Those crazy Kamikaze Kids
Long before the Oregon Ducks became a national brand in college football, the university in Eugene gained notoriety — it's more accurate to say it became "notorious" — for its crazy men's basketball program.
Dick Harter, the orchestrator of that craziness, arrived at Oregon from Penn in the spring of 1971. What ensued were some of the strangest chapters in the sports history of this state.
Or, as Bud Withers puts it in the forward of his self-published book, titled "Mad Hoops," about Harter's Oregon teams:
"It's doubtful that any program in conference history — including John Wooden's dynasty at UCLA — ever elicited more polar reaction up and down the West Coast. If you loved the Ducks, you were willing to sleep outside Mac Court in a tent before it became fashionable to do that. If you hated them, you wanted NCAA enforcers to set up a satellite office in Eugene and hand down the death penalty."
I wasn't old enough to camp outside Mac Court. But, as a middle school and high school kid, I was a fan from afar, intrigued by the dive-on-the-floor intensity Harter's Ducks played with.
Withers, who retired from the Seattle Times in 2015 after four decades as a sports reporter, covered Oregon State basketball during Harter's seven years coaching the Ducks. In that role, he was on hand for some of the craziest Oregon State-Oregon contests in the rivalry's history, many of which are relived in these pages.
Withers occasionally attended Ducks practices and games during the Harter era, but the idea for this book came from a former OSU cheerleader.
Rick Coutin's moment of fame came in the final game of the 1973-74 season, a non-conference game at Gill Coliseum, when he was tripped by Harter in perhaps the most outrageous of Harter's antics.
On a visit to Corvallis in 2016, Withers happened to be at a breakfast when Coutin recounted that event. That retelling got Withers wondering if any books had been written about that dizzying era of Oregon basketball. He contacted friend Bob Clark, a longtime sports reporter for the Register Guard, who put Withers in touch with former Duck Rob Closs.
Closs had contact information for many of the people whose recollections are central to Withers' telling of the Kamikaze Kids story.
"What was really gratifying and surprising was the number of those guys I could get with in person," Withers said, estimating that at least three quarters of the interviews he did for the book were in-person. Another significant and surprising part of the project was being able to connect with more than a half-dozen former athletics department administrators. That list includes Norv Ritchey, the Oregon athletics director who hired Harter, then battled with him.
The book, naturally, recounts the contributions and experiences of Oregon's best, and most notorious, players: Ron Lee, Greg Ballard, Stu Jackson, Mark Barwig, Ernie Kent and more.
Withers said he was fortunate to be able to interview so many actors who had a role during the Harter years. The coach himself died of cancer in 2012, after spending more than 20 years as an assistant coach in the NBA, including three with the Trail Blazers.
Withers' two favorite Harter anecdotes are the cheerleader tripping incident and Harter's gamesmanship on a visit to Washington State, when he waited until moments before tipoff to point out that one of the baskets at Bohler Gym was shorter than 10 feet.
Spoiler alert: such ploys usually backfired on Harter.
Harter is not a sympathetic figure. His browbeating of his players and hours-long practices designed to test toughness rather than develop talent eventually caught up with him on the recruiting trail — and probably cost him Eugene boy Danny Ainge. Harter brought great players to Eugene for a few years, but by the time he left for Penn State after the 1977-78 season, he was struggling to recruit.
His galavanting around Eugene, chasing women while his wife and five children were home, is also documented and did little to endear him to his bosses or players. Through interviews with two of Harter's five children, Withers writes of an absentee father.
But the Harter Withers describes is very human.
Withers said it's hard to imagine Harter's approach to basketball being successful in 2020. For one thing, social media would intensify the light shining on the coach, his program and his lifestyle. Many of the players Harter recruited were from the Midwest and the East Coast. They were not aware of his brutal practice sessions until they arrived at Oregon. These days, such information would flow freely on the AAU circuit and be used against the program in recruiting. Then, there is the transfer portal and the ability of players to change schools.
For those who remember the head-spinning, scoreboard swaying energy that Harter's Ducks created in Mac Court, Withers' book will awaken memories, both good and bad. For those who didn't live through it, "Mad Hoops" serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a coach has unchecked power.
In either case, it is an entertaining recounting of one of the most unforgettable sagas in Oregon sports.
"Mad Hoops" is available through major booksellers, including Amazon.
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