Green Bay Packers, Boston Red Sox, Oregon Ducks, all winners of their sport’s original championship game.
Nobody fathomed the heights to which those events would grow. The first championships weren’t even known by their names today: Super Bowl, World Series and Final Four.
But they’ve become iconic brands and fixtures on the sports landscape. Of those three original champions, the Ducks had the worst follow-through.
After winning the inaugural NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1939, Oregon did not return to the tournament’s final weekend until now. Nearly eight decades between opportunities passed, as current Oregon coach Dana Altman reminded soon after cutting regional nets in Kansas City last week to qualify for the Final Four: “1939 was a long time ago.”
This run to the Final Four wasn’t random or unexpected. Oregon will take on North Carolina at 7:49 Saturday night with a powerful team that finished in a tie for the Pac-12 championship and has overcome a late season-ending injury to a key starter. A Ducks victory Saturday and title on Monday night isn’t out of the realm.
They were motivated by last year’s loss to Oklahoma in the regional final, and brought a mental toughness into this season.
So did the Ducks of 1939.
The idea for a NCAA tournament was hatched the previous year, and Oregon coach Howard Hobson was elated. Good players were returning and he would test their mettle on a road trip that was bizarre and brilliant.
Hobson wanted his team to understand how much officiating differed throughout the country. Long before officiating standards were in place, regional biases ruled. Games in the East were more rugged, in the West more faced paced and finessed.
So off Oregon went. New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Peoria, Chicago, Des Moines, San Francisco. Ten games in 22 days. The Ducks won seven of them.
Hobson recalled opponents in some cities purposely stepped on his players’ feet or grabbed their shorts to prevent movement. Play on was the officials order.
By the time the NCAA Tournament field was established — no small task for organizations given schools’ desire to make more money by playing in the NIT — Oregon was the most prepared of the eight-team field. The Webfoots, as Oregon teams were known then, easily defeated Texas and Oklahoma before meeting Ohio State in the first NCAA championship game.
The roll continued. Oregon handled the Buckeyes 46-33 in the game played at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. Oregon had few fans in the stands, but the team received a hero’s welcome as the 10-car long train returned to the state.
At stations along the way, townspeople cheered. And no scene was greater than in The Dalles, where the train stopped at 6 a.m. and some 500 people greeted the team and one player in particular, native son John Dick, who had led Oregon with 13 points in the title game. During the five-minute stop, he was presented an engraved gold watch. Citizens had passed the hat to raise $75 for the gift.
The team was dubbed the “Tall Firs,” for their height. The roster had an average height of 6-2.
The last surviving team member died in 2013.
Oregon has had spotty success since that first championship. The program came within one game of the Final Four five times, including last year, in the 13 NCAA appearances between 1939 and 2017.
But the Ducks, or Webfoots or Tall Firs, own a cherished place in history. They’re not a storied program like North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or UCLA. But Oregon is the first, with a chance to become the next champion.
Final Four games on Saturday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Who: South Carolina vs. Gonzaga, 5:09 p.m. (CBS, chs. 5, 13)
Oregon vs. North Carolina, 7:49 p.m. (CBS, chs. 5, 13)