Everybody should have known it was going to be an entertaining basketball tournament when the North Carolina Tar Heels arrived ahead of their equipment and had to work out one evening in their BVDs. Or the clue could have been spotted when Oregon Assistant Coach Frank Arnold jumped up and down so vigorously that he split the seat of his pants in the Ducks' first game. Or when Utah Coach Jack Gardner reached under the bench for his ulcer-soothing bottle of milk, took a big swig and almost got ill because it had soured. (And wouldn't that have been embarrassing for the fellow who once beat out Ezra Taft Benson as the Milk Industry Foundation's man of the year?)
But recognized early or not it was an entertaining tournament in Portland, Oregon, last week. North Carolina, fifth-ranked in the nation, got proper uniforms in time and just did manage to win, and nowhere-rated Oregon State almost demonstrated again that more than tall trees can be upended in the wild Northwest. In fact, the athletic traffic advisory for some time has been to stay off the Oregon Trail. Not only is there poison oak amid the timber but the state has a history of being inhospitable to outside teams. One recent unhappy guest was USC, college football's No. 1 team when it came to visit Corvallis last fall and play twice-beaten Oregon State. The Trojans lost 3-0 on a muddy field ("muddy field" is almost a redundancy in Washington and Oregon) and had to beat UCLA later to get back their top ranking.
So now it is basketball season and, more specifically, tournament time. Time for The Classics. A classic is supposed to be a famous, traditional or typical event, like a tulip bulb festival in Holland, but the people who promote college basketball generally ignore dictionary definitions and are perfectly willing to use the word to describe such things as four Oklahoma bible colleges in a free-throw shooting contest. If an event takes place during the Christmas-New Year holiday and if it involves four or more teams, then it is a classic. The annual winter tournament in Oregon has been one since the day it started in 1956. It is called the Far West Classic. From the beginning it was a showcase for Oregon State, which was pleasing for the late Slats Gill, who coached the Beavers for 36 years and wanted the area to be known for something besides Chinook salmon and Douglas firs.
In the first decade of the Far West Classic the field was enlarged from four to eight teams. The University of Oregon came in as co-host, the site was changed from Corvallis to the glass-enclosed Memorial Coliseum in Portland and, in a crazy series of upsets and come-from-behind thrillers, Oregon State won 27 straight games and 10 straight championships. In 1957 Utah came into the classic undefeated and lost to the Beavers in the finals by two points. In 1958 a last-minute jump shot broke a tie with Air Force and Oregon State won by two. In the finals the next night OSU was down by 14 points to Iowa at half time, fought back to a tie and won by a free throw with one second left on the clock. Idaho was leading by one in the 1959 semi-final when Bill Wold hit a jump shot with three seconds left to win again for the hosts. In the 1963 finals, giant Center Mel Counts was held by BYU's John Fairchild to one field goal in 21 attempts but Fairchild fouled out with about 12 minutes left and Counts went wild. OSU won by 10. In 1964 a substitute scored 10 points in overtime to beat Army in a first-round game. Year after year, it seemed, the gods were looking down benignly from snowy Mount Hood and blessing only the home state shots—at least, after half time.
January 8, 1968
The fun ended abruptly last year, Paul Valenti's third as head coach. Oregon State lost all three games in the tournament and took home the booby prize. This season the Beavers were not mentioned by any sane man as a challenger to UCLA, Washington State, Cal or USC in their own Pacific Eight. At tournament time they had a 2-2 record in college competition and faced the best field in the Classic's history: unbeaten Utah, Atlantic Coast favorite North Carolina, Ivy League favorite Princeton and tall, tough Washington State, plus three mediocre teams.
North Carolina, the early choice, came into Portland like a big-business task force—confident, intelligent, well-dressed and organized right down to a synchronized post-dinner burp. IBM might have been in town to negotiate a contract. Carolina was there to win title to a piece of property, in this case a championship trophy. Everything was first class, from Coach Dean Smith's double-vented suit coats to the way his team manager, a pre-med student, had the courtesy station wagon waiting at the hotel door. The Tar Heels brought along their sports information director, who proudly gave out his $3,000, 48-page press brochure containing 101 photographs and such esoteric tidbits as Guard Ed Fogler's favorite food (salami) and Guard Dick Grubar's favorite actress (Ursula Andress). Films were made of each of their games, a soundtrack from the radio broadcast was added and the whole thing was ready for showing the next day, like daily rushes at Twentieth Century-Fox.
