A big night for the Giant Killers
CORVALLIS — Time waits for no one, but it took a pause Friday night in the Toyota Club at Reser Stadium to acknowledge one of Oregon State's legendary teams.
The 1967 "Giant Killers" took a bow in a 50th anniversary celebration banquet attended by OSU President Ed Ray, athletic director Scott Barnes and a crowd of more than 200.
Thirty-eight players and two assistant coaches from the only team in Division I history to go unbeaten in meetings with one No. 1 (Southern Cal) and two No. 2 opponents (Purdue and UCLA) in a single season were on hand — and figuratively, hand in hand.
"It's much easier to have great camaraderie when you're winning," said Gary Houser, the tight end and punter of the Giant Killers. "But if we were a chess club or anything else, this group of guys would have been really close."
The players are now in their early 70s, assistant coach Rich Brooks is 76 and assistant coach Ed Knecht celebrated his 90th birthday. It's been 50 years since they took the field together.
"We've been getting together every five years since a 20-year reunion in 1987," defensive end Mike Foote said. "Every time we get together, it's like we were together yesterday, not five years ago."
Brooks and co-captain Skip Vanderbundt spoke to the group assembled in the Toyota Club, and the love for the players and their coach, the late Dee Andros, was evident.
Andros was a former Marine who had served in Iwo Jima during World War II.
"We were such an anomaly in those changing times in the late '60s in America," said Vanderbundt, who went on to play linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers for 12 seasons. "Here we were, a group of kids following a freaking drill sergeant. But that was the key to the whole thing at Oregon State."
Vanderbundt remembered the opener of his junior year in 1966, when the Beavers were trounced 41-0 at Michigan during Andros' second season as OSU's coach.
"We flew back to Corvallis, got home at 8 a.m., and shortly after that, we were on the practice field, running," Vanderbundt said. "Dee told us, 'I saw quit out there yesterday. We don't quit. We're in it to the end.'
"We learned a lesson. Never again did we quit. He wouldn't accept it. We were a group of guys who went and and put it all out there. Every single opponent walked off the field saying, 'Who the hell were those guys?' We came, we packed a lunch, and (opponents) were in for a full day of work."
The '66 Beavers followed the Michigan game by beating Iowa 17-3, then losing to USC and Northwestern. Oregon State then finished the season with six straight wins and went 20-5-1 through the end of the '68 campaign.
The '67 Beavers started 3-0, then lost back-to-back games to Washington and Brigham Young. What followed was a visit to West Lafayette, Indiana, for a showdown with No. 2-ranked Purdue, led by Heisman Trophy candidate Leroy Keyes and All-American quarterback Mike Phipps. Fans in Lafayette weren't impressed with the quality of opponent for their homecoming game.
The Boilermakers had knocked off No. 1-ranked Notre Dame 28-21 in the second game of the season and had buried Ohio State 41-6 the previous week in Columbus.
"Nobody expected us to give them a game," Vanderbundt said. "After we arrived, Dee put us on a bus to go through campus so we could see the tombstones with our name on it in the lawn of the fraternities and sororities. It was like, 'Why are we playing this little school for our homecoming?'"
Oregon State won, 22-14. Two weeks later, the Beavers tied then-No. 2 UCLA 16-16 in Los Angeles. Afterward, Andros — half in jest — proclaimed to the press, "I'm tired of taking on No. 2. Bring on No. 1."
That was Southern Cal and O.J. Simpson, riding a 25-game win streak. They left Corvallis a 3-0 loser, and the Giant Killers' legend was secure.
"We weren't supposed to be that good," quarterback Steve Preece said, "but we meshed together. A lot of it was because the coaches were so strong — Andros, Brooks, Bud Riley, Sam Boghosian. It was like we had a head coach at every position. They helped us reach our potential."
The Beavers had everything a good team needs — a great leader in Preece, All-Americans in fullback Bill "Earthquake" Enyart, center John Didion and defensive tackles Jess Lewis and Jon Sandstrom, and a strong supporting cast.
"We had athletes," halfback Jerry Belcher said. "We had three to five exceptional players, but a lot of really good players. As a team, we really believed we were good. We didn't think other teams were better than us. That's really important."
Then there was that camaraderie.
"I'm not sure we liked each other, but we loved each other," Preece said. "Sandstrom and Didion were best friends, and they'd end up fighting every day in practice. Everything was so spirited, so competitive, and it was encouraged by our coaches."
Defensive back Mel Easley was one of the few black athletes.
