Before the Madness

Four members of the 1938-39 University of Oregon basketball team, known as the Tall Firs, waving from the rear platform of a train as they depart Eugene for the 1939 NCAA basketball tournament's West regional held in San Francisco.

 

The first championship team—the University of Oregon Webfoots, coached by Howard Hobson and ultimately called the "Tall Firs" because of their towering height along the front line—was part of my early sports fascination. I was raised in Eugene, and my father, Jerry Frei, was on the Oregon football coaching staff from 1955 through 1971, serving as an assistant under the legendary Len Casanova for 12 seasons and then as head coach for five before moving on to a long coaching, scouting, and administrative career in the National Football League. Early in his stay at Oregon, he helped coach the freshman basketball team, too . . . because that's what young coaches did then. The football coaching offices were in a wing attached to McArthur Court, the Ducks' home arena. I visited my father on the job often enough to be able to now conjure memories of smoke wafting through the darkened back room and the 16-millimeter projector loudly whirring as "Cas," my father, and the other assistants, including John McKay; and then my father and his staff, including John Robinson, George Seifert, and Bruce Snyder, watched the black-and-white game films. After the switch from the on-campus Hayward Field to the new off-campus Autzen Stadium for football games in 1967, the Ducks still practiced on fields near what we all called "Mac Court." The dank football practice locker rooms, with rickety plumbing that made the players wonder if the pipes were going to explode any minute as they showered, were in the arena basement.

My older brother, David (now familiar to many as the longtime television analyst on the Westminster Kennel Club and National Dog Shows), and I spent many hours in the ivy-draped arena. The display cases on Mac Court's floor level were history courses, touching on all Oregon sports programs, including football and legendary coach Bill Bowerman's track-and-field teams. Hobson and the Tall Firs had honored spots, and we were indoctrinated in the lore. To some, the men on that 1938–39 Webfoots team were an answer to a trivia question; to many of us, they were heroic, bordering on the mythic. I could name Hobson's five starters: guards Bobby Anet and Wally Johansen, forwards Laddie Gale and John Dick, and center Slim Wintermute. I also knew that one of the Webfoots (John Dick), a former flier in World War II, was a high-profile career Navy officer who periodically visited his alma mater, was a booster in the good sense of the word, met my father, and probably was one of the few who knew the part of the Oregon football coach's life that never was mentioned in his press guide biography, that Jerry Frei had been a decorated P-38 fighter pilot in the Pacific theater.

When I attended the 1965 NCAA championship game in Portland with my father, many of the 1939 Webfoots, then in their late forties, were introduced and drew applause, and a two-page feature on the first champions in the official program included a Tall Firs team picture.

I left Oregon when I was a junior at South Eugene High School. But in the mid-1980s, after living in Colorado for 13 years and beginning my professional career with an eight-year stint at the Denver Post, I became a sports columnist for the Oregonian in Portland. I was reintroduced to Tall Firs coach Howard Hobson, beloved and almost always called "Hobby," and was fortunate to get to know him better in his final years.

I covered several NCAA Final Fours, including at Kansas City in 1988. The NCAA considers the number of tournaments and not year anniversaries, so in 1988, the Tall Firs were among those honored at events commemorating the 50th tournament, which culminated in the Larry Brown–coached Kansas Jayhawks knocking off league rival Oklahoma for the championship. At the gala, master of ceremonies Curt Gowdy said, "The first college championship was won by Oregon. There was no network radio, no TV, not much press. But these were the men and coaches who laid the foundation for what has become the Final Four."

When the Webfoots won the first championship, the sport wasn't yet a half-century old and still was evolving from James Naismith's original peach-basket game of nine players per side, unveiled at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. In 1939, Dr. Naismith attended both the national invitation tournament and the NCAA tournament, being a good sport and proud parent, but also expressing skepticism about what his "basket ball" had become after a half-century of "progress." In Naismith's day, the ball still had laces, adding to the awkward feel and making it more difficult to dribble than in future years. The first ball without laces was manufactured in 1948.

Officiating wasn't "good" or "bad" as much as it was a mystery, with different interpretations from game to game and, especially, region to region. Consider that this was the definition of a foul in Naismith's original rules, published in 1892: "No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed."

Even on outside shots, usually launched with two hands, players often aimed for the backboard. Part of it was conventional wisdom and geometry, but on rare occasions, shooters were trying to keep the ball out of reach of a "goaltender." The few men tall enough and athletic enough to jump and get a hand above the rim could swat away shots on their way down. Yes, goaltending was legal. Shooting percentages were barely mentioned and not considered much of an issue, but 30 percent could be a good night. Tossing up a shot and, if it didn't go in, hoping to get it back off the carom for a closer-in shot was a legitimate strategy. The center jump after every basket had been eliminated before the 1937–38 season, changing the game's tempo and giving an advantage to coaches, including Howard Hobson, who emphasized pushing the pace in a patterned fast break, trying to get down the floor quicker than the defenders, even after opposition baskets. And if the Webfoots didn't get a fast-break bucket, their set plays also were run at a breakneck pace. Players who could do such things as palm the ball, maneuver, run rather than lope, and accurately shoot one-handed on the move were revolutionizing basketball. The Webfoots, with All-American and virtually ambidextrous one-handed-shot wizard Laddie Gale, were at the forefront.

The tournament the Webfoots won in 1939 was new and considered a risky financial undertaking by the sponsoring National Association of Basketball Coaches. The NCAA, while lending its name to the proceedings, regarded it with wariness. The nation's major press outlets—newspapers, magazines, wire services, and radio networks—weren't sure how seriously to take it. About all they knew was that the event began as a response to, and a rival for, the six-team national invitation tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden. Later, retroactive comparisons of the two tournaments often created the mistaken impression that the NIT was deeply entrenched when the "upstart" NCAA tournament was founded. Actually, the New York tournament, sponsored for its first two years by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association (by sportswriters!), began in 1938 . . . only one year earlier than the NCAA tournament.

—By Terry Frei

Photograph courtesy of the University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and Univeristy Archives