFL without a quarterback,' Brooks says. 'Mike Holmgren is finding that out. He was a genius in Green Bay, and now he is struggling in Seattle. He's an outstanding coach, but if you don't have some players, it's hard to win.
'The Rams won a total of 12 games the three years before I coached them. We were doing it the right way, and starting to turn the thing around, but some management decisions were made that didn't have me in their future.'
Super Bowl in second year
Brooks' first year in Atlanta, the Falcons went 7-9. The next year, they finished 16-3 and made it to the Super Bowl, losing 34-19 to Denver.
'That season was a lot like our '94 season at Oregon,' Brooks says. 'We did something nobody thought could happen. We kind of sneaked up on everybody. We took a team that almost never won a division title and hadn't won a conference championship and got to the Super Bowl.'
The night before the Super Bowl, defensive back Eugene Robinson was arrested on a charge of soliciting a prostitute. He was not allowed to play in the game.
'I just wish that incident hadn't happened,' Brooks says. 'It took everything off that built us to that point. He was our team leader. It was a tragic thing because we had great chemistry on that team. We had togetherness and unselfishness.
'After the Super Bowl, that changed because those guys all decided they wanted to get paid big money. Personnel changes were made, and it deteriorated pretty fast.'
Brooks says the time demands on an NFL coach have increased exponentially since his first go-round in the '70s.
'It's a grind,' he says. 'They have taken what used to be a great job and made it one that just wears you out. You go from the season, which is a marathon, right into free agency and evaluation of players. Then you attend the combine in Indianapolis and rate draft-eligible players, work them out at the colleges, move on to the draft and the minicamps. We would never have more than a week or 10 days off. You need more than that to recharge your batteries.'
An amazing year
Brooks considers the '95 Rose Bowl his greatest coaching accomplishment.
'The way we started the season was almost catastrophic,' he says, referring to losses to Hawaii and Utah to go 1-2. 'That made it even more special.
'That was the start of having better depth at Oregon. We lose a quarterback (Danny O'Neil), and Tony Graziani steps in. We lose (tailback) Ricky Whittle, and Dino Philyaw steps in. Before, when I lost my best player, I didn't have anybody capable of filling in. All of a sudden, the talent had gotten better.'
Brooks sees only one negative in the success achieved by the Oregon program.
'Fans have gotten spoiled,' he says. 'Lose to SC and Arizona State, and all of a sudden it's, 'What's wrong?' Well, Oregon can't be 11-1 or 10-2 every year. It isn't going to happen. The other teams are going to be good, too.
'There has to be some recognition for what has happened to the four Northwest schools. Oregon State went to the Fiesta Bowl two years ago. Washington State is ranked fifth in the country. The Civil War, which to me was always a huge game anyway, has become a game of national significance.'
Is Brooks really, truly retired?
'I believe I am,' he says. 'It would take a really good offer, and it ain't going to happen. So, I'm retired.'
And that's not such a bad thing.