The Tar Heels were, of course, even more impressive-looking on the court—before and after the tip-offs. Each player had white sweat bands on his wrists and his uniform number on each calf-length sock (the socks never slipped down). Most of the players had their hair combed the same conservative way, falling down a little over their foreheads. It sort of spoiled the whole classy image when their satiny blue-and-white uniforms were late and they had to work out at the Coliseum Tuesday night in their underwear. No fans were around, but there were some newsmen. The reporters knew from the brochure that All-America Larry Miller liked sports cars but they didn't know he wore plaid shorts.
Winning title to the trophy was not easy. The Tar Heels started with an 87-78 victory over Stanford Thursday night and in their locker room afterward a portable record player blared Now That You've Won Me by the Temptations and Without The One You Love done by The Four Tops. Coach Smith was happy despite the fact that he prefers Stan Kenton to The Temptations and he had drawn the third technical foul of his career in the game. In the second round Friday night, North Carolina had to play Utah, the only unbeaten team in the Classic, and for most of the game it looked as if Smith would be drop-kicking the portable phonograph into the Willamette River after the final buzzer. The Runnin' Redskins, who felt no shame at all while firing jump shots from improbable distances, hit better than 60% in the first half and in one flurry outscored Carolina 11-0. They were ahead by 13 at halftime. The lead grew to 17 when, with less than 15 minutes left, the Tar Heels summoned extra determination from somewhere and started playing defense.
And they had a not-so-secret weapon, too, a sophomore named Charlie Scott, who was first in his class at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. Scott scored 12 points as his team slowly whittled away at Utah's lead until it was all even at 82 with less than four minutes left. His two free throws tied it. Then Smith, risking a loss of momentum, ordered his team into its delay game, or "four-corner offense," in which the defense gets so spread out that it is open for quick cuts to the basket and clever passes. Scott took just such a pass underneath and scored to put North Carolina ahead and Utah called time out with eight seconds left.
The night before Utah had been in an almost identical predicament against Oregon and had won when Guard Mervin Jackson hit a 12-foot jump shot in the last eight seconds. So everybody in the arena, including the man selling Cracker Jack, knew who was going to be shooting now. Jackson got the ball, dribbled to the right base line, leaped and sank the tying basket. But the referee ruled that he had stepped on the line before the shot. No basket. North Carolina's game.
With Oregon State's tradition of dealing nasty surprises to visiting big shots, it was only right that the Beavers made the finals against Carolina. Paul Valenti's deliberate style, learned at Slats Gill's knee, drew some boos from the crowd Wednesday night at the start of the first round, but Oregon State stuck to its game and beat a poor Texas team by 12 points. OSU did not look good but as the Texas coach said, the Longhorns could make the Boston Celtics look bad. The second hurdle was Washington State, which had beaten Princeton. Several members of the championship UCLA team last season said Washington State was the best team they played—and most of those WSC players are back. But OSU has had a hex on its northern neighbor for years. It worked again this night. In a game that was close all the way, OSU won 62-61.
"We've never found we could get an easy basket on Oregon State," Washington State Coach Marv Harshman had said before the game.
The Beavers had some scoring punch, too. In fact, people in Portland, used to OSU's habit of winning the Classic, fully expected Junior Vince Fritz—who had made 26 points against Washington State—to score well enough and the defense to be stubborn enough for the Beavers to beat North Carolina Saturday night, and almost 13,000 optimists showed up so they could tell their grandchildren. Fritz did not disappoint them. He scored 23 points (10 for 13 from the floor, usually way, way out on the floor) and Senior Loy Petersen did a good job on All-America Miller in the first half. But North Carolina, with far superior personnel, won 68-61. It was close, even after Fritz fouled out with six minutes left, until Miller, who was magnificent in the second half, stole a pass, made two free throws and stole the ball again from an OSU sub right under the OSU basket. By then, four Beavers had fouled out.
The coaches had already elected Charlie Scott as the Far West Classic's most valuable player, but Miller's 27 points in the second half forced a hurried re-balloting. Miller got the MVP trophy and another for being on the All-Tournament Team with Scott and Fritz. As captain of the Tar Heels, he also had the honor of accepting the trophy for winning the Classic.
While the handsome, husky All-America from the beautiful school in Chapel Hill, N.C; was being loaded down with all that loot, Coach Valenti kept his head up. "You gotta be tough," he had told his players, and now he was taking his own advice.