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  • COLLEGE FOOTBALL

    Former Ashland High star Cota takes place in UO Hall

    Cota played key role for Ducks' 'D'
  • Chad Cota wasn't one to shy away from the big moment.
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  • Chad Cota wasn't one to shy away from the big moment.
    That's one reason the former Ashland High and University of Oregon football player enjoyed success at every level he played, including eight seasons in the NFL.
    And it's a reason he has been inducted into the University of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
    Cota, who lives in Medford, was part of an elite class during the 2012 induction ceremony Friday in Eugene.
    His classmates are Phil Knight, Nike co-founder and university benefactor; Joey Harrington, the winningest quarterback in program history; Kim Manning Strahm, an All-American softball player; and Hugh Latham, a multisport athlete who starred in basketball.
    Three national-champion cross country teams — 1971, '73 and '74 — were also enshrined.
    The inductees will be introduced at halftime of the Ducks' football game tonight against Arizona at Autzen Stadium, where Cota performed at high levels.
    A 1995 UO graduate, Cota was taken aback when he heard of his selection in a phone call from Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens last summer.
    "I was just sitting in my office," said Cota, a co-owner of InfoStructure, an Ashland telecommunications company. "All these old memories and great thoughts came to mind, and I was just kind of blown away. What a great honor it is to be in with all those great Duck alums. It's a really cool deal."
    Cota was the most outstanding player on the 1994-95 team that ended a 37-year Rose Bowl drought. That team was inducted into the Hall in 2005.
    Once the surprise of Mullens' news dissipated, Cota asked who else was in the class.
    "He said, 'Maybe there are some names you'll recognize,'" said Cota. "They are some pretty high-powered alums, that's for sure."
    Indeed, the annual ceremony was moved from its usual venue inside Autzen Stadium to the floor of Matthew Knight Arena to accommodate a large crowd.
    There are a number of highlights on which Cota can reflect.
    As a senior, he was a first-team All-American — one of only 20 in school history — on a team that rebounded from a 1-2 start, winning eight of its final nine regular-season games and claiming the school's first conference title in nearly four decades.
    Memorable victories along the way were at USC, the Ducks' first win in Memorial Coliseum in 23 years, and back-to-back triumphs over ninth-ranked Washington and eighth-ranked Arizona. They clinched the Pac-10 title at Oregon State, winning 17-13.
    Oregon produced a game effort before losing to Penn State in the Rose Bowl, 38-20.
    Cota, the leader of Oregon's "Gang Green" defense, had 91 tackles and two interceptions as a senior. He later received the Bill Hayward Award as the state's top amateur athlete.
    "The whole experience was just incredible," said Cota. "For the Ducks to win the Pac-10 championship back then was just unheard of. It hadn't been done in more than 30 years, so it was a big deal."
    Cota singled out a couple of plays that served as turning points in his football career.
    The first came at Autzen Stadium when he was the leader of an Ashland Grizzlies team that would defeat Roseburg, 24-22, for the 1989 state championship. Cota laid out and made a one-handed interception of an errant pass intended for tight end Rich Ruhl.
    "(Oregon coach) Rich Brook was in the stands," said Cota. "I was on their radar but hadn't been offered anything. After that one-handed interception, Rich Brooks said, 'I want that guy on my team.' That's what I was told by my coaches afterward."
    Once in the Duck fold — along with Ruhl — Cota didn't waste time making an impression.
    A strong safety, Cota was pressed into duty as a redshirt freshman in the fourth game of 1991 when starting free safety Eric Castle was injured against USC.
    "I hadn't really played free safety that much," said Cota. "That's what was nerve-racking about it. I was thrown in at free safety in front of a full stadium."
    It was a rare national TV appearance for the Ducks, who were in the midst of a 3-8 season.
    But USC was a powerhouse, and Trojans running back Mazio Royster was a Heisman Trophy candidate.
    "That was my first really big opportunity," said Cota, "and I actually had a really big hit."
    Royster took an option pitch around the left end, and out of nowhere, Cota came through without breaking stride and leveled the ball carrier.
    "That's how you hit on option football," ESPN analyst Gary Danielson said at the time.
    Royster stayed down for a few minutes and didn't return, and Cota vaulted into the starting lineup the next week at strong safety.
    "If you're a safety, that's what you have to do," said Cota.
    After college, Cota was taken in the 1995 draft by the expansion Carolina Panthers. He played three seasons there and was named to the franchise's 10-year anniversary team. An interception in the end zone against Pittsburgh in 1996 to clinch the NFC West crown ranks as one of the Panthers' all-time top plays.
    He later played one year for New Orleans and three in Indianapolis before ending his career with a season in St. Louis.
    To be eligible for the Hall, inductees must be 10 years removed from their time at Oregon.
    There are now 177 individuals and 24 teams in the shrine, which was created in 1992.
    Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com
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