Photo Credit: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Former Oregon State basketball coach Paul Valenti, who died last week at age 94, spent 72 years in Corvallis, leaving a special legacy among his many friends and former players.I thought Paul Valenti would live forever, and in a very important way, he will.

The patriarch of Oregon State athletics has departed at 94, finally giving in to the ravages of old age. But not before making an impact that few before him have made.

"Paul was what Oregon State is," says Frank Peters, who played Rook baseball for Valenti and was a starter on the 1963 Final Four basketball team for which Valenti was Slats Gill's assistant. "If you're a true Beaver, you live forever."

Before I let others have the floor, I'd like to write a few words about what Valenti meant to me.

I knew him for more than a half-century, since I was a rug rat running the halls of Gill Coliseum, visiting the office of my father, John Eggers, who was sports information director during the golden era of sports at Oregon State.

Slats Gill. Tommy Prothro. Ralph Coleman. Terry Baker. Mel Counts. And, of course, Paul Valenti -- all unforgettable names in Beaver lore.

Paul gave me my first leather basketball at age 12, the year his Beavers shocked the country's basketball fans by beating UCLA and winning the Pac-8 championship with not one player taller than 6-6.

"Don't use that ball outside. Save it for inside," he told me in that gruff, authoritative voice, softening it with a smile. I followed orders, treating it with the same care as the rain hat Baker had given me. Paul's ball lasted me for years.

Later, as I grew from boy to adult, Valenti always had a kind word for me when we'd see each other in Corvallis. He wanted to know how my family life was, how my children were doing. He'd ask about my sportswriting career. "You're doing great, kid," he'd always say. And, after my father passed: "John would be so proud of you."

In his later years, I'd make it a point to stop by his office at Gill, which he kept long after his retirement in 1975 following a five-year stint as tennis coach. For decades, he served as an associate athletic director/ambassador to the athletic department, staging the annual "Varsity O" golf tournament and running the student-athlete's summer employment program until just a few years ago.

"He was such a personable guy -- perfect for the job placement thing," former OSU basketball/baseball star Jimmy Jarvis says. "I don't know anyone who could have said no to Paul."

Valenti was as lucid and sharp as could be right until the end. It was always such a pleasure to share a few words and a couple of laughs with him. And I was just one of so many who felt that way.

"It's hard to believe he's not going to be there now, after all these years," says Roger McKee, Valenti's first tennis recruit out of Roseburg High.

Valenti came to Oregon State in the fall of 1938, as a freshman from Larkspur, Calif., recruited by Gill to play basketball. He never left except for a 3 1/2-year stint in the Navy during World War II, meaning he spent more than 72 years of his adult life in Corvallis.

"Oregon State was his whole life," says Jimmy Anderson, who played when Valenti was a Gill assistant and coached under Valenti during his time as head coach.

Old school? Absolutely. But Valenti always did it with a smile.

"Paul never had a bad day," veteran OSU baseball coach Pat Casey says. "What a guy. I don't know anyone who didn't like Paul. He was an inspiration, a true gentleman. He was a man's man, but also one of those guys you could rely on every day to say something good to you.

"I was lucky. I got to work with Paul and Dee Andros my first couple of years here. The loyalty Paul had to Oregon State was amazing. He was never going to waver from that loyalty and belief in what we were doing."

A 6-2 forward, Valenti was a three-year starter for Beaver teams that went 64-29 and twice won the Pacific Coast Conference's Northern Division. He developed his ideology under Gill.

"If I hadn't gotten into Slats' program, I don't think I would have made it academically," Valenti told me in a 2002 interview. "He was very demanding, a very consistent person. He wanted you to appreciate your basketball, but understand it was a privilege to play, and that we had other responsibilities, too."

After his stint in the service, Valenti joined the OSC coaching staff, serving as freshman basketball and baseball coach. One of the stars of Valenti's first Rook basketball team was Bill Harper, who later served as assistant coach during Valenti's reign as head coach, was an area scout for the Philadelphia Phillies for many years and still lives in Corvallis. Valenti and Harper were Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity brothers and close friends for 65 years.

"What a great person, and an outstanding coach," says Harper, who turns 89 this month. "As a coach, everything he did was to put you in the right direction. He was always willing to help anyone he could. He wanted you to do the right thing. I always listened to him. I appreciated his way of getting through to the players and teaching them the right way."

Valenti had a pretty good keystone combination on his 1961 Rook baseball team -- Peters at shortstop, Jarvis at second base. Both were standouts on Gill's basketball teams for which Valenti was the assistant.

"Paul was a very important person in my life," Jarvis says.

Peters puts it a slightly different way: "He had a big influence on my life -- all of the good parts of my life."

Valenti accomplished so much despite a serious stuttering problem.

"I never let it bother me," he told me. "We had fun with it. The little success I had as a player and coach gave me more confidence, and I got away with it. It helped me a lot more than hurt me, because it made me work a little harder at things."

Says Jarvis: "The ironic thing was, in the huddle, I never once heard Paul stutter. Not once."

Valenti had gone to school with Peters' father, Norm, a starter on the Beavers' 1942 transplanted Rose Bowl team. Two decades later, Valenti wound up coaching Norm's son in two sports.

"The time I spent with him, he was totally consistent," Peters says. "You knew exactly what you were going to get. Very tough, but what a wonderful person."

Valenti was all about intensity as a coach. He demanded effort.

