On the eve of February 16, 1974 University of Oregon students camped out in hopes of securing a coveted ticket to watch the home town Ducks take on top-ranked UCLA, a team who was coming off of it’s 7th straight NCAA Championship and had posted back to back 30-0 seasons. However, a month before, Notre Dame had managed to snap the Bruin’s incredible NCAA record 88 game win streak.
The Bruins came into Mac court coached by one of the very best of all time, in any sport- John Wooden. UCLA had defeated these Ducks in Westwood a week before, 84-66 in a game that featured 49 fouls. After the game, local media called Oregons’ defense “foolishly tenacious”, and Wooden commented that twice the number of fouls could have been called.
When hired, Oregon coach Dick Harter had vowed to “Introduce defense to the Pac-8, and beat UCLA.”
Harter had formerly been a wildly successful coach at Penn, and his teams were known for bringing a hard-nosed, aggressive, all or nothing style of defensive play. His practices were known to be especially tough, as then assisitant coach Dick Stewart once said, “We’ve had great practices, sixteen stitches, a few woozy players. A great week.”
The Oregon team adopted the “Kamikaze Kids” moniker after Wichita State head coach Harry Miller said after playing them, “They come at you like a squad of Kamikazes”. Harter embraced the term. Rumor has it, Harter was never fond of the “DUCKS” name, and insisted on his team being called the Kamikaze kids.
Unfortunately for UCLA, they also had to play in a building full of Kamikaze fans. The tenacious and gutsy play during this era of Duck basketball is also credited for having stoked the fire of the Pit Crew and Mac court faithful to greater, and more intense levels of noise, and taunting of the opposing teams.
The year before, in a game that coach Wooden called “the roughest game I’ve ever been in”. The Bruins won the game, but a Pit Crew member, who- perhaps similar to a Kamikaze pilot- literally swooped down onto the court and kicked Bill “Big Red” Walton, completely unconcerned with any potential consequences.
The events of that game clearly must have been quite a spectacle, and left a deep impression on those who were witness. One UCLA player (who had played in the “fan-kick game”) said before the trip, “I’m not looking forward to playing up there. Last year was the only time I ever was afraid on the court.”
From the opening tip, UCLA came out fast and ran up a 11-2 lead. But Oregon would find ways to slow the Bruins and create some scoring themselves. While having difficulty getting good shots against the Bruin defenders early on, the Ducks started driving right at Walton, and then dishing to Sophomore forward Bruce Coldren, who was contiuously open from 15-18 feet out.
Coldren converted on his first attempt, and then proceeded to have an out-of-body experience. “I’ve been working on my shooting, but tonight it was a matter of confidence. I made a good hustle play and I hit my first open shot. From then on as long as I was open, I knew they were going in.”
“It’s funny, you see all of the UCLA players and you think they are gods. Then you play them and you find that they are just people like the rest of us” recalled Coldren.
His shot was noted as visually not being the purest in terms of shooting form (think Marcus Camby, or Jeremy Jacob) but it is hard to argue with the results. Bruce Coldren went 8-9 in the first half, at one point outscoring UCLA 14-11. The Ducks took a 32-26 lead into the half.
The Bruins would make a run in the second half, and briefly took a 43-42 lead. But then a sequence ensued that blew the top off of the fans in attendance.
First Ronnie Lee hit a jumper, and then another after a 3 second violation from Walton. UCLA came back down the floor and scored- but the basket was no good due to a interference call, again on Walton.
From there, the cold-hearted but hot-handed Coldren popped 3 more both awkward and clutch jumpers in succession to finish with 24 points on 12-14 from the field, and gave Oregon a 52-43 lead with 6:54 remaining. Legend has it that the scoreboard suspended above the court and even the hoops themselves began rocking and swaying due to the cheering and stomping from the crowd after this run by the Ducks.
After a series of desperation shots and fouls, UCLA was able to pull to within 56-51, but they could not catch the Ducks on that day. Dick Harter and the Kamikaze Kids had pulled off the upset of the #1 team in the nation.
A stunned Wooden said after the game,
“Oregon shot from the outside far better than we expected. I can’t fault our defense, although if people are going to shoot 12 for 14 as Coldren did, it may cause me to alter my philosophy that you’re not beaten from outside shooting. He beat us.”
That year, after the Oregon loss, UCLA got back on track and won their remaining games until losing to eventual National Champion North Carolina State in a double-overtime Final Four contest. The loss ended the storied run of 7 straight (out of 10 total) National Championships for coach Wooden and the Bruins. Bill Walton, the winner of the Naismith College Player of the year award and the Adolf Rupp trophy that season, finished with just 11 points and 5 shots against the Ducks.
The Kamikaze kids finished the season 21-9, during a run of winning seasons and 3 straight NIT births. While coach Harter never won a Pac-8 conference title, his teams never posted a losing record from 1971-1978.