SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Rob Mullens arrived at Oregon as the Ducks new athletic director in July, he'd never attended a game at Autzen Stadium. Oh, he'd heard that it was a great atmosphere, but he'd just come from Kentucky, which plays in the SEC, which some folks believe invented atmosphere at college football games. So with lowly New Mexico coming to Eugene on Sept. 4 to open the season, Mullens' expectations weren't terribly high.
Suffice it to say, his expectations were exceeded.
"It sounded like the best atmospheres that I've experienced anywhere in the country," he said.
The Pac-10 is very different than the SEC. Start with money. The SEC makes a lot; the Pac-10 doesn't. The SEC sells out huge stadiums. The Pac-10 often doesn't sell out medium-sized venues.
And Oregon is not an SEC school. Start with money. The Ducks spend $18.1 million on football, which ranks fifth in the Pac-10. The SEC averages $19.5. Auburn, the Ducks' foe in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 10, spends $27.9 million on football.
And while Autzen Stadium is electric and loud, it still seats only 59,000. SEC venues average 76,000 fans and Auburn packs 87,000 into Jordan-Hare Stadium.
All that said, Oregon is SEC-ish.
Start with fan passion: Autzen is on a run of 74 consecutive sellouts, and it's the only Pac-10 stadium that EXCEEDED 100 percent capacity this season -- 110 percent, to be exact. And it is very, very loud. More than a few coaches, players and visiting media members have called it the loudest stadium in the nation.
"The atmosphere in Autzen is electric -- noisy and passionate," Mullens said. "And what impressed me the most was, no matter the score, fans stayed until the end of the game, even when the outcome was decided."
Mullens, of course, is biased and has a specific agenda as the administrator of Oregon sports. But he's right.
When the gates open to Oregon's students, the mad dash for prime seats is a little scary to watch. And even in games when the Ducks lead by 40 and the weather is a bit chilly, a majority of fans seemed content to stick around until the final bell instead of hitting the local watering holes for a warm toddy.
And Oregon fans have an, er, SEC-ish, "our-team-wrong-or-right zeal" to them. While the Pac-10 blog would never, ever -- ever! -- call one group of fans more obnoxious than another, there are some out there who might say something of that nature about Ducks fans, just as fans from other conferences often grumble about SEC fans.
Further, in more concrete measures, Oregon's football facilities match any program in the country. And they are getting better. Construction of a new, six-story operations building to headquarter the football program will begin this year. It will be entirely financed by billionaire booster Phil Knight, a well-known cobbler.
State-of-the-art facilities give a program a "wow" factor. While it's legitimate to fret over the "arms race" in college football -- athletic buildings before academic investment -- there's no question that Oregon's facilities look very SEC-ish compared to the rest of the Pac-10.
"It's extremely important to have the facility infrastructure to attract the talent," Mullens said. "It shows you are committed to the program. These facilities are attractive to young people but they also help people prepare to compete at the highest level."
Of course, Mullens, just like other Pac-12 athletic directors going forward, hopes that commissioner Larry Scott is going to produce a more lucrative TV deal this year, which will allow the conference to remain competitive with the SEC and Big Ten in terms of football revenue.
"These are the biggest differences: No. 1, the asset base is more significant in the SEC," he said. "One, because [the SEC has] one of the best TV deals in the nation, which provides huge revenue. They've got exceptional bowl agreements, which is another source of revenue. And, they have sold out football stadiums on an incredible scale."
Sold out at 60,000 is great. But it doesn't compete -- financially -- with sold out at 90,000. Said Mullens, "It's tough when you're minus thirty or forty thousand seven times a year."
Where SEC schools benefit from extraordinary football revenue, Knight helps Oregon make up the difference. His fingerprints are all over the athletic program, and the donor base beyond Knight is strong, too. That's a major reason that coach Chip Kelly signed a contract that will average $3.4 million per season over the next six years.
Big money for a coach is very SEC-ish.
So, yes, Oregon fans wear fleece and might be a tad more liberal -- in more ways than one -- than their counterparts at Auburn and the SEC. But when it comes to the football program, Ducks and Tigers adherents might share more than you think.
Said Mullens, "I think they are very similar. I'm not sure there is much of a difference."