Fifty years. Fifty years, plenty of time to mull the hair-trigger personality of Dick Harter, and how any little perceived affront could send him over the ledge, tumbling to places one would never think possible of the human species. At least that segment of it to which a major-college basketball program had been entrusted.
As you’ll read in my book, “Mad Hoops,” on his never-a-dull-moment tenure at Oregon, Harter came to the Ducks in 1971 from an eminently successful run at Penn. Predictably, the transition in Eugene was jarring, as Harter set about implementing his no-holds-barred, diving, grabbing defensive tactics to a mostly dubious cast of holdovers.
They finished eighth in the eight-team Far West Classic, which was when Harter, gifted a Christmas necktie by one of his players, set the thing afire and hurled it out an upper window of the grand old Benson Hotel in Portland.
That was nothing compared to the evening of Monday, Jan. 24, 1972 – tonight, it’s exactly a half-century ago — when we all got our first real front-row seat to the whirring sprockets, gears and gadgetry that made Harter’s brain so fascinating.
The Ducks had arrived in Pullman, Wash., after a 30-point lashing by Washington in Seattle. At Washington State, Oregon would be lugging a seven-game losing streak (in a season that would finish 6-20), and they would be facing a WSU team that paired with the Ducks to form the worst duo in the old Pacific-8 Conference.
Harter’s coaching counterpart at WSU, for a single year, was Bob Greenwood, and they had the common trait of having coached at Rider College in New Jersey. In fact, back in the ‘60s, Harter had succeeded Greenwood, and that handoff somehow must have been the germ for the virus that took root inside Harter that night at old Bohler Gym.
A Monday-night game? Surely, you graybeards remember a little-lamented Monday-night TV package back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in the Pac-8. Memory says it was syndicated by Raycom and distributed up and down the West Coast. For a long time, the play-by-play guy was Mike Walden, a gregarious Angeleno whose calling card was loud sport coats, and for part of that run, the color analyst was Pete Newell, the legendary former Cal coach.
The Ducks arrived in Pullman and practiced at Bohler, and discovered something strange. A basket seemed out of sorts – too short. My game story of that night for the Eugene Register-Guard noted that the discrepancy came to light when an Oregon guard discovered he could dunk on the hoop, but today, none of the principals seems to recall exactly how it happened.
At any rate, it wasn’t Dick Harter’s M.O. to let pass a slight. He had plenty of time to alert WSU to Oregon’s concern about the basket. But he didn’t.
And this is what happened: For the 8 p.m. tip, the Cougars were on the floor at the routine time, 7:30 or so. But there were no Ducks. None at 7:40, or 7:45, either. Finally, at about 7:55, Oregon appeared, but not running onto the floor in layup lines. The Ducks walked out, and in short order, a custodian was summoned. He appeared with a stepladder and a tape measure, and at Harter’s request, set about measuring both baskets.
One was judged to be about half an inch short of the requisite 10 feet. The other was an inch and a half short – a fairly significant deficit.
In those days, you didn’t easily adjust a basket’s height, and the tip was delayed until 8:25 for the accommodations.
There was no documented coaching reaction from WSU, but I’m sure Greenwood was furious. And somehow, Harter’s Machiavellian desire to stick it to somebody – he would do this over and over again in his seven years with the Ducks – was satisfied.
“That basket thing gave us a hell of a lift,” WSU forward Rick Rawlings told me after his team’s 73-56 victory. “I don’t know if Harter tried to screw us up with that, but that kind of thing just pisses me off.”
If he was pissed off, imagine the ire of the TV execs, who had to fill 25 minutes (with something, I don’t know what) before a game matching the two worst teams in the Pac-8.
Ah, but the night’s misadventures were just beginning. A skirmish under a basket – 10 feet high, in case you were wondering – resulted in the ejection of Oregon’s Al Carlson and WSU’s Steve Bergstrom and Dan Steward early in the second half. But the Ducks evened the count of players tossed when, after a backcourt foul was called on an Oregon player and the sides were walking to the other end, UO guard Walt Reynolds stuck out a foot and intentionally tripped a Cougar guard.
I wrote college hoops for 45 years, and it’s still the loopiest game I ever covered.
As for Harter, he later expressed contrition and said he wished he hadn’t measured the baskets.
Nobody really believed him.