50 years ago tonight, it began to get crazy in Eugene

  Yep. If you weren’t already feeling a little long in the tooth, this might do it: Exactly 50 years ago tonight, on Dec. 1, 1971, the Kamikaze Kids basketball era of Coach Dick Harter launched at the University of Oregon.

  The Ducks met Montana at McArthur Court in Eugene, and you could say the occasion didn’t whip the locals to a frenzy. At cozy, old Mac Court, there were 5,600 souls in the building, or about 4,000 short of a sellout. And about 2,400 short of what the afternoon paper that day – yeah, it was afternoons back then – forecast for the game.

  Previewing it in the Register-Guard, sports editor Blaine Newnham wrote that Harter, who had come west from a wildly successful stint at the University of Pennsylvania, was anxious to train the focus on his players, not himself.

  (Ironically, through most of his high-energy tenure with the Ducks, that never happened.)

  “I’m getting sick of seeing my picture on all these posters,” Harter told Newnham. “I want my program to be centered around the team, not the coach. If I’d had my say about it, we’d never have started this era business.”

  Nevertheless, the era began, and against another first-year coach who was making his college debut as a head man. That was Montana’s Jud Heathcote, who had come from Marv Harshman’s staff at Washington State and would coach the Grizzlies for five seasons before moving on to a two-decades, national-title-winning tenure at Michigan State.

  As for Harter, he inherited a modest team of bits and pieces from Steve Belko, who had fashioned a couple of upper-division Pac-8 outfits in his final seasons with the Ducks before he agreed to step down. There was forward Rusty Blair, who had shot down UCLA with perimeter jumpers in a 1970 upset in Eugene; guard Ken Strand, who had averaged 9.7 points the previous year; springy 6-4 forward Billy Ingram; and, fortunately for Harter and Oregon, a revelation in 6-3 ½ forward Doug Little, who would become a foundational piece for the rebuild.

  Montana got out to an 11-0 lead as Oregon failed to score in the first four minutes in front of, Newnham wrote, “5,600 disturbed fans.” That description takes on a whimsical touch, as it was the Oregon crowd that the harried Gene Bartow, John Wooden’s successor at UCLA in 1975, once described as “deranged idiots.”

  The popular Ingram led the Ducks that night with 23 points and eight rebounds. He played against Montana’s 6-8 center, and Harter lauded him for “a great game.” But, in what would reflect the temporary, transitory nature of that first team, Ingram eventually transferred to Biola University in southern California. He became founder and pastor of Maranatha Community Church in Los Angeles and died at 58 of a reported heart attack.

  Ingram and Little each played 40 minutes against the Grizzlies, and Little contributed 16 points.

  By the next season, Oregon was hardly recognizable. Harter, an indefatigable recruiter, and his staff had by then a full year to recruit, and they recast the Ducks with players like Ronnie Lee – still the school’s career scoring leader half a century later – plus scrappy Mark Barwig and an excellent shooter, Bruce Coldren. (Five months ago, Coldren succumbed to a pulmonary embolism.)

  That first night produced 16 percent of Oregon’s victories in Harter’s maiden season. The Ducks went 6-20 and became the first team to go winless in the conference at 0-14. That feat was marked in the season finale when an Oregon State male cheerleader commandeered the public-address microphone in Corvallis and said, “We believe in giving credit where credit is due. We’d like to congratulate the University of Oregon basketball team for being the first in Pac-8 history to lose every game.”

  But soon, Mac Court would be rocking, routinely sold out. The crowds would stamp feet on the old wooden floors, they’d be there half an hour before tip, the place would be awash in lemon-and-green streamers and the band would be blaring out the fight song. Harter would preside over a program celebrated for its work ethic and derided for its roughhouse tactics. The Ducks were beloved in Eugene and despised pretty much up and down the West Coast.

  Fifty years later, how to put it in perspective? Surely, there have been scores of other more successful programs in the West; Oregon went 48-36 in league games under Harter after that first season, but the Ducks never crashed the NCAA tournament.

  People talk about must-see TV. The Ducks were must-see TV — if only the games were on TV (in that day, the vast majority were not). The program – the comings and goings, Harter’s histrionics, the region straining to catch every word and deed – was riveting.

  Wooden’s UCLA program was the most captivating of that era, for its winning. The Ducks might have been as enthralling, for the theater.