The historical significance of Oregon’s return to the Final Four was not lost on coach Dana Altman.
The Ducks face North Carolina in the national semifinals in Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday. Oregon hasn’t been this close to the title game since the team won the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1939.
Altman called it “a long drought.” Perhaps one that could end this season after 78 years?
The Oregon Webfoots won the NCAA title with a 46-33 victory over Ohio State at Northwestern University. The team would become known by the nickname the “Tall Firs” — a nod to both the Oregon landscape and the fact that the players loomed taller than most of their opponents.
The Webfoots’ front line included 6-foot-4 John Dick, 6-foot-4 leading scorer Laddie Gale and 6-foot-8 Urgel (Slim) Wintermute. Guards Bobby Anet, a 5-foot-8 playmaker, and 5-foot-10 Wally Johansen rounded out the starting five. Anet and Johansen grew up on the same street in Astoria, Oregon, and had played together since junior high.
Coach Howard Hobson told The Associated Press in 1988 that Anet, who passed away in 1981, was the heart of the “Tall Firs.”
“He was the greatest floor general I ever had,” said Hobson, who also coached at Yale and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1965. “He sparked the team. He was its leader.”
Dick went on to serve 32 years in the U.S. Navy, enlisting the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and rising to the rank of rear admiral. He was at the final game played at Oregon’s famed McArthur Court in 2011, and pumped his fist for the crowd when he was announced at halftime. He died later that year.
Reserve guard Ford “Moon” Mullen went on to play baseball in the majors for the Philadelphia Blue Jays (Phillies) in 1944. Wintermute worked at Boeing.
On the way to the first Big Dance, the “Tall Firs” won the Northern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference, then beat Southern Division champion California in a three-game series. The victory sent Oregon to the regional tournament on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, where the team beat Texas, 56-41, and Oklahoma, 55-37, before heading to Illinois for the title game via train.
The eight-team NCAA Tournament was founded by the National Association of Basketball Coaches to compete with the National Invitation Tournament in New York.
Denver-based writer Terry Frei, who grew up in Eugene and is the son of former Oregon football coach Jerry Frei, wrote a book about the “Tall Firs” called “March 1939: before the Madness.”
“They were so well-coached and they were big along the front line — almost revolutionarily big — and they had racehorse guards, especially the captain guard Bobby Anet, who kept everything in control,” Frei said. “So I think it was a real complementary chemistry-type team far ahead of its time that way.”
Dick led all scorers with 13 points in the championship game against the Big Ten champions before maybe 5,000 fans, many of whom were given free tickets.
Fans in Eugene listened to the game on the radio — it was the same year John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” was published and that “Gone with the Wind” came out in theaters — then later descended by the thousands at the local train station to welcome back the team.
“They were largely for the most part small-town boys. Laddie Gale was from Oakridge, two of the starters were from Astoria, Slim Wintermute was from Longview, Washington, and John Dick was from The Dalles,” Frei said. “So there was a small-town feel to the team, small-town heroes who stepped up big.”
Frei noted with a laugh that the players got $2 from a kitty to celebrate following the victory. Several of them took a train from the Northwestern campus into Chicago.
“I think some of us had a couple of Heinekens or something,” Frei quoted Anet as saying later. “It was quite late and none of us were big on bars or things like that, mainly because nobody ever had any money.”
Third-seeded Oregon, which last year advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to Oklahoma, defeated No. 1 seed Kansas 74-60 on Saturday to advance to the Final Four. North Carolina beat Kentucky 75-73. In the other semifinal, Gonzaga faces South Carolina.
Altman believes this Oregon team is building its own historic legacy.
“The seven years we’ve been at Oregon we’ve had great guys to work with. I feel great for those guys that our staff had a relationship with, but I also feel good for all the other players that have built Oregon basketball; 1939 is a long drought, but there are a lot of guys that played and built some tradition at Oregon,” Altman said.
For more information on Terry Frei’s book: www.terryfrei.com/madness.html
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this report.