How Oregon became NCAA Tournament’s original Cinderella

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Long before we called it March Madness, they were our first Cinderella, in the first NCAA championship.

On March 27, 1939, before integration, before World War II, before John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty, with James Naismith watching from the Patten Gymnasium stands, the Oregon Webfoots upset Ohio State 46-33 and took the train back from Evanston, Ill., into the embrace of all of Eugene, Ore., a train station jammed and one man climbing a light pole to get a view of it.

“I was five months old when they won it,” a man named Don Essig said with a chuckle in COVID-19 quarantine over the phone.

For the past 53 years, Essig, 81, has been the University of Oregon football and men’s basketball public address announcer. The six-team NIT, which had started in 1938, was sexier than the eight-team NCAA Tournament at the time because it was played at the Garden.

Essig’s last link to the team that was nicknamed the Tall Firs — their frontline was 6-foot-8, 6-4, 6-4 — was 6-4 forward John Dick, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 92, but not before regaling anyone who loved listening to the way it was. Dick joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor — he became a Rear Admiral — and everyone referred to him as The Admiral because he served for 32 years.

“John was my second direct contact to anything that happened there,” Essig said. “When I started announcing for a number of years until he died, he and his wife sat about four rows right behind me in McArthur Court, and I got a chance to know him really well.

“He said, ‘First of all, you look at what kids wear today.’ He said, ‘We didn’t get to go on any road trips without a coat and tie.’ And they had to ride the train. He said they did have one great camaraderie as a group.”

They were mostly hometown kids from Oregon, and no one in and around Eugene cared much that Clair Bee’s LIU Blackbirds had beaten Loyola Chicago 44-32 for the NIT title on the other side of the country.

“It was a group of small town Northwest boys stepping into the national spotlight and becoming virtually immortal because of it,” said Terry Frei, who wrote “March 1939: Before the Madness.”

Their names were Dick, Laddie Gale, Big Slim Wintermute, and guards Wally Johansen and Bobby Anet, who had grown up across the street from each other in Astoria, a coastal fishing town. Wintermute, the 6-8 center, was the lone starter from Washington state. Oregon was 17-for-63 from the floor in the title game; Ohio State was 14-for-83.

“It was only the second season of playing without a jump ball after every basket,” Frei said, “and Howard Hobson was their coach, and he was pretty much a pioneer in pushing the pace for the time. … Coaches couldn’t call timeouts, the captain had to, and Oregon didn’t call a timeout in the championship game, they just played.”

The 1939 NCAA men's basketball championship trophy.
The 1939 NCAA men’s basketball championship trophy.AP

Dick told Frei the following story:

“The funny one was when Bobby Anet jumps over the scorer’s table to try to save the ball and knocked the championship trophy off the table and broke it in half,” Frei said. “And so they were all laughing as Bobby Anet accepted the trophy in two pieces, and they’d kinda cradle and pass it around in the locker room in two pieces.”

Dick, a junior that season, scored 13 points in the championship game, after the Webfoots had beaten Texas and Oklahoma. He was also student body president.

“When they had the groundbreaking for the new Matthew Knight Arena he sat with [wife] Janet and me for the presentation, and afterwards I said, ‘OK, John, I would really like to have a picture of the two of us,’ ” Essig recalled. “So he said sure. We had it blown up to 8 ¹/₂ by 11, and I called him and I said, ‘John, I’d like to bring this picture down and have you sign it for me.’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll do it on one condition. You bring two pictures, you sign one for me.’ And so the one I have hanging in my office is the one he signed with a pretty nice little comment about my announcing.

“When he passed away, I talked to his daughter and I said, ‘I’m just curious, what did John ever do with that picture that I gave him?’ She said, ‘He had it framed, and it stood by his kitchen sink for those last couple of years he was alive.’ That gave me goose bumps.”

Essig’s other link to the 1939 champions was Hobson.

“He’d come to every home game, he’d sit in the first row with his wife right behind the visiting team,” Essig said. “He and John Wooden were good buddies, so anytime UCLA came in, you could see ’em down there having a nice conversation.

“He was a pretty genius type of basketball coach, what you read, 35 years old.”

Oregon's 1939 national championship basketball team.
Oregon’s 1939 national championship basketball team.University of Oregon Athletics

Herb Yamanaka, class of 1956, was living in Hawaii on March 27, 1939. He became one of the school’s biggest boosters and worked in the ticket office when Hobson futilely attempted to use his influence to procure better seats.

“He would gripe to me because he wanted half court line tickets, and of course you have to give it to your highest donors,” Yamanaka said by phone. “He always used to tell me that he was a national championship coach, and he wanted a set of tickets.”

We’ll never know who might have been the 1939 Oregon of the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

“Everybody thought they didn’t have a chance,” Yamanaka said, “and they proved them wrong.”

The Big Firs stand tall as a source of pride in Eugene and beyond. Oregon didn’t return to a Final Four until 2017, nearly 80 years after that 1939 national title.

“It’s the only national championship banner that’s hanging in our new arena,” said Greg Walker, associate director of athletic communications.

Something sweet and warm to reminisce about in quarantine.