They called it a Classic, and it was
Winter has tightened unrelenting claws on the Northwest, and if you’re ancient enough to recall the glory days of the Far West Classic in Portland, it’s all very fitting.
The tournament – in its glorious, eight-team iteration – would take place between Christmas and the New Year, and frequently, the occasion was visited by similarly inclement weather. Icy roads, treacherous driving in the Gorge, and once in a while, snow. You could almost set your clock to it.
Seemingly, the weather heralded an astonishingly good college tournament, one that Duck and Beaver fans should know was not only a rich part of the lore of Oregon and Oregon State, but a notable bit of the tapestry of the sport at large.
(We pause here for eyerolls and groans, as you suffer the old geezer telling you how good the game used to be. But indulge me on this one.)
The Classic, as everybody called it, was so good, so memorable, so much a worthy part of the college basketball history in our region. It was the best, and Northwest college hoops is simply poorer for its demise.
It was always thought of as Oregon State’s tournament, because that’s where it started, and that’s who won most of its games. But it’s safe to say the beginnings were pretty innocent; in a four-team event in late December, 1956 – in front of 3,614 curious souls at Gill Coliseum – the Beavers beat 19th-ranked San Francisco, 62-40, a year after the Dons had won their second straight NCAA championship.
By the 1960-61 season, the event had grown to eight teams and moved to Memorial Coliseum in Portland (which, four years later, would host the Final Four). I can’t speak to the specifics of the Classic in the ‘60s, but the event’s heyday seemed to be the ‘70s, and it was a blessing just to see it unfold, to watch guys like Quinn Buckner and Dave Winfield and Magic Johnson and Ronnie Lee. And then to spend hours in the post-game hospitality room, dissecting what we had just seen.
The Classic. This was the place where, in 1970, the Beavers beat the Ducks 68-64 in the final in Ralph Miller’s first season at Oregon State, and the last one at Oregon before the arrival of Dick Harter. It was also, believe it or not, the first of five games between Oregon and Oregon State that season (and you wonder how the Civil War rivalry is far and away the most-played in the nation).
The ’72 Classic brought a haunting dose of the game’s darker history with Minnesota’s championship. It was 11 months earlier that several members of the Gophers team that appeared in Portland – Ron Behagen, Corky Taylor, Winfield (yes, that Dave Winfield) had perpetrated college basketball’s worst brawl in a game in Minneapolis against Ohio State.
Meanwhile, in “Oregon State’s tournament,” the Ducks were struggling. It was at the Benson Hotel, where the Ducks were annually lodged, that Harter, galled at Oregon’s feckless eighth-place finish in the ’71 event, took a necktie given him for Christmas by one of his players, lit it afire and flung it out the window of the Benson toward the street below.
The Classic fields were national, and they glittered. Kent Benson, Buckner, Scott May and Co., maybe Bobby Knight’s starriest collection of his whole Indiana reign, came in ’73, and Oregon State upset the Hoosiers in the semis, only to fall to Washington in the final.
In ’74, Oregon broke through to the title, in a season in which the Ducks were unbeaten until early January. It put to rest, at least for a season, that they were forever destined to play poorly in Portland.
But the Ducks were back to flailing in Portland a year later. The incongruity was heavy on a Tuesday afternoon in late December, when the Ducks and Beavers played a consolation game in front of a sellout crowd of 12,000-plus, OSU winning. It was in that tournament that the disillusionment of popular forward Stu Jackson became apparent, and soon, Jackson’s minutes would be trimmed in half, and he would eventually transfer to Seattle University.
If Knight’s aforementioned Indiana team wasn’t the most gifted ever in Portland, maybe it was the North Carolina team that barged through the ’76 Classic, with Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Tom LaGarde, Mike O’Koren and Mitch Kupchak. Or it could have been two years later, when Jud Heathcote brought his 1978-79 national-champion Magic-led Michigan State team to the Glass Palace, as it was sometimes known.
To better grasp the quality of the fields, consider that that ’78 array also include Indiana with Mike Woodson. I remember watching the Hoosiers and being struck not by the physical nature, but by the poetry of their motion offense.
During the ‘70s, eight-team tournaments had slowly disappeared from the landscape, and all that remained were Portland and the All-College Classic in Oklahoma City.
Two factors buffeted the Far West Classic, and eventually brought its end. One was the definition of “exempt” tournaments, an NCAA-conferred designation that enabled more attractive events in outposts in Hawaii and Alaska to be staged without costing participants games against their maximum allowed. Portland was not “exempt.”
And with revenue an ever-greater factor, bean counters began questioning why a North Carolina, for instance, was giving up three potential home dates in favor of a trip to Portland.
Gradually, it became harder to attract marquee programs to Portland. By the 1989-90 season, in Gary Payton’s final year at OSU and Jim Anderson’s first as head coach, the Classic expired as an eight-team entity in Portland, with the Beavers beating the Ducks 71-68 in the finale.
They tried to sustain it, but it went to life-support as a four-team tournament in the first half of the ‘90s in the Rose Garden. Finally, the Classic ended with Oregon’s 66-64 win over OSU in the 1996-97 season. It had only been a matter of time.
Right on schedule, snow fell in Portland on the day after Christmas. But climate change came to college basketball long ago.