Don Read and Oregon: The way we were

  If you’ve stumbled into this space occasionally, you probably realize that the phenomenon of present-day Oregon football – the Ferrari leather in the meeting rooms, the kaleidoscopic uniform combinations, the largesse of Phil Knight – wasn’t a forever thing at the UO.

  That came to mind the other day with news of the passing of Don Read, Oregon’s head coach from 1974 to 1976. Read had turned 90 on December 15.

  Read was a kind and gentle man who was in over his head as a major-college coach, particularly at Oregon, which in that era scarcely had two nickels to rub together.

  The background, in short form: Jerry Frei, who had recruited and coached uber-talents like Bobby Moore (Ahmad Rashad) and Dan Fouts, resigned early in 1972 amid alumni pressure, and the Ducks installed his offensive line coach, Dick Enright. He was only 36, not ready for the job, and he was cashiered after two seasons.

  Think about this: Imagine your favorite football team canning a coach who went 6-16 over two years, the second season 2-9, and then appointing his successor from that staff. That’s what the Ducks did with Don Read, who was seen as a guru of the passing game at Portland State before joining Enright.

  (Four decades later, Enright alleged there was an element of palace intrigue to the transition, telling author Kerry Eggers for his book, “The Civil War Rivalry,” that Read and another assistant had undercut him: “I was torpedoed. I was stabbed in the back.” Read responded to Eggers, “He was let go. They asked me. I took the job. But as far as me campaigning or back-stabbing him, that’s ridiculous.”)

  In 1974, in my first year as Oregon football beat writer for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Ducks held their Oregon Club booster meetings at the old Eugene Hotel on Broadway. On the day they introduced Don Read as head coach, the club president said Read was like dipping into a well and drawing up a cold drink of water on a hot summer day.

  Then they started playing the games. The Ducks opened at Nebraska that year and lost 61-7. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they opened the next year at Oklahoma (Oregon played big-payout, body-bag games with some regularity) and lost 62-7.

  Read never had a chance. The football offices were a spartan collection on University Street across from a graveyard. Enright told Eggers about “broken tiles on the floor, no drapes. My high school had better facilities. It was Mickey Mouse . . . I gave all my season tickets away to put carpet and drapes in.”

  To make matters more challenging, the Ducks had hired as basketball coach in 1971 hard-charging Dick Harter, and he was taking up most of the available oxygen in the athletic department, and whatever little discretionary cash existed.

  Norv Ritchey, the athletic director then, told me several years ago for my book on the Harter regime, “Mad Hoops,” that he recalled upping Frei’s salary to $24,500 because he had lured Harter for $23,000. I’m not sure Read was making that much three years later. At that point, Phil Knight was just a guy with a fledgling shoe company who had run distances at Oregon.

  After winning two of his first three games, Read oversaw an eight-game losing streak to finish 1974. Included was a 66-0 defeat at Washington – the Huskies’ payback from a 58-0 boat-racing Enright’s latter team had inflicted on the UW.

  The losing streak stretched to 14 by the middle of the 1975 season. And Read didn’t exactly get a vote of confidence from the new Oregon president, William Boyd. Interviewed by Register-Guard sports editor Blaine Newnham the week after the Ducks lost in feckless fashion to San Jose State, 5-0, Boyd issued one of the great sports quotes of all-time, saying, “I’d rather be whipped in a public square than watch a football game like that.”

  On the last Saturday of October, the losing streak finally ended on a dismal, dark afternoon against a 1-5 Utah team. If memory serves, Oregon listed that attendance at 15,000. They must have been counting eyeballs and elbows.

   In the old press box at Autzen Stadium, the Register-Guard was in the front row, with visiting media in the row behind, that day populated by an old-timey scribe from the Salt Lake Tribune, John Mooney.

 Oregon was ahead by the quirky score of 8-7 in the third quarter and the Ducks lined up for a field goal.

  “Oh, God,” came a murmur from behind — Mooney. “They’re about to put it out of reach.”

  By Read’s third year, the regime was teetering. The Ducks got beat by USC, Notre Dame and UCLA by a combined score of 140-0. But the game that might have done him in was against Washington State in late October. Oregon had a handle on it, and WSU had what P.A. announcer Don Essig (still doing it, by the way) previewed as something like, “third down and a half a mile to go . . . “

  With Jack Thompson at quarterback, the Cougars converted that half-mile, scored, made a two-point conversion and won 23-22. Win that, and 4-7 becomes 5-6, and Read could have pointed to steady, year-over-year improvement on his record.

  Ultimately, he couldn’t survive with a new president at Oregon and some aspirational forces in the athletic department. The success Frei had had recruiting high-quality African-American athletes several years back was a distant memory.

  Looking at today’s innovative offenses, I’m sometimes taken back to that era, when Read’s reputation was that of an expert on the passing game. I don’t recall anything especially distinctive about Oregon’s offense; in fact, it averaged 13 points his final season.

  Why was it Jim Walden’s offense at WSU that would soon be exploiting every inch of the field, horizontally as well as vertically? Why did it take decades for fast-tempo offense to take hold? How come nobody thought of that then? Hell, why didn’t I think of it?

  Through it all, Read was a gentleman. Once, I was at practice in a steady rain and he offered me a team poncho. Another time, after I mused about some home project I was working on, he said he could lend me tools.

  He would go back to Portland State, then carve out a considerable niche at Montana from 1986-1995, winning a 1-AA championship.

  Between the austerity at Oregon and his own limitations, he never really had a chance in Eugene. The Ducks didn’t need nice, they needed some nasty, and they got that with Read’s successor, Rich Brooks.

  Oh, and later on, Phil Knight would help some, too.