Golden anniversary: Harter’s hiring signaled a gilded era

  Tuesday marks a momentous anniversary in the history of University of Oregon athletics. It was on April 20, 1971 – fifty years ago — that the Eugene Register-Guard and the Portland newspapers revealed that a new men’s basketball coach was coming to the Ducks: A fellow named Dick Harter, from the University of Pennsylvania.

  The announcement of dual developments was a bit odd: It included a resignation from the coach in place, Steve Belko, who maintained strongly that it was his decision. Belko’s ouster had long been rumored through the 1970-71 season, and he pointed out that he’d previously been an applicant for the Big Sky Conference commissionership.

  Harter’s naming had to be a lightning bolt for Oregon basketball fans, some of whom no doubt were only dimly aware that Penn had assembled a storybook season in which it went undefeated entering the NCAA tournament. The Quakers then won two games in the tournament, including a 15-point drubbing of 15-point-favorite South Carolina, before running afoul of Villanova in the round of eight.

  The Ducks had routinely operated on the cheap, usually hiring from within when the head man exited. In fact, when some Oregon players heard the murmurs about a possible change in coaches, they were under the impression they might be playing for Belko’s assistant, Frank Arnold.

  How to rank Harter in the pantheon of Oregon coaches? Well, Chip Kelly’s run in football was ludicrously, off-the-charts good, commanding national attention. In basketball, Dana Altman went from being a ho-hum, bottom-of-the-list choice when he was hired, to recognition as one of the most resourceful coaches in college hoops. And Bill Bowerman’s long stewardship of the track program was the stuff of legends.

  Harter occupied a different, distinct spot in his seven-year run from 1971-78. Yes, he won, but not to an outrageous degree. After an 0-14 Pac-8 season to launch his regime, he went 48-36 in league games over the final six years. He never got to the NCAA tournament, but it was a lot harder to get there in those days. Still, Northwest rivals Oregon State and Washington did it on his watch.

  What he really accomplished was to turn a community on its head. In describing that impact to service clubs around Oregon and Washington via Zoom to promote my book, “Mad Hoops,” I’ve struggled to adequately convey the mania that Harter’s “Kamikaze Kids” engendered. It was a happening, in the parlance of the day, at McArthur Court, the beloved old wooden barn on University Street.

  Who, among those rabid fans, could forget the night in December of ’74, when the Ducks ran past Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team and induced five offensive fouls from the best Runnin’ Rebel, Ricky Sobers? How did Ronnie Lee — the best of the Kamikazes but not a great shooter — pull off so many killer shots, including a 30-footer to thwart Stanford at the buzzer in 1974? And just two games before that, how did Oregon complete UCLA’s “Lost Weekend” in the Willamette Valley with its scoreboard-shaking conquest?

  For sheer, ears-ringing, wacked-out intensity, both on the floor and in the community, Harter’s program probably surpasses anything in Oregon history.

  It wasn’t destined to last long. I’ve wondered what might have developed had Harter followed his initial inclination and declined an offer from Penn State in 1978. Oregon State, after all, was nearing its glory years under Ralph Miller, while the Ducks had seemed to be on a downward arc, now past the elite talents of Lee and Greg Ballard. How would that have gone over?

  That ending could have been ugly. But since Harter reconsidered and went to Penn State, we’ll never know. All we can be sure of is that 50 years ago Tuesday, Dick Harter began taking a city, and a state, on a dizzying ride.