Bruce Coldren’s passing recalls one golden afternoon

  If somebody posed the question of who was the most decorated, memorable Kamikaze Kid, the debate wouldn’t be a long one: It was Ronnie Lee, all day, every day.

  But the discussion over who turned in the greatest one-game performance during that seven-year stretch is a little more nuanced. I’d argue the one that seems most indelible almost half a century later was authored by 6-8 forward Bruce Coldren, who nailed 12 of 14 shots from the floor for 24 points in the Ducks’ rousing 56-51 upset of UCLA in February of 1974 – the back half of UCLA’s infamous double-defeat “Lost Weekend” in Oregon.

  Sadly, the subject arose with news of Coldren’s sudden death Monday night. Coldren and his family had settled years ago in Lowell, southeast of Eugene near Dexter Reservoir, where Coldren had been a teacher, coach and administrator. He had already been retired for 10 years when I spent time interviewing him for “Mad Hoops” in 2018.

  He had been a graduate assistant at Oregon, and the coach, Dick Harter, warned him he’d have to live a coach’s itinerant lifestyle if he wanted to pursue it as a career.

  “I decided, naw, I’m not that type of guy,” Coldren told me in ‘18. He added that working at a small high school, “I was activities director, student-council director … there were times the janitor didn’t show and I cleaned the gym. It became such a community thing. I met a lot of good people.

  “I’m not a ‘limelight’ guy, never have been.”

  Coldren’s performance that late-season day in ’74 stands as the most incandescent of the Harter coaching era, one that, for its thunderous impact, seemed to rise above all the others. Those would include Lee’s sensational 15-for-26 effort for 31 points as a freshman in a losing effort against UCLA and Bill Walton; and a couple of prolific performances by forward Greg Ballard – 41 points and 20 rebounds in 63 exhausting minutes of the five-overtime screamer at Cal in 1977, and 43 points (still the school record) on 16 of 22 shots in an NIT game at Oral Roberts in ’77, a night more famous for the 65 points by ORU’s Anthony Roberts in a losing effort.

   There’s no doubt Coldren’s day against UCLA was the most unlikely of those. This was a player who came in as part of Harter’s first full recruiting class in 1972, but after some significant playing time as a freshman, had mostly been riding the bench when UCLA came to town in ’74. The Ducks were in a funk, having gotten waxed by USC the night before, and, Coldren recalled, “Before the game, Harter comes up to me and goes, ‘Got to have this game. We’re going downhill. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I’m starting my (first-recruited) guys.’ “

  Under John Wooden, UCLA played its fearsome 2-2-1 zone press, but the scheme was vulnerable if opponents attacked it and didn’t turn the ball over. The Ducks beat UCLA down the floor with regularity and Coldren found himself wide-open from the wings, shooting 16-to-18 foot jumpers.

  “With all the hard work I put in, I think the Lord looked down on me and said, ‘OK, you’re not missing any shots today,’ “ Coldren told me. “Maybe. But I am a shooter. That’s what I could do.”

  After the mid-afternoon game, the Ducks had dinner at Eugene Country Club and Sports Illustrated, scrambling to redo its cover story after UCLA’s stunning one-two comeuppance, called. Coldren, between bites of dinner, found himself being interviewed over the phone by SI’s lead college-hoops writer, Curry Kirkpatrick.

  Coldren had come north to Oregon from Santa Barbara, Calif., following from that area one of the leading lights of the Kamikaze era, Doug Little. As Coldren told it, he took “seven or eight” visits, one of them to USC, where the coach, Bob Boyd, told him he would sign either Coldren or forward Bob Trowbridge, whoever committed first, but not both. That turned out to be Trowbridge.

  “He (Trowbridge) came up here for a visit, too,” Coldren recalled, “before I decided where I was going.”

  Coldren arrived in Eugene in that summer of 1972 and worked swing shift at a lumber mill in Junction City, “catching” veneer during the process of making plywood. When he went to McArthur Court, he ran into a brawny 6-4 kid with a Boston brogue he could hardly understand. Ronnie Lee asked him if he wanted to play one-on-one.

  Coldren took an early lead. And then, “All of a sudden, the score was 21-4 after he figured it out,” Coldren said. “I’m going, ‘Oh my God, this guy is unbelievable. I hope not all of them are as good.’ “

  He saw significant action his freshman year, surprising Kentucky with 14 points and 14 rebounds, which led to his first start at Providence. There, the enigmatic center, Marvin Barnes, had just been reinstated after being accused of assaulting a teammate with a tire iron. “It’s my first game to start, and guess who I’m guarding?” Coldren laughed over a beer and lunch with me at a hangout in Springfield. “The guy who takes after you with a tire iron.”

  By then, Coldren had learned of Harter’s unforgiving ways, especially when it came to coaching offense. As I wrote in Mad Hoops, the Ducks had a play called “Board,” which wasn’t really a play because it didn’t end with a shot. Typical Harter – it was a device to run clock, and it merely continued into another set. One night, the freshman Coldren made the mistake of taking a shot during the running of Board, for which he earned a seat on the bench, no matter that the shot went in.

  At the end of his freshman year, the coaches wanted him to bulk up. And he did, though not in the manner they envisioned. Coldren went home for the summer, ate his way to a huge weight gain, and remembered having to lose 54 pounds before Harter would let him on the floor for a game. Referring to the sideline-to-sideline conditioning drill familiar to many programs, Coldren said, “I hold the record for running most ‘17s’ after my freshman year.”

  Duck fans who might recall Coldren’s signature game against UCLA probably have long forgotten that he had a similar one that same calendar year – in the 1974-75 season. That was the Villanova blowout at McArthur Court when Oregon put up 116 points on the Wildcats, with Coldren hitting 11 of 12 shots for 22 points.

  But later that junior year, Coldren’s playing time had begun to diminish, and by the time he was a senior, he was an afterthought as Harter opted to go with youth in players like Dan Hartshorne, Kelvin Small and Danny Mack.

  He was still in his 20s when he bought a log cabin on two acres on Little Fall Creek and settled into life in a small town. Left behind 20 miles away was a golden memory of that day when Bruce Coldren couldn’t miss.