Former Oregon basketball coach Dick Harter died Monday night of cancer at 81, and no doubt, Eugene shook a little. He had that big an impact on the program and the community.
I was a young and impressionable reporter (as opposed to being old and impressionable now) at the local paper when Harter arrived at Oregon for the 1971-72 season. The Ducks had been coached by a kindly fellow who knew his stuff, Steve Belko, but there wasn’t much buzz around the program.
Suddenly, it all changed. Harter came on the scene, and it was though everything moved at warp speed. He recruited all over the nation, and people followed that element of the program with a religious fervor (frankly, a lot of that mania was over the top). His teams became famous for diving on the floor for loose balls. There was a famous photo taken by a photographer from little Ashland, Ore., Bruce Roberts, that showed all five Ducks on the floor, pursuing a ball.
Harter preached toughness and defense. For conditioning, players had to carry bricks with arms extended and perform a rope climb.
I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that for opposing fans, Harter was more reviled than any coaching figure I’ve seen in 40 years of covering the Pac-12. Marv Harshman, the old Washington coach, didn’t like his style, and you recall the night in Eugene when Harshman had several players on his team stationed at mid-court, donning Groucho Marx glasses and mustaches — to poke fun at a Harter custom of having players who weren’t shooting aligned at the mid-court line, staring down the other team’s warmups with arms folded.
I haven’t seen any coach in my time so galvanize its fan base. Oregon basketball became this manic, must-see event. Truth be told, it wasn’t because Harter’s teams were so wildly successful — he never made the NCAA tournament in his seven years as Duck coach — but because they were competitive, and ruggedly so.
McArthur Court became the “Pit” in those days. It’s ironic that it’s only been in the past couple of months that former UCLA coach Gene Bartow died, because it was Bartow who termed the Mac Court crazies “Deranged Idiots.” Some fans took to wearing buttons with that advisory on it. No doubt Harter loved it. I’ve always said the two loudest gyms I’ve ever been in were Mac Court at Harter’s heyday and old Bohler Gym at Washington State when Harshman had it cooking.
Another observation: The rivalry Harter’s teams had with Oregon State and Ralph Miller was the most heated of any I’ve seen in four decades in the Northwest, basketball or football. Today’s Washington-Washington State series, or Oregon-Oregon State, is a minuet compared to the wars we witnessed when Harter’s and Miller’s teams went at it. I don’t believe they disliked each other, more like they understood each other. But the fans didn’t.
I could tell you Harter stories for hours. One that I heard — but didn’t witness — has it that back in his early years, Harter got a necktie for Christmas from one of his players, who was a very nice kid but not much of a player. Harter didn’t like that team; it wasn’t tough enough for his standards (few were). At the old Far West Classic in Portland, as the Ducks were in the process of finishing last, Harter is supposed to have set the tie afire and chucked it out of an upper-floor window from the Benson Hotel.
I covered a Monday night game in Pullman in 1972 on the old Pac-8 TV package, an 8 p.m. tip. Except the Ducks didn’t come out for warmups. They weren’t out at 7:30, they weren’t out at 7:45. Finally, they walked about 7:55, and soon a custodian strode out, with a ladder, measuring the height of the baskets. The story was that a little guard from Cottage Grove, Ore. discovered he could dunk in practice the day before, and instead of alerting anybody, Harter decided to ask for them to be measured before the game. Sure enough, one was about an inch too short, the other a fraction off. Of course, Harter and the Ducks were booed lustily. He seemed to love confrontation.
At the end of the next year, the Ducks and Beavers were playing their finale in Corvallis, and a male cheerleader got hold of the Chancellor’s Cup during a dead-ball situation with seconds left. The trophy was given back then to the school that won the season series — they used to play three or even four games annually. Rick Coutin, the cheerleader, brandished the trophy high as he ran down the sidelines. Suddenly, he went keister-over-teakettle, as did the trophy. Harter had stuck out his leg, intentionally tripping him, as God is my witness. The trophy was dented, and if it’s not still in a display case at Gill Coliseum, it was there for a long time.
Early in 1977, I was sitting in the second balcony at Mac Court, where media were supposed to view practice. Down a couple of rows and to my left was Barney Holland, the successful coach at North Eugene High, who happened to be coaching a highly recruited prospect named Danny Ainge. The Ducks would have killed to get Ainge; they were all over him.
Pretty soon, at the same level, came Jack Patera, the old Seattle Seahawks coach, with, as I recall, Seahawks GM John Thompson and an assistant athletic director from Oregon. Seems the Seahawks were scouting possible sites for a training camp, and the Oregon campus was one of them (they would eventually choose Cheney). The Seahawks group came upon Holland and they began chatting. Holland and Patera attended Oregon in the early 1950s, and I presume that’s how they knew each other. Suddenly, from the court below came a stern rebuke from Harter: “Hey you guys, this isn’t a clinic we’re running down here! You want to talk, go out in the hallway!”
Danny Ainge, of course, went on to stardom — at Brigham Young.
By 1978, Harter made a hushed exit for Penn State, where he had only middling success. After that, he coached many years in the NBA, where he was a respected defensive mind.
He was almost as a fever, burning so hot at Oregon it couldn’t continue. The Pac-12 hasn’t seen anybody quite like him since.