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'I'll bet they go the whole way': Ducks in NCAA semifinal for first time since 1939

An image of the Tall Firs of Oregon in the archives at the University of Oregon. (Photo/Tom Adams)

EUGENE, Ore. - Seventy-eight seasons have come and gone since the Tall Firs towered over the national basketball scene from the hard wood at Mac Court.

The 1939 Oregon basketball team was the last Duck squad to reach the NCAA semifinal - until this year.

"The coach, Howard Hobson, said that he felt that this was a group of boys that came along once in a lifetime," said Joe Blakely, the author of a recent book about the Tall Firs.

The team went on to win what historians consider the inaugural NCAA championship.

Of course, the game was different back then.

It was an 8-team tournament. A win in the first round advanced a team to the round of four.

And in the early days, every basket was followed by a jump ball at center court.

Hobson had seen change on the horizon for that rule and assembled a team more suited to a faster-paced game.

"And sure enough the next year, the rule was changed and he could run his fast break all he wanted," Blakely said.

"He thought the best thing to have was a rather tall person under the basket and that would give you a great advantage," said Keith Richard, archivist emeritus at the University of Oregon.

Blakely thinks the modern Ducks can draw encouragement from the Webfoots of yesteryear.

"It's persistence and also the melding together of that team in 1939 that kept them together," he said.

Oregon beat Texas 56-41 in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, Oregon downed Oklahoma 55-37.

Oregon captured the national title with a 46-33 win over Ohio State.

What then?

There wasn't Disneyland to go to yet.

Sports talk shows were still the widespread adoption of television away.

"After the game, they went down to the railroad depot, they got back on the train, and headed back to Oregon," said Richard, the archivist emeritus.

Back in 1939, the team didn't have a budget for hotels and a celebration.

But while the team traveled home, Oregonians who had listened to the game live on the radio took action.

"They were getting the word that the people back here in Oregon were going a little bonkers over this," John Dick, a starter on the 1939 team and retired Navy rear-admiral, then 92, said in a 2011 interview. Dick passed away later that year.

After train stops in Nyssa, The Dalles, Portland, Salem and many other cities, the 1939 champion Ducks arrived home in Eugene to a tumultuous welcome.

"There are photos in the archives showing the massive number of people waiting for the train to come in," Richard said.

"There was one incident of a police officer coming to try to deal with the traffic," archivist Zachary Bigalke said in 2016, "and the crowd ended up hoisting him up on their shoulder and carrying him around."

Even more impressive was the celebration for the team's homecoming.

"Everyone wanted to catch a view of this team," Bigalke said. "This was a statewide source of pride."

An estimated 10,000 fans crowded the train station to welcome the Tall Firs home.

"You had the Oregon Marching Band playing Mighty Oregon, they actually set off

fireworks for the group. You really had just a large outpouring of community support," Bigalke said. "It really brought Eugene into the national spotlight for the first time."

At a time when the nation was still emerging from the Great Depression - and the drums of war were sounding in Europe - Oregonians enjoyed the victory.

"It gave everybody in the state greater confidence," Tall Fir starter Dick said in 2011, "and greater pride in our achievements."

So based on this history, what does Blakely, the author of a book on the Tall Firs, foresee for the 2017 team?

"I'll bet 100 percent," he said, "I'll bet they go the whole way."

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