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Past Tense Oregon: Portland State's College Bowl victory 50 years ago put school on map
Author: John Killen | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Posted: March 9, 2015

Click here to read the original article in The Oregonian.

At the time, they were just a bunch nerdy-looking guys from a no-name college in a rainy lumber town on the left coast.

Why would anyone think that a school that had started out as two-year extension center would rise up and shock the quiz-show world in March of 1965?

After all, Vanport Extension Center had a rough infancy.  Created to help GIs returning from World War II get started in college, it first had to escape the Vanport Flood of 1948 before moving three times and finally ending up in some old buildings along the South Park Blocks in downtown.

It wasn't until 1955 that it became four-year Portland State College.

But just 10 years later, by early March of 1965, PSC (now Portland State University) had left its mark.  Starting in January of that year, it made an undefeated run through the New York-based G.E. College Bowl quiz game - one of the nation's most popular television shows at the time -by torching every one of its opponents and winning in record fashion.

The climax came on Sunday, March 8, when the team defeated Birmingham Southern 415-60 "in what NBC producers said was the 'most outstanding team performance' in College Bowl history," according to the story on Page One of The Oregonian the next morning.

The team's exploits were front-page news for days and its members were treated like celebrities when they flew home.  It won $13,200 in scholarship money for Portland State, but its win also appears to have resonated where it counted for much more - in the state legislature. 

Afterward, the legislature invited the team to Salem and Westwood addressed both the Senate and House.  The school's course had definitely shifted. Lawmakers began sending more money its way and  by 1969, it had a program and achieved university status. Over the next few decades, it added programs, professors and prestige.

Today, it occupies blocks and blocks of the south end of downtown Portland and has a full array of respected programs.

It enrolls 28,214 students compared to 28,886 at Oregon State and 24,181 at Oregon.

"I really think it did," said Jim Westwood, the captain of the team, when asked if the victory was a seminal event in the school's history and in the way it was perceived. 

Westwood, a 1962 graduate of Oregon City High School who is now a senior counsel at Stoel Rives, a major Portland law firm, said the win didn't prove that everyone at PSC was smarter than students at other schools, but it had a huge impact on raising the school's visibility and respectability.

"Here was this little-sister school, a commuter college with five or six thousand students, and all of a sudden, we do this."

"It was kind of like when the Trail Blazers won the championship," he said in that the PSC team pretty much came from nowhere.

Westwood, who now lives in Northeast Portland, said he was a typical PSC student. 

Working part-time to put himself through school, he had found out about the College Bowl team from an ad in the student paper, the Vanguard, in the spring of 1964.  He said it sounded like fun.

Westwood said about 50 people responded to the ad and the coach, speech professor Ben Padrow, began to hold tryouts.  Westwood said he made the first cut and the second and pretty soon, he said, the team was down to eight, mostly local kids. 

Of the eventual "starting four," Westwood was from Oregon City, Larry Smith was from Gresham, Mike Smith from Salem and Robin Freeman from Portland. The alternates variously included Doug Hawley, Marv Foust, Al Kotz, Jim Cronin and Jim Watts.

Westwood said Padrow was a marvelous coach.  He worked the team hard and they "practiced and practiced."

In the end, he said, "it wasn't so much that we were smarter, but we were faster" and confident.  Those qualities proved to be crucial when the team made five trips to New York in six weeks to compete.

"We left Portland every Friday morning and flew back every Sunday evening," he said.  Their flights usually landed about 2:30 a.m. Monday.  "And I had to be at my 9 a.m. class on Monday."

Early in the tournament, he said, PSC was seen as sort of "fodder" for some of the other schools. 

"It was like, 'Portland State?  So what?  Who's that?' "

But the Vikings kept winning.  Each show was a half-hour long and was broadcast live on NBC from Rockefeller Center with a rapid-fire format under host Robert Earl.  In its bracket, PSU defeated University of San Francisco, Park College, Kent State and Coe College. 

Westwood says the only time the team trailed was briefly against Coe. The cumulative score for the five matches?  PSC 1,765, opponents 450.

He said that the trips were fun, if exhausting.  After flying to New York on Friday, the team had Saturdays to rest and sight-see and then it buckled down early each Sunday to practice for the contest.

Westwood said perhaps the most remarkable performance was by Mike Smith.  Smith had cystic fibrosis and was ill and tired much of the time, but wouldn't let the disease stop him from competing. 

Westwood said that on one of the trips, he and Smith decided to take in the Museum of Natural History on Saturday.  When they got there, Smith began to feel ill and returned to their hotel by cab.  When Westwood got back, he found that Padrow had called a doctor, who said Smith was much too ill to compete the next day.

"Mike said, 'Like hell, I won't,'" and was ready to on Sunday, helping the team to another win.

He said he and Smith remained close afterward, and spent time being typical college kids, studying when necessary and hanging out at local taverns together.

But despite his determination, Smith's health began to fail.  The cystic fibrosis finally got the best of him in 1968.  Smith Memorial Union on the PSU campus is named in his honor. 

Padrow, the coach, died in 1986.  Larry Smith died in Newport in 1999 and Freeman died in London in 2004, leaving Westwood as the only surviving member of the "starting four." Hawley said that he, Foust and Kotz now all live in Lake Oswego. Westwood said Watt is still alive and he was pretty sure he'd have heard of something had happened to Cronin.

These days, it's a bit hard to understand just how big a deal it was at the time.  The teams that typically won the quiz show before and after PSC were usually from name, nationally known schools.  Over the years, College Bowl winners have included MIT, Harvard, Michigan and Stanford.

But the significance wasn't lost on those who were around at the time.  After all, Portland State was basically a commuter school struggling to find its place in Oregon, let alone nationally.

Among them was Clarence Hein, the editor of the school paper, The Vanguard, at the time.

"It's still a defining moment in Portland State's history," Hein said when the 40th anniversary of the event was celebrated in 2005. "We proved that we could win on a nationally televised show that had great credibility. It gave everyone a terrific sense of pride and put Portland State College on the national map."

Looking back, Woodward said the victory wasn't expected - nor was it surprising, at least to the team members.

He said Padrow was so good at understanding the show's format and pushed them to practice so much that "we were really confident."

But for a brief scare against Coe College, "we were never really in any danger of losing."

-- John Killen

jkillen@oregonian.com

503-221-8538; @johnkillen