CORVALLIS – The roar was like nothing Charlie Sitton had heard before or since: The crowd at Gill Coliseum erupted when top-ranked DePaul lost on Jan. 10, 1981.
In all likelihood, DePaul’s loss made Oregon State No. 1 nationally for the first time ever.
My ears rang,” said Sitton, a freshman forward. It was like a dead ball, and the announcer just said they lost. Everyone knew what it meant. It was a cool thing.”
And sure enough, the Beavers were ranked No. 1 when the next poll came out Jan. 13.
It’s been 25 years since Oregon State’s basketball team was known as the Orange Express, arguably one of the state’s best teams ever.
Coached by the curmudgeonly Ralph Miller, the 1980-81 Beavers ran up a 26-0 record and were ranked No. 1 for eight weeks by either The Associated Press or UPI. In the end, they finished 26-2 overall and won the Pacific-10 Conference title at 17-1. They lost in the NCAA West regional to Kansas State.
No other Beavers team ever has been ranked as high.
We had all the components of a team that played like a team,” said Sitton, who now runs a hotel near Portland. Everybody knew their role and they filled it.”
The team was led by 6-foot-10 center Steve Johnson, who was named the Pac-10 player of the year. Johnson set an NCAA single-season record that still stands with a .746 field-goal percentage. He averaged 21 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
Mark Radford and Ray Blume made up the backcourt, with Sitton and forward Lester Connor, who was known for his tenacity on defense. Conner is now an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Radford, a real estate agent in the Portland area, said the team was never starstruck by the high ranking.
It wasn’t like, ‘Geez, this is a storybook!’” Radford said. “We were a machine. We expected to do well.”
Miller was the feisty presence on the sidelines that held it all together.
Named the AP’s coach of the year in 1981, Miller died at age 82 in 2001. This March, he will be inducted into the Pacific-10 Conference Hall of Honor.
Miller ran a no-nonsense, defense-oriented team. Both Sitton and Radford used the word gruff.”
He had a style he wanted us to play and that was his style,” Sitton said. His idea was that the game is not difficult, let’s not make it difficult.”
Yet, Sitton recalled, Miller’s door was always open, and conversations usually turned to Miller’s land in rural Black Butte.
Miller won 359 games as the Beavers’ head coach from 1970-1989. He also had stints at Wichita State and Iowa. During his time in Corvallis, Miller won four Pac-10 titles and went to the NCAA Tournament eight times.
But the ’80-81 team is by far the best remembered.
Up to this point, we are very pleased with this group,” Miller told the now-defunct Oregon Journal at the time. When you go up in the polls, it does create more problems. We’re been up there before, but never this high. You can stay there as long as you don’t lose. But this season is really just getting under way.”
Students wore orange T-shirts emblazoned with locomotives. Announcer Darrell Aune became known for his call The Orange Express is Rrrrrrrooooooolllllllllllllling!”
Aune well remembers the day at Gill Coliseum when DePaul’s loss was announced.
It was almost like Oregon State had won the national championship,” Aune said. It was unreal. It wasn’t just standing and cheering. People were hugging each other in the aisles.”
The Beavers’ 80-81 season, unfortunately, ended on a low note.
Oregon State, which led the nation with a .564 field-goal percentage, was undefeated heading into the final game of the season. That’s when fourth-ranked Arizona State stunned Beaver Nation by winning 87-67 at Gill Coliseum.
Still, the Beavers had a first-round bye for the NCAA tournament.
They headed south to Pauley Pavilion to face Kansas State in the West Regional and played an uncharacteristically sloppy game with turnovers and missed free throws.
Kansas State clinched it when Rolando Blackman hit a jumper despite Radford’s outstretched arm for a 50-48 Wildcats victory.
The final shot was captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline The Mighty Have Fallen.”
We were in such shock,” Aune said. I still can’t believe it. It happened so suddenly.”
Said Sitton: We knew we should have won, but we never actually put the throttle down and put it away.”
In a state not normally on the national radar when it comes to college hoops, Oregon State’s accomplishment that season remains a source of pride.
Oregon also had the University of Oregon’s Tall Firs, winners of the first NCAA basketball tournament ever held, in 1939. It remains the only NCAA tournament victory for the state’s schools.