In the pleasant lumber and college town of Corvallis, Ore. last week the rain had a showery feeling to it. When the residents pointed west and said the local rule was that if you could see Mary's Peak it wouldn't rain that day they sounded as if they actually expected the mountain to be visible some month soon. Then there was the phonothon. An Oregon State fraternity had been talking to a girls' dormitory for nearly 200 hours and was going for a national record in that new rite of spring. Finally there was Slats Gill's basketball team.
As had happened several times before in his 34 years at Oregon State, venerable and philosophical Coach Gill once again had a team with a chance at the national championship. Its record was 17-3, it had recently won 16 in a row and if its personnel was somewhat unusual its accomplishments were straightforward and impressive. It was planning on whipping Idaho Friday and Saturday night and thinking about its NCAA tournament opener against Seattle.
Suddenly the rain turned to snow. The Pi Kappa Alpha boys hung up the telephone. And on Friday Idaho showed Corvallis how the Northwest's best could be beaten. The fact that Oregon State came back on Saturday to win easily only partly dispelled the chill.
Not that what happened really surprised Coach Gill. Few things in basketball can any more. Slats was an All-America at Oregon State himself once. He has been an outstandingly successful coach since the days when he had to schedule 10 games in 12 days to break even on road trips. That was when his teams played on an auditorium stage in Los Angeles and in a warehouse in Astoria. Five times he won the old Pacific Coast Conference championship and he once took State to the semifinals of the NCAA. He was already a local basketball legend when Oregon State built its 10,500-seat field house in 1949 and decided to name it Gill Coliseum. "You can't name a building for a living man," said the state's board of higher education. "What do they want us to do?" demanded a Portland newspaperman. "Shoot Slats?" And to this day no paper has ever called the building anything but Gill Coliseum.
Slats Gill is a stern, fair, fatherly man. He has sad eyes and thick, gray-streaked hair that lies nearly flat, like the nap of a well-worn rug. He teaches his teams a tough defense and what he calls a "natural" offense. "There is no Gill offense," he explains. "I experiment until I find the offense that best suits the natural abilities of my boys. That's the one we use that year." He combines these strategic techniques with a demand for intense concentration. Only his captain is permitted to talk to an official. If talking is necessary, Slats does it. He used to jump off the bench so much that he finished one season with a total of $1,400 in fines. This is a standing West Coast record, literally.
In 1960 he suffered a severe heart attack after a game at Washington, and it drastically changed his life. Now, at 60, when an official's call annoys him he merely stands up, hands on hips, and looks quietly but meaningfully onto the court, saying nothing. He drinks tea by the gallon instead of coffee, chews pocketfuls of mints instead of smoking and after especially bitter losses he goes home and writes poetry.
But he still is totally dedicated. "By gum," he said last Thursday morning, sprinkling some salt in his fourth cup of tea, "there are still some thrills in this life for a 60-year-old man. To be firm with kids and make them like it. To show them why they must want to be the best. To convince them the most softening things in athletics are alibis and moral victories. And then to watch them develop." Yes, he always salts his tea.
The Oregon State team faithfully mirrors Gill's precepts. It is a fast-break team because that is what its players do best. It shows excellent discipline and concentration. And it calls him Slats. "I like the name," says Gill. "If your first name was Amory and your middle name was Tingle, you would like to be called Slats, too."
The floor leader of the team is Oregon State's famous football quarterback, Terry Baker (SI, Oct. 16, 1961). Six feet three and fast, he likes to drive with a basketball as much as he likes to run with a football, and his passes have the same jolting quickness in both sports. He came to Oregon State on a basketball scholarship, and calls the game his first love. "Football came easier. I work harder at basketball," he says.
At center is Mel Counts, the biggest man ever from Coos Bay, Ore. He is a rare sophomore phenomenon, a solidly built, smooth-moving, seven-footer whose rebounding sets up State's fast break. In his first two games, played against Montana, he scored a total of 57 points, but Oregon State lost the second game. "Now I'll find out what kind of a boy he is," Slats Gill recalls thinking that night in Missoula. "Counts was sitting in a restaurant booth, and I sat down next to him. Was he pleased with his scoring? No. He was crushed at his mistakes. That's what I wanted."
Helping with the rebounding is the captain, Jay Carty, a 17-point scorer—perhaps the best all-round player on the team and, like Baker, an honor student. But none of these has quite the distinction of quiet, razor-thin, 6-foot-6 Bob Jacobson. Jacobson was working in a plywood mill last summer when a rag caught in the blade of a joiner, and he lost the three middle fingers on his right hand at the middle knuckle. When practice began he insisted on playing, taping foam rubber over each of the injured fingers. Right-handed, he ignored the pain and learned to shoot again. "The ball would hit his hand and I could feel it," says Slats. Jacobson earned a position as a starting guard. A week after Jacobson's summer accident Rex Benner, a sophomore guard, lost the vision in one eye when somebody threw sand in his face while he was at a beach. He, too, is on the squad.
It was this combination of talent and toughness that brought 17 wins and a sixth-place national ranking to Oregon State. But what opponents were finding out as the season progressed was that the State defense was not particularly strong, that it did not have a really good outside shot and that it might have trouble coping with a slowdown type of game. Two weeks ago both Seattle and Washington beat the Beavers—teams that Oregon State had defeated earlier.
"It's like going around a baseball league twice," said Slats Gill. "The first time you bat .400, but the next time the word is out that you can't hit an inside curve, so you bat .200."
Idaho throws the curve
Friday night at Gill Coliseum the Oregon State Dixieland band, dressed as hot rodders and beatniks, led the cheerleaders through a lively pregame Charleston, a frantic version of Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home, and a phony gun fight. The Corvallis crowd yelled mightily at this and looked forward to a grand evening. Then out came Idaho to slip the Beavers that inside curve.
The visitors cut off Oregon State's fast break. They slowed the game to a walk when they wanted to. They put four men in the middle, packing it so tightly that a mouse couldn't have moved through, much less a seven-foot Mel Counts. This left Oregon State free to shoot from the outside, but the Beaver guards couldn't score. They totaled five points all night. With three seconds to play and trailing by a single point, Quarterback Terry Baker faded for a full-court desperation pass to Counts. It was batted down incomplete, and Idaho had a well-deserved upset win, 52-51. That was State's lowest point total of the year.
Saturday was clear, crisp and different. Amazingly, Mary's Peak was in view under a cloudless sky. Slats Gill chewed a breakfast peppermint in a Corvallis restaurant, kept his emotions under the kind of control that would have pleased his doctor and observed: "The wonderful thing about basketball, by gum, is that an underdog can come up with a change of strategy and do that kind of thing to you." Then he was off to change a little strategy himself.
If it was going to take an outside shot to loosen Idaho's defense, decided Slats, he had one. True, the choice was an illogical one, being seven feet tall, but Mel Counts could arch a soft 20-footer as well as any guard. The game was two minutes old when Counts, wandering happily outside like a rambling giraffe, hit from 20 feet. Two minutes later he scored from 15. Then from 20 again. That, in effect, ended the game. Idaho was forced to stop jamming the center in order to watch Counts. This permitted Oregon State's guards, led by Terry Baker, to pour through the middle for lay-ups, a style of play at which they excel. The final score was 65-50. "We needed that badly," said Slats Gill in the dressing room, joyously munching a last peppermint. There was a spring in his step as he considered the pleasant prospect that the NCAA had scheduled its first-round games in the West to be played at friendly Corvallis.