"But we all respected him, and I loved him to death," Jarvis says.

Valenti recruited White, the first black scholarship basketball player in school history.

"Charlie had been in the service, was a little older, and Paul gave him more latitude than the others," Jarvis recalls. "Charlie and I roomed together on the road. From a sociological standpoint, Paul is an important piece of Oregon State athletic history.

"The other thing about Paul is how he stayed in contact with his players over the years. He'd call me once every four or five weeks, just to keep track of how I was doing."

Anderson was a starting guard at Oregon State from 1956-59, joined Gill's staff for three years and was Valenti's chief assistant for six seasons before Paul resigned in 1970.

"When I got here, Paul had to do almost everything," says Anderson, who succeeded Ralph Miller as the Beavers' head coach and served from 1989-95. "He was a tough guy, serious-minded, very business-like. When Slats told him to do something, he'd do it. When I took over as freshman coach, we shared the same office. We became very good friends."

For years, Valenti and Anderson partnered in two-on-two "hunch" pickup games at noon.

"We won like 5,460 in a row," Anderson says. "The day we lost, we said, 'Too old. Let's quit.'"

Anderson was an assistant coach on Valenti's 1965-66 team that went 21-7 overall, 12-2 in Pac-8 play and beat out UCLA's defending NCAA champions, led by Edgar Lacey, Mike Lynn, Mike Warren and Kenny Washington. The Beavers, with a starting five of 6-6 Ed Fredenberg, 6-5 Charlie White, 6-5 Loy Peterson, 6-3 Scott Eaton and 6-2 Rick Whelan, used a ball-control offense that never hit 80 points all season. They did it with defense and discipline.

"It might be the best coaching job ever done at Oregon State," Anderson says. "We were picked to finish last in the conference. We practiced more defense than we did offense. There were games where every shot taken by the opposition was with a hand in the face. It was hard for anybody to get a good shot on us."

McKee says he learned life lessons from Valenti that paid dividends during his more than three decades as a teaching pro.

"I came to him as fresh-faced kid who thought he was a pretty good tennis player," McKee says. "After four years with Coach, I learned how to be a tough guy and a competitor on the court. That has served me well all these years since graduation.

"There were times when he'd tell me some day I'd thank him for all of this. It was hard to believe him at the time, but he was right. It ended up being a very good learning experience for me."

Valenti kept a special place in his heart for Oregon State's arch-rival. In five years, he never lost a dual tennis match against Oregon.

"He made sure we were always ready for the Ducks," McKee says.

For a decade, former OSU basketball player Tim Hennessey lived in the house behind that of Paul and his wife of 68 years, Fran.

"Two words come to mind about Paul," Hennessey says. "Tough, and tender. For him, life was about humility, honor, faith and family. Paul and Fran were the leading couple in Corvallis."

In his golden years, Valenti played golf and tennis until his body began to fail him.

"Even in his 70's, he was in unbelievable physical condition," Hennessey says. "I remember seeing him swim laps in the pool for what seemed like an hour with one arm. We'd play horse in the backyard, and I'm not sure I ever beat him. He'd never get more than 'H' or "H-O.'"

Casey's oldest son, Jonathan, is autistic. Valenti and Jonathan both worked out at the Timberhill Athletic Club. Jonathan typically walked home. Valenti often offered him a ride in his Volkswagen Beetle, but for years, Jonathan declined the offer.

"Paul told me, 'He won't get in my car,'" the senior Casey says. "I told him, 'Paul, he's too smart for that. He's seen the way you drive.' Finally, Jon got in his car and let Paul give him a ride home. After that, it was a routine. Whipping around the corner would come Paul, smoking that stogie in the Volkswagen, honking his horn and dropping Jon off at our house with a wave and a smile."

In Valenti's latter years, his best friend was Dominic Cusimano, a transplanted New Yorker who served as a teacher and counselor in the Corvallis School District for 25 years. They met at Timberhill and formed a bond that grew over the years.

"For a long time, he got my name wrong," says Cusimano, 64. "He called me 'Nick.' I'd correct him, and he said, 'What the hell's the difference? You're a paisano.'

"Paul became like my second dad. He was one of the kindest and warmest people I've ever met. He made everybody feel comfortable. Thousands of times at games, people would come up to him and visit, and it was like he'd known them all their lives. After they left, he'd turn to me and ask, 'Who the hell was that?'"

Over the last few years, after Valenti stopped driving, Cusimano became his devoted sidekick, driving him around town, accompanying him to practices and games.

"It became a mission for me," Cusimano says. "We need to respect and cherish our elders. I was the lucky one. We talked every day, and I cherished every minute I had with him."

The week before Valenti died, Father Federico Pinto from St. Mary's Catholic Church visited to administer last rites. Paul was asleep. Pinto asked Paul's daughter, Vicki, if she thought her father could take communion. She said it would be OK to try.

"The Father breaks off a small piece of the host, holds it to Paul's mouth and says, 'I have the host. I'd like to give you communion,'" Cusimano says. "And Paul opens his eyes, lifts up and says, 'Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on?' He closes his eyes and lays back down. There's a pregnant pause. Vicki says, 'I'm really sorry, Father. But that's my dad.' We all shared a good laugh over that."

Now Valenti is gone, an institution at the school he loved, one who simply can't be replaced.

"There's Coleman Field (at Goss Stadium), Gill Coliseum and Paul Valenti," Peters says. "I don't know that other schools have things like those that last."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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