In a small town, this Kamikaze Kid lived large
The day that Bruce Coldren took down UCLA 48 years ago, there were 10,000 maniacal fans turning Oregon’s old McArthur Court into a prison riot.
Saturday, when they had a memorial for Coldren in the high school gym in Lowell, Ore., there were maybe 250 in attendance. But truth be told, Lowell was really more what Bruce Coldren was about, more even than that career-defining game Coldren had against the vaunted Bruins in February of 1974.
About a year ago, Coldren died of a pulmonary embolism at 67, robbing him of a good many more years of living the small-town, bucolic existence outside Lowell, pop. 1,040. You might know the town best as a burg about a mile across Dexter Reservoir from the Dexter Lake Café, 20 miles from Eugene and site of another uproarious scene from the movie “Animal House,” where they sang Oregon’s adopted anthem, “Shout” by the Isley Brothers.
A few years ago, when I interviewed him at a Springfield sports bar for “Mad Hoops,” the story of Oregon’s Kamikaze Kids, Coldren recalled how he pondered Coach Dick Harter’s idea about becoming an assistant coach upon his exit from the UO after the 1976 season.
“He said if you want to become an assistant coach, you’ve got to move around,” Coldren said that day. “I decided, ‘Naw, I’m not that type of guy. I’m not a limelight guy, never have been.”
He went for the anti-limelight, and Lowell. He taught and coached there for 31 years – basketball, football, baseball. He was part of the woodwork in the place.
“Mr. Coldren was a huge part of life in Lowell,” said one of the memorial speakers, Ralph Hesse. “Every barbecue, every football game, he was there. Everybody loved him.”
Coldren had simple tastes – a reliable fishing hole, a trusty dog, a cold beer. He and his wife Karen were married 43 years with two athletic, championship-winning kids.
He was a prankster, annually roaming the halls at Lowell High in a Frankenstein costume the days before Halloween.
A colleague, Mel Sandholm, recalled how, years earlier, teaching jobs happened to be scarce, and Sandholm landed one of the precious few. Then one day in class, a couple of girls in the back of the room wouldn’t stop murmuring back and forth and Sandholm hurled a blackboard eraser at them.
He missed, nailing a girl in the front row on the side of the head, releasing a cloud of chalk dust.
He told Coldren, who listened gravely. The next day, Sandholm was informed by the school principal that the girl’s family was suing him. Sandholm went to his classroom and found it suddenly quiet, and his eraser-victim student wasn’t there. Sandholm was mortified – hired one day, sued the next – until he found out he’d been had.
“Bruce had orchestrated the whole thing,” Sandholm said. “He put me through hell.”
At the back end of his teaching days, Coldren was a substitute, including for kindergartners. “He loved teaching kindergarten kids,” said speaker Barbara Roberts. Noting that he was 6-foot-8, she added wryly, “It must have been hard, sitting in those little chairs.”
Coldren was part of Harter’s first full recruiting class, entering Oregon in 1972. He became roommates and lifelong best friends with Mark Barwig, whose transcribed comments Saturday recalled a summer after Harter, in the days when players went home for the summer, directed Coldren to bulk up.
Coldren went back to Santa Barbara, worked in a bank, played a little basketball with the Cal-Santa Barbara players, and ate. A lot.
As he told me in that book interview, “I hold the record for the most 17s (lateral sprints on the basketball floor). I put on a little weight. It wasn’t the right kind of weight.”
Coldren lost 54 pounds that fall, doing endless conditioning and eating like a ballerina. As Barwig related, “Coach Harter was none too pleased.”
Ah, but that changed on an unforgettable, golden afternoon late that season. The night before, John Wooden’s penultimate UCLA team, led by senior Bill Walton, had had its 50-game Pac-8 winning streak severed at Oregon State. Seventeen hours later, in the era of back-to-back games in the league, it took the floor against Oregon, determined to take out frustrations on the Ducks.
Of course, Wooden was the ultimate hard head, hell-bent not to call timeout or alter game strategy. He would ride or die with his 2-2-1 zone press, even as the Beavers had carved it up the previous night. Well, the Ducks rushed the ball up the floor and repeatedly found Coldren open in the corner, and he responded with a performance for the ages – 12 for 14 from the field for 24 points, and Oregon won 56-51. The next Sports Illustrated put the Ducks on the cover with the heading, “UCLA’s Lost Weekend.”
Among a smattering of ex-Ducks attending Coldren’s memorial was Ronnie Lee, all these years later Oregon’s career scoring leader. “Ronnie was probably the best basketball player ever to wear the Oregon uniform,” said moderator Tom Roberts, “but Bruce had the best game.”
This day, though, wasn’t so much about Oregon, it was about Lowell and the life Coldren chose. Roberts asked for a show of hands from the crowd of who had been taught or coached by Coldren, or who had worked alongside him, and it was probably two-thirds of the audience.
Which leads me to remember Coldren’s answer when I asked him how he came to choose Oregon over hometown Cal-Santa Barbara all those years ago.
“If I had to do it over again,” he said of joining the Ducks, “I’d do it in a minute.”
Just a guess, but I think that’s how Bruce Coldren looked at his life.