50 years ago, the next Oregon coach would be Harter (eventually, anyway)

  Saturday marked an anniversary of sorts: It was 50 years ago, also on a Saturday, that Oregon ended its 1970-71 basketball season with a 71-65 victory over Oregon State behind 30 points from Stan Love in his final game. And thus began a trudge toward a monumental hire in Duck athletics – the appointment of Dick Harter as men’s basketball coach.

  It was a long trudge, 38 days worth, and there’s mystery within that process. As in, what took so long?

  In researching “Mad Hoops,” I wrote there was a general sense that as that ’70-71 season developed, head coach Steve Belko’s 15-year tenure was coming to an end. He didn’t have a wide base of alumni support. As the late Tom Jernstedt – an Oregon athletic operative and later the guru of the NCAA tournament – told me in 2017 about Belko, “In his Oregon days, he didn’t take criticism well. He went into a shell. He had a couple of friends, and that was about it. He said, ‘I’m gonna coach the team, and to hell with everybody else.’ “

   Indeed, on April 20, 1971, the day Harter’s hiring was finally announced as well as Belko’s move to an assistant athletic director’s role, Belko conceded to the Eugene Register-Guard that he had “been thinking of getting out of coaching for 2 ½ years and I talked to (athletic director Norv) Ritchey even before last season started.”

  But why the delay? Why the protracted decision-making process?

  “Privately, Belko talked about giving up coaching during the 1970-71 season,” wrote Neil Cawood of the Register-Guard, “but when queried about his decision when the season concluded, Belko said he had decided to remain in coaching.” But Belko, when his move to that assistant AD position was announced, equivocated on that point, saying, “I had to say that then. I had to protect myself. I was still dilly-dallying on the idea of whether to continue in coaching or not.”

  I scoured Register-Guards from the end of the season to April 20 (missing two of those papers, however) and could find nothing referencing Belko’s status.

  But what’s puzzling about the hiring process is, if Belko was indeed waffling during the season about returning, wouldn’t there have been a meeting of the minds with athletic director Ritchey – either to ease him out or to issue a deadline for a decision about his intention?

  Belko said he didn’t make the decision until after the Final Four. Cawood wrote, “That, however, had been rumored for weeks, and until today (April 20), Ritchey categorically denied that a change in basketball coaches was being considered.”

The logical conclusion is that Ritchey wasn’t ready to force Belko’s hand and the late decision put the Ducks in scramble mode.

  Ultimately, as detailed in “Mad Hoops,” an Oregon booster, Henry Hood, facilitated a connection between Oregon and Harter at Penn, and the marriage was consummated.

  A sidelight: As I researched the book, I stumbled into the fact that Indiana was also in the market for a new coach that spring, and 24 days before Oregon named Harter, the Hoosiers selected one Bobby Knight. Which posed an obvious question: With Harter having engineered a national story at Penn his final two seasons, did the Hoosiers reach out to him?

  A couple of years ago, I e-mailed a friend who was close to Knight because of his role with the Bloomington (Ind.) Herald-Times, Bob Hammel, and asked him if Harter had entered the picture there. But the Indiana AD, Bill Orwig, was an Ohio product who attended Michigan and had closely followed the great Ohio State teams of the early ‘60s, on which Knight was a reserve. Hammel wrote to me that to his knowledge Orwig never “seriously considered anyone other than Bob once he had heard so many New York-based (Knight had coached at Army) recommendations for him.”

  As for Knight and Harter, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the fiery Indiana coach eventually felt a kinship with the guy who broke all the furniture (figuratively, of course) at Oregon.

  “I know Bob had great respect and admiration for Dick as a person and a coach, and he didn’t lavish those things on a lot of contemporaries,” wrote Hammel. “Both stressed the same principles, and I heard him mention his regard for Dick’s coaching many times. I had the impression they were friends – probably frequent speakers at the same clinic. On road trips, I frequently had breakfast with Bob, and his habit was to turn in the newspaper first to the previous night’s college scores, and Dick’s teams were ones he obviously liked to see on the winner’s side.”

  Something about extended searches for basketball coaches at Oregon that turn into momentous hires: As laborious as was the one for Harter, it was a few days short of the search that yielded Dana Altman. And that’s turned out OK.