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Innovation University celebrates Oregon Ducks’ impact on design

Former Duck Garren Strong’s new book tells the story of the school’s history of groundbreaking uniforms, facilities, and exclusive sneakers

As a highly touted recruit out of the Bay Area in the early 2000s, wide receiver Garren Strong remembers precisely when the University of Oregon first got on his radar. Sure, the Joey Harrington-led Ducks were winning games, but they also won in style. 

“I can say that the uniform design is one of the things that got me really interested in Oregon,” he said. “I remember when I first paid attention to them, was when they played Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Before then, I didn’t know anything about Oregon at all. Never paid attention. Seeing that helmet was just so different from any other helmet out there. It just cut through.”

Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington against Colorado at the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, on Jan. 1, 2002.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

As he found out on a recruiting visit, Oregon’s approach to design, technology, and innovation through its uniforms would become a defining element of being a Ducks student-athlete. It’s that legacy across sports that Strong encapsulated in a 460-page coffee-table book titled Innovation University.

Rather than follow a linear timeline of milestones, the book is divided into three sections, exploring breakthroughs over the last two decades in Ducks uniforms, on-campus facilities, and player-exclusive footwear.

After working for 10 years in the football marketing division at Nike and later at Jordan Brand overseeing the Air Jordan 1 franchise, Strong is using that experience to launch Innovation University, which is available in three editions. A black cover serves as the base option, with individually numbered editions of 100 copies available in a yellow or green cover. The two limited edition options include a unique non-fungible token and access to future products, events, and storytelling.

We recently caught up with Strong in Portland, Oregon, to hear about his experience donning some of the Ducks’ most innovative looks and the inspiration that led to the creation of the book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pages from Innovation University.

Innovation University

At what point when you were on campus did you realize, ‘OK, there’s a different level of design taking place here’?

It was immediate. On my recruiting trip, they had all the jerseys laid out. We were in the equipment room and got to see the uniforms before they debuted them. 

If you were any type of athlete, going to Oregon and looking at the uniforms on your recruiting trip, it was hard not to sign or move them from your top 10 into your top two or three. At that time, nobody was doing alternates. [They showed us] the helmets, the cleats, the accessories, and we were meeting folks that worked at Nike.

How much were you aware of the connection between the school and Nike?

I wasn’t aware until I got on campus on the recruiting trip. That was one of the things that they made very clear: Their relationship with Nike was different than any other college program. The founder of Nike, Phil Knight, was an alumnus, and there were also several folks that they mentioned that went on to graduate from Oregon and work at Nike. That’s when I started to understand the power of the relationship between Oregon and Nike. Then, it shows every Saturday when you see how the uniforms are completely different from the other Nike schools.

Innovation University explores breakthroughs over the last two decades in Ducks uniforms, on-campus facilities, and player-exclusive footwear.

At what point did you go from playing to working at Nike? 

One thing for me is I’m very much an observer. My career didn’t play out how I wanted because injuries plagued it. Going into my senior year, I just knew my body wouldn’t be able to uphold and withstand a 16-game NFL season. As I started thinking through what I was going to school for, what I was interested in, and the resources around me, I conversed with Phil Knight after one of the games. I introduced myself and got an internship at Nike to work in [the cleated category’s] brand marketing for football, baseball, and lacrosse. 

Then, the recession hit, and I couldn’t get a full-time job afterward. I went back to Oregon to see if I wanted to get back into coaching, and Coach [Chip] Kelly offered me a recruiting position. I did that for a year, found out that I was not ready for the strenuous schedule of a college football coach, and I had the opportunity to go back to Nike. That’s when I landed my official job in brand marketing for football, baseball, and athletic training.

Fast-forward to 2013, when ESPN released many of the 30 for 30 documentaries. The U was one of them, and after that was Michigan and the Fab Five. From my experience at the University of Oregon, and now being three years in with Nike and working on the other side of that relationship, I saw how much Oregon had influenced the rest of Nike.

I started to think and reflect on when I was recruited to play. Oregon has its place in culture and how its influenced sports culture. A lot of the folks from Nike would go down to Eugene to test new cleats, gloves, and uniform innovations. That’s what I got from The U and The Fab Five. Not just how much they influenced sport culture but how they also influenced pop culture.

Oregon wide receiver Garren Strong (left) and running back Jonathan Stewart (right) celebrate during a game at Autzen Stadium on Nov. 3, 2007, in Eugene, Oregon.

