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Book review: Withers' "Mad Hoops" captures the highs and lows of Harter's time in Eugene

Book review: Withers' "Mad Hoops" captures the highs and lows of Harter's time in Eugene

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Oregon State cheerleader Rick Coutin was parading a trophy around the Gill Coliseum floor during a timeout, celebrating the final seconds of a Beavers’ win against rival Oregon when Dick Harter’s left leg found its way to Coutin’s path.

Down went the Chancellor’s Trophy — awarded to the winner of the season series — and Coutin, too.

On the night of March 9, 1974, Beaver fans already disliked Harter for his antics and his team’s style, and he handed them one more reason.

Veteran sportswriter Bud Withers captures many memorable moments of the Oregon-Oregon State men’s basketball rivalry in his new book “Mad Hoops,” which chronicles Harter’s coaching career of more than five decades, in particular his seven years as the Ducks’ volatile head coach in the 1970s that often saw his teams take physical play to another level.

Withers was the Eugene Register-Guard’s Oregon State beat writer during those days.

Coutin said he didn’t feel hurt, but traumatized. The ball atop the trophy was badly dented.

OSU coach Ralph Miller grabbed the public-address microphone and said, “I saw it. We all saw it,” before asking the crowd to behave. One of Coutin’s cheerleader buddies put him on his shoulders and they left the floor.

A few days later, Harter sent a letter to Coutin apologizing for the incident.

Robert MacVicar, then Oregon State’s president, issued a statement.

“Athletic rivalries must not be allowed to go too far,” MacVicar said. Sports contests between Oregon State University and the University of Oregon are not civil wars.”

“Oh yeah?” Withers retorts.

In the Ducks’ next trip to Gill the following season, Rickey Lee banked in a 30-footer as time expired to give the Beavers a 72-71 victory.

Postseason announcements came two days before the teams met to close out the 1974-75 regular season. Oregon State was headed to the expanded NCAA tournament as the Pac-8’s first-ever non-champion to be included. Oregon made the NIT.

The Ducks won it by two on Greg Ballard’s tip-in at the buzzer. Recalling Lee’s earlier heroics, Harter said: “This one couldn’t be as painful for them. We didn’t just throw it up and pray.”

***

Twenty-four days after Indiana University hired Bob Knight in 1971, Oregon tapped a highly successful coach from Penn, Dick Harter, to lead its basketball program. What followed in Eugene was a slice of Knight’s Indiana regime, a tempestuous but winning tenure that electrified fans and enraged critics.

***

Dean Roberts was far from the only player to leave Harter’s program.

Oregon and Oregon State were among the schools heavily recruiting the Corvallis High basketball and baseball standout.

Roberts had ruled out Oregon — late to making inroads with him behind OSU and Washington — before Harter arrived in Eugene. He was looking at Oregon State and liked then-assistant coach Jimmy Anderson. But he didn’t want to play for Miller.

On a recruiting trip, Roberts sat behind the Ducks’ bench and saw and heard players telling then-coach Steve Belko what they were going to do, including a refusal to be subbed out. Roberts knew he didn’t want to be part of that.

An Oregon assistant persuaded Roberts to wait on a decision because a coaching change could be coming soon.

Roberts would choose Oregon, a decision made easier because his brother Dave was a shortstop for the Ducks who would later be the top overall pick in the 1972 major-league draft.

Anderson said it was hard to hear from Roberts — directed by his father to tell the OSU coach in person he had picked the rival — because Roberts was “such a nice guy.” Withers said that would be a problem because Harter wasn’t interested in nice guys.

Roberts decided to keep a journal of his time as a two-sport athlete at Oregon.

The journal evolved. At the start it was positive and hopeful. In the middle stages, one could sense some misgivings. The final entries, in Roberts’ words: This is miserable. We get yelled and screamed at every day.

He wanted to quit during his first season, when he played on the freshman team. Freshmen weren’t varsity-eligible until the next season. One of his assistant coaches and his brother encouraged him to keep going.

He did, for one more year, before concentrating on baseball. It wasn’t fun and he wasn’t playing much.

***

Oregon’s rough play under Harter was the norm, as was opposing coaches complaining about it.

Marv Harshman of Washington grumbled. Ralph Miller of Oregon State, building his own stronghold, didn’t much like Oregon’s ways, but he seemed to know that any broadsides from 45 miles away would be counterproductive.

***

There was “UCLA’s Lost Weekend,” as tabbed by Sports Illustrated, in 1974 after the Bruins came to the Beaver State with a 50-game conference win streak.

As Oregon State was closing out a 61-57 win before the Bruins headed to Eugene, UCLA’s Bill Walton sidled up next to Beaver center Doug Oxsen to tell him he had played a good game and deserved to win. Oxsen held Walton to 15 points after allowing 31 in an earlier contest.

“All you can do is say thanks,” Oxsen said. “Can you imagine, to be so gracious?”

Less than 24 hours later, Oregon had a 56-51 win against UCLA in Eugene. Walton, the three-time national player of the year, scored just 11 points on five field goal attempts.

***

For their frantic play and frequent diving on the floor for the ball, Harter’s players would become known as the Kamikaze Kids. They had then-Wichita State coach Harry Miller and then-Oregon publicist Hal Cowan to thank for it.

“They play more aggressive than Kamikaze Pilots did during World War II. I have never seen a basketball team go after you like that … that physical. That type of play puts basketball back where it used to be, 25 or 30 years ago,” Miller said after a 20-point loss to the Ducks at McArthur Court.

Harter, who wanted to acquire good players, didn’t take kindly to the comments. “Suddenly, there was a setback, somebody of authority telling people this wasn’t the right way to play,” Withers wrote.

Beers with assistant coaches and Cowan, who would go on to direct Oregon State’s sports information department, led Harter to say that he was ready to quit and that Miller had destroyed his program.

Cowan told Harter they should turn it to their advantage, and the coach asked how.

“Well, they called us Kamikaze. Let’s say we’re the Kamikaze Kids. Let’s turn it into a positive thing.”

Soon, the name could be found everywhere, from newspapers to promotional mats in restaurants.

“Mad Hoops” can be found at amazon.com and in major bookstores.

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