"There weren't that many of us, but everyone made me feel one of them," said Easley, who wound up working law enforcement for 28 years and as police chief of University Park, Illinois. "We communicated so well. I came to Oregon State wondering what it was going to be like.
"It turned out my coaches and my teammates made a difference in my life. They made me stronger. I moved forward because of them. It was family. We became one. From that I learned a lot. We gave 110 percent, because that's what Dee Andros demanded of us."
"On or off the field, we related to each other," Lewis said. "We shared each others' thoughts. We went to class together — sometimes. We all had each other's backs. There was trust. There's still that trust, 50 years later."
Brooks went on coach in the NFL and to successful head coaching stints at Oregon and Kentucky.
"My time here was a life-changing time for me," said Brooks, who wore an orange sweater for the occasion. "What great unity this team had. A wonderful group of young men. They helped me get where I was going."
Brooks had been a starting defensive back and Terry Baker's backup at quarterback for Tommy Prothro's Beavers as a senior in 1962.
"I got shoved into coaching the D-line, which I didn't know much about," Brooks said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned a lot more football, and I happened to coach great players who made me look like a better coach than I really was.
"The association has continued since I've left. I was never around a team that has stuck together for so many years and continued to do things together year after year."
Much of the group arrived Thursday night and attended a showing of the outstanding "Giant Killers" documentary Thursday night at the Whiteside Theater. Many of them watched the Beavers' walk-through Friday in preparation for Saturday's homecoming matchup with Colorado at Reser Stadium. Vanderbundt was asked to speak to the players.
"Skip has street cred, with his NFL career behind him," Barnes said. "He talked to them about what it takes to be successful. It was a great talk. It's important that today's student-athletes are connected to the past, to great teams like the one we're honoring tonight."
Radio play-by-play voice Mike Parker did a masterful job of emceeing Friday night's festivities, which ended with an eight-minute audio tape of Andros speaking to the OSU defensive line unit prior to the 1990 Civil War — 15 years after he had retired as the Beavers' coach.
Andros told the Beaver D-linemen he had won nine Civil War games as head coach, "and the two I lost were the most miserable damn days of my life."
"Some people say it's another game," Andros said. "Hell, it ain't another game, gentlemen. It's a war.
"The Ducks think they're tougher than we are. I don't think so. I don't think they're tougher than us. I know damn well they're not tougher than we are. They've had more success, but you have to believe you're as good as anybody. When you hit that field tomorrow, it's you they better worry about.
"After that ballgame starts, it's who wants it worse, who is willing to play the damn price for victory. I guarantee you, if you go out there and sell out — not one quarter, not a half, not three quarters, but for 60 minutes — you have a chance to earn the respect of everybody in this state. Go out there and fight for 60 minutes, and you'll win that game, and you have the rest of the year to say the state is yours."
Andros closed out the session by reciting the poem he often brought out to read to his own players before Civil War games — "The Man in the Glass."
The talk must have been effective. Oregon State's defense did its part the following day in a 6-3 loss.
You could hear a pin drop during the eight minutes of audio in the Toyota Club Friday night. It was as if "The Great Pumpkin" had been brought back to life.
"Pretty emotional to hear the big guy talking again," Houser said. "I was feeding Kleenix to Mel Easley."
"I had a hard time not breaking out crying," Easley said. "He was such an inspiration to me. I loved him. He was a great man. He told you what he wanted you to do, and you just do it."
Halfback Billy Main chose Oregon State over California primarily because of Andros. He wasn't disappointed playing for him for four years.
"When he was talking, everybody was waiting for him to butcher words, but he could stick a needle in you and get your fired up," Main said. "Today, when I hear that fight song and think about going down that tunnel onto that field. … it almost makes you want to explode. It's so emotional, even 50 years later.
"Tonight was the most pure example of what teams and brotherhood and Oregon State football are all about. We all grew up with the 'Pumpkin,' and he taught us there was no 'I' in team. To a man, every one of us would say we were honored to be part of that team. Nobody ever wanted to take credit. The guys who deserved the credit the most — the Preeces and the Enyarts and the Vanderbundts — to this day are still talking about the team.
"That's a life lesson, man. I feel like one guy in a million gets a chance to have this kind of experience. It would have never happened that way without Dee Andros. Just goes to show the most important things in life don't cost money. I love these guys like brothers."
Some of the brothers have fallen. Fourteen squad members have died, including Enyart, Didion and co-captain Dave Marlette.
"Five years from now, we'll be missing some more," Sandstrom said. "So we have to make the most of this time together. I'm glad I came here. I'm glad they had this for us. I'm glad we could all get together one more time."