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

How did you decide to frame the book?

After I left Nike, I started to work through being an entrepreneur. Taking as much as I learned about product creation, as I was moving forward, I said, ‘Let me lock back in and take what I would do with a concept for how a shoe is brought to market for this book.’ 

I started to think about who I needed for my creative team to get a book done. I did a lot of research on design and how different versions of hardback coffee-table books are done. I looked at different industries, the market, and all of it, to understand what I needed to do. That’s when I brought on Keoni Block, a good friend of mine and a designer and artist from the Bay Area, as well as [former Ducks linebacker] Carlyle Garrick, who is a dope, talented writer and creative director.

I began thinking through the whole ecosystem of what Oregon meant and what I wanted to tell that story. It was around innovation. The cool factor of Oregon was done through innovation. If you think about the facilities, the uniforms, and the style of play, you can start to bucket these things into the story and figure out each part that you need to tell that story.

A look at several Air Jordan player-exclusive Ducks sneakers.

Innovation University

What were some of your favorite interviews and quotes during the process? 

This book is a representation of my point of view of being an athlete at the University of Oregon. I’m most proud of being able to reach out to any and everyone and them being receptive and sending back pages and pages of answers to whatever questions I was asking. From Joey Harrington to Coach Bellotti, Marcus Mariota, Jonathan Stewart, Dennis Dixon, and all of the key athletes from the late ’90s to 2015 that played a part in Oregon’s history to where they are today, they were all receptive to helping out.

Gentry Humphrey, the senior VP of Jordan Footwear when I was there, was open to answering questions. We also had a conversation with Phil Knight. Tinker Hatfield’s support in answering questions and wanting to see this come to life was a superdope experience.

A close-up of one of the many different Oregon Ducks uniforms from over the years.

Innovation University

How do you look at Oregon’s impact on uniforms over the last two decades?

It’s unprecedented. If you just think about Oregon and uniforms, it was not happening, especially in college sports. If you go broader, it was barely even happening in the NFL at the time. You had the Denver Broncos, who had a rebrand, and the [Seattle] Seahawks came later. From when I walked into Oregon’s equipment room [in 2002] and was geeked out for three different uniforms, to where they now have six or seven full-on uniforms, and all of the combinations of those uniforms. When you get to the pros, the NBA and NFL have alternates now.

What sticks out as the most significant Oregon milestones of the last two decades for you when you think of the uniforms?

The Stormtrooper. It was my senior year, and we unveiled white-on-white-on-white. It was all-white against Washington, and we hung up 55 on them. The energy and all of the conversation that came out of that game and those uniforms. Oregon had never had an all-white uniform.

Pages from inside Innovation University.

I love what they did with the kelly green throwback jersey with the Fighting Duck on the top and gold pants in 2014. They redid those uniforms to the latest and greatest innovation for the 20th anniversary of ‘the pick,’ when Kenny Wheaton picked the ball [and ran it back 97 yards], which is a legendary Oregon play. It was done through the innovation of the new Nike chassis, so it looked supercrisp and superclean.

Third, it’s a toss-up between when Oregon debuted the neon green “Volt” socks in 2011 against Auburn in the National Championship game and the all-dark green uniforms and chrome helmet that the Ducks wore against Wisconsin in 2012. 

How did your experience as the Jordan 1 product line manager help you determine how to launch the book? 

The story of Oregon is just like the Jordan 1 in that it goes beyond us. It goes beyond just turning the game on Saturday and watching or just a sneaker launch on a Saturday. It speaks to culture. It speaks to people who are innovative and want to win. I think Jordan is about greatness. Oregon is about innovation.

What I get passionate about and what I love to do is storytelling. Taking the process of launching a Jordan 1, we always want to ensure that we’re telling a story. That’s the biggest thing. We wanted to tell the dopest story so that people beyond an Oregon fan or a college football fan would want to see what this is about. It can transcend the box people may want to put it in. We’ve seen that with Jordan Brand. You now see Jordan on soccer pitches and football fields, and it started as a basketball brand. 

Oregon can continue to tell that story with how forward-thinking they are. People won’t like all the uniforms, or they might not like how connected they are to Nike and Phil Knight, but you have to respect what they’re putting out there and how they’ve challenged the norms of the different sports.

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.