I’m going to pry open my rusted memory cells and return to the early 1980s and the glory years of Oregon State basketball.
I was Oregon sports editor for The Associated Press then, so I spent a lot of time on Interstate 5 going to and from Corvallis as the team rose in the national rankings.
The 1980-81 team was coach Ralph Miller’s best at Oregon State, even if the season ended in heartbreak.
Miller was a no- nonsense coach who disdained the dunk and felt only slightly better about the bounce pass.
“The crochety coach from Chanute (Kan.)’’ I called him in a profile written long ago. He was a two-sport star (basketball and football) at Kansas, where he played for one of the game’s early great coaches, Phog Allen. He attended lectures led by James Naismith, who invented basketball.
Miller coached for 13 seasons at Wichita State and six at Iowa before he was lured to Corvallis, where he coached for 19 seasons, winning four Pac-10 titles, three of them in a row.
The first came in 1980, when the Beavers went 26-4, ending UCLA’s run of 13 straight conference titles. But they were upset by Lamar in their opening game of the NCAA tournament.
The roster was loaded, though, for the ’80-81 season. It was a team of crisp passing. The in-state backcourt included Ray Blume (Parkrose) and Mark Radford (Portland’s Grant High). Lester Conner, freshman Charlie Sitton and Jeff Stoutt all filled important roles.
The team beat UCLA twice and Oregon three times. The Beavers won a tough one at Arizona State, a Sun Devils team that included Byron Scott, Lafayette Lever and Alton Lister.
The victories kept mounting. The Beavers topped the AP poll for five weeks and the UPI rankings for eight. They were 26-0 entering the regular season finale against Arizona State. Gill Coliseum was packed with noisy fans anticipating the completion of an undefeated regular season.
It did not go well.
The Sun Devils dominated from the opening tip and won in a 80-62 rout.
The Beavers were thinking unbeaten season and No. 1 seed. But this one was never close.
Oregon State still carried a No. 1 seed into the NCAAs. In those days, high-seeded teams got a first-round bye so the Beavers had a second-round matchup with Kansas State, which had won its opener.
The Beavers, with 6-foot-10 center Steve Johnson in foul trouble, were tied when Rolando Blackmon went up for a baseline jumper at the buzzer. The shot was good and perhaps the best Oregon State team in history was making a quick trip home.
I always felt like the young student being lectured by the old professor when I interviewed Miller in his office, but he always was good to me. The first time I talked to him, he said, “You can talk to me all day over there and I won’t hear a thing you say.’’ I was speaking into his deaf ear.
In retrospect, those years were excellent preparation in the years leading up to my first Final Four and Olympics, both in 1984.
The Beavers won a third straight Pac-10 title in 1981-82 behind the outstanding play of Conner and Sitton.
Sitton and A.C. Green helped Oregon State win another conference crown in 1984. The arrival of Gary Payton, maybe the best defender I ever saw, late in Miller’s career added to the program’s success. Miller retired to his home in Black Butte Ranch. He is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame after leading the Beavers to four conference titles and eight NCAA tournament appearances. The basketball court at Gill is named “Ralph Miller Court.’’
His lead assistant, Jim Anderson, took over. He had been the lead recruiter that brought the talent to Corvallis.
With Payton a senior, the Beavers tied UCLA for the conference title in Anderson’s first season as coach. That was 30 years ago. They haven’t